Building Confidence Mindfully

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

Many of us suffer from a profound lack of confidence – a feeling of insecurity about ourselves, our instincts, our relationships with others, or our place in the world. The ancient philosophy from which modern mindfulness emerged teaches us a number of skillful ways of interfacing with ourselves and the world that help us build confidence. One such teaching points out four particular continuums of experience that can catch us off guard and disturb our inner peace if we aren’t mindful of them. Meditation teacher Ethan Nichtern described them as potential “confidence or insecurity traps”. This is because they are temporary states, most of which over-rely on unstable, external sources for feedback. These four spectrums of experience include:

  • Pleasure (or Situation Dependent Happiness) <—> Pain (or Suffering, Dissatisfaction)
  • Fame (or Good Reputation) <—> Infamy (Ill Repute or Insignificance)
  • Praise (or Kudos) <—> Blame (or Criticism)
  • Success (or Gain) <—> Failure (or Loss)

All of these scales of experience involve attachments and aversions or hopes and fears that, when unexamined or taken to extremes, can keep us locked in a Sisyphean cycle of suffering. We are hard wired to seek after pleasure and positive interactions with others and to avoid the opposite. This is likely for historical survival reasons. A strong attraction to things that make us feel good and a compulsion to acquire resources in a context of scarcity undoubtedly helped increase the chances that we would be safe and sheltered, well-nourished, procreate, and raise offspring to maturity. Receiving praise and having a good reputation among peers indicated good standing in a community upon which we depended – being rejected often meant a premature death.

The problem is that these habits and urges create more suffering when they are out of balance or incongruent with current realities. When we rely on these four ever-changing factors to bring us lasting happiness we are inevitably disappointed. Life can be a rollercoaster ride punctuated by moments of beauty and ugliness, joy and heartbreak, kudos and criticism, gain and loss. We don’t have much control over what comes our way, but we do have significant influence over how we experience the ride. Until we embody this understanding, we will be plagued by the insecurity inherent in fighting a hopeless battle.

Can we develop confidence and trust within the ever-changing spectrum of worldly experience and meet life’s ups and downs in a balanced way? The practice of mindfulness, over time, cultivates equanimity – a mental state that has been described as an anchor holding us steady amidst the fickle winds of life. Without this quality of balance, it’s easy for us to become confused, desperate, or lost. Equanimity creates an eye in the storm – a quiet space of clarity that makes it possible for us to respond with wisdom.

Might we learn to trust ourselves, even in difficult or painful moments? Fortunately, self-confidence can be built through developing skills that increase our sense of competence and self-efficacy. We start to see that, like all other living beings, we too are deserving of happiness. We develop a deeper understanding of our values, more consistently align our choices with the greater good, and conduct our lives with greater integrity and authenticity. Through facing challenges mindfully, we begin to see that we can indeed cope with what life throws at us.

Practice suggestion: Psychologist Larry Cammarata, PhD offers a rubric for cultivating equanimity through awareness of the “The 5 Rs of mind-body regulation”. Being mindful of these five Rs can help us create the inner conditions within which wise decision-making can occur:

  1. Rooting – connect with your body and senses, open yourself to what is happening in the present moment whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral
  2. Relaxation – let go of tension in the body
  3. Respiration – regulate the breath and heart rate
  4. Rhythm – slow down the pace of inner and outer actions, think, speak and move more slowly
  5. Remembering – mindfully integrate the previous four Rs through consistent practice over time (ie. yoga, meditation, mindfulness of daily experiences)

It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son


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