In these articles, I often talk about the people I meet and the things I learn from them. I have spoken about different expressions of the self; how people build habits; and conversations that have changed my perspective on life. Something I’ve been thinking about recently is self conviction. The confidence that some exude in the way they carry themselves and how that affects the way they are perceived.
Someone I recently met particularly inspired me to think of the power of conviction and self-assurance. Paul Hughes delivered the keynote speech at the 20th anniversary of my study programme as part of a Knowledge Festival. He delivered his speech with the use of a long roll of paper which he drew on as he spoke. With the aid of these visuals and some purposefully sprinkled in quotes, he spoke about growth and different ways of approaching one’s life and future. While he had a lot of interesting and insightful things to say, I found that the value of his speech was amplified tenfold by the way he carried himself. He was able to capture and maintain the interest of the audience as part of a two-hour long lecture. When people would typically be starting to think about the complimentary coffee or how hot the weather is, we were fully engaged in what he had to say. Of course, if he had hollow words, the power of conviction alone would not be enough to leave such an impression -although it has been known to happen, certain politicians do come to mind-. After his speech a couple of my friends [Hi Stijn and Toni!] and I approached him. The same exuberance he held on stage transpired into the short conversation and we left feeling that we had met a genuinely interesting person.
Paul is a professional keynote speaker. It's his literal job to be able to command a room so perhaps it is not realistic to judge our own capabilities to portray conviction by the standard he operates at. Still, this brief interaction made me think of confidence and how it entirely shifts the way we perceive ourselves as well as how the world around us perceives us. What is it that makes some people possess this quality? What truly is conviction? And how does our confidence affect our mental health? Here are some of my thoughts…
Growing up I was a very timid child. The world was a scary place and the people in it were even scarier. I would lie awake at night thinking about sinkholes and tsunamis and housefires. As I got older my anxieties became channelled into the social elements of life. I often felt like I was missing the memo or that everyone was in on some joke I wasn’t privy to. My nervous predisposition permeated through my inner world into most of my social interactions. I ruined more than a couple of sleepovers by having anxiety attacks and my poor mother having to drive for hours on a couple of occasions to pick me up. When I became old enough to go to nightclubs I’d seek refuge in the women’s bathrooms, which I’m sure raised some concerns about the structural integrity of my bowels -though I was actually having a great time making friends with all the drunk ladies complimenting each other's outfits. My lack of confidence negatively impacted my social life, and so my sense of self worth.
While you may question the relevance of my odd social behaviour to the concept of conviction, I promise I have a point: as I’ve grown into myself, I now pride myself on my extroversion. Through a very gradual and painstaking process of constantly pushing myself out of my [albeit initially rather narrow] comfort zone, I started to develop confidence and my comfort zone expanded. - I’m going to interrupt myself here and make a quick disclaimer. Confidence, I’ve found, is an incredibly non-linear construct and shifts in size and shape with very little regard for what event you have going on that week. But I’ve also found that there are ways to get out of one's head and develop your sense of self-assurance to not be hindered by your anxieties, or at least to quell them to some degree. To quote Jonathan van Ness from Queer Eye, “We don’t gain confidence by just willing confidence. We gain confidence by setting goals and showing up for ourselves.”
Practically speaking, the process of gaining confidence mainly consisted of “fake it until you make it”. I looked around me at the people who seemed like they didn’t feel like a sea cucumber with anxiety and emulated what they did. At 15, I did my hair and makeup like them, dressed like them, walked and talked like them. I borrowed the confidence of others until I could find my own. But like with most things borrowed, this confidence was not for me to keep. So I moved on to different hair and clothes but hung on to the bits of the attitude that worked.
With time I allowed my hair to get curlier and my clothes more colourful. But as my hair grew so did my head. There were times that I became too preoccupied with the satisfaction I got from being able to socialise without crapping my pants that I’m sure I started to become obnoxious or cocky. Now, I am learning not to conflate self-assurance with self-absorption. Because what is the point of conveying your confidence if not to effectively connect with other people? It's difficult to do that if you're spending most of the conversation curating how you are perceived. I found that this process of preoccupation was an indicator that I did not truly feel confident, I was merely perceived as someone who did.
The truth is, half the time, I don't know what I'm doing either. Often I think I've grown, then I revert back by two steps. I feel like the cat's pyjamas in one context and become a fish out of water in the next. But I suppose that is the point of comfort zones, and pushing them. For example, a couple of years back I was convinced I was clumsy and that I couldn’t handle working in a service job. Although I had developed my confidence in the arena of socialising, this self-assurance was not universally applicable. The idea of service filled me with dread. Fast forward to today and I’m rather confident in my abilities as a server. Did this happen overnight? Absolutely not. I think I cried every single day in my first month of working in a local bagel place [hated the job, loved the bagels]. I’ve dropped trays, I’ve asked stupid questions, I’ve made silly mistakes. With time I started to figure things out. I became the person that other people came to with their stupid questions or silly mistakes. I tried to be the person who was comforting rather than confronting when these things happened.I think an element of conviction comes from acting in accordance with your values. To be able to stand by your decisions, whether that's a tattoo, a haircut or your path in life. While none of us are righteous in all our choices, at least we can act in alignment with our beliefs and what feels true to us so that we can stand behind them. True conviction, not the borrowed kind, stems from authenticity. Be who you are. Even if it is a difficult person, a person who contradicts themselves - because most of us are. Accept that person so that you may understand that person. Or you will continue to exist on borrowed confidence, trying to emulate the authenticity that belongs to someone else. Accept yourself because deciding how you see yourself is to dictate how others perceive you. You yourself have to believe that you have something worth saying to command a dehydrated and overheated room.