First published in Lip Magazine here. The picture the magazine chose to accompany the article is the same as the one included below. I don't know who this fabulous lady is, but I like her.
Confidence is widely considered an excellent quality. It’s associated
with communication skills, social suavity, and success. Studies even
show that people possessing strong self-confidence earn more money than their less confident counterparts. Is it any surprise, therefore, that capitalist Western culture in particular places such emphasis on self-esteem?
Self-help culture has grown from the notion that everyone should
strive to be more confident. Advice, mottos, and mantras are regularly
spouted. And though these encouraging words have benefits, they can also
often be summarised by a few easily-Instagrammed words. Believe in yourself, for example. You are beautiful. You are flawless.
Yet the message ‘you’re perfect; just be confident!’ overlooks an aesthetically regrettable – dare one say ugly? – truth.
Confidence is not an innate trait which some are born with, and which
others must endeavour to acquire. Like most personality traits, it has
roots in one’s nature but is fostered by environmental factors. If
confidence does become internalised, this is largely due to consistent
positive reinforcement and approval, building self-esteem. Consequently,
an individual’s self-confidence is arguably based far more on ongoing
external factors – namely, how people treat one another – than is
typically acknowledged in self-help culture, grounded in the idea that
people can “fix” themselves.
Granted, the concept of an individual being master of their own fate, is not worth wholly debunking; deterministic
attitudes may identify disadvantages in one’s life, but offer little
towards resolving them. It can be necessary to take responsibility for
oneself, for nobody else is likely to do it as well as you, or with as
great an investment – or even to do it at all.
Nevertheless, questioning the autonomy implied by the term
“self-help”, and a person’s ability to help themselves, doesn’t have to
mean people are seeking to identify as passive victims. Acknowledging
being victim to past mistreatments does not automatically entail
passivity, as critics of “victimhood culture” might argue. In reality,
acknowledging how outside influences shaped a person’s development can help that person understand themselves better, and be able to live freer and more confidently thereafter.
In this spirit of acknowledgement, we return to confidence: why some
have it, and others don’t. If people’s personalities are moulded by how
others treat them, one must consider what influences people’s behaviours
towards one another.
The answer? Largely physical appearance and self-presentation,
particularly in superficial interactions. Appearance-related
discrimination is exacerbated by assumptions and prejudices about race,
gender, sexuality, age, able-bodiedness, and class – all characteristics
that are neither shameful nor controllable. Character is important, but
how people react to appearance often determines whether character even
gets the chance to shine. Sadly, we are all judged by how we look.
And if people treat one another differently based on appearance –
beauty privilege, essentially – the way people’s personalities form is
partially related to how they look, and how people respond. The
development of confidence is thus linked to beauty privilege and what
others perceive as attractive or valuable.
Beauty privilege’s role in personal development may seem like old news: life is often smoother sailing if a person is considered beautiful;
they receive positive affirmation and opportunity. Beauty entails
visibility. If you’re less conventionally attractive, you don’t fit your
society’s definition of beauty, or you are an older woman, for example, you may struggle far more to be seen, or to be seen positively.
If people are consistently accepting and attentive towards an
individual, that individual will likely grow up with strong self-esteem
and self-confidence, without necessarily realising their situation is
not universal. That’s privilege. Yet humans live by this False Consensus Effect:
individuals typically believe their personal experiences align with
those of others more than they actually do. If the world has always
treated you well and fostered your self-esteem, you might
half-disbelieve or wonder why others are mistrustful, sceptical, or
fearful of it.
This can lead to the well-meaning but often ignorant attitude underpinning snippets of advice like ‘just be confident’.
If one could just be anything, the world would quite possibly
(just) be simpler. Yet similar to how telling a depressed person to just
be happy is unhelpful, telling your favourite wallflower to ‘be
themselves’, ‘act normally’, or ‘just smile’ as they shift uncomfortably
by the exit, can mean missing the point. The advice isn’t entirely
wrong: for example, social situations are more easily navigated when smiling.
But if past experiences have led to someone feeling invisible in large
groups and doubtful of their ability to charm – or even interest – their
interlocutor, acting confidently can be hard, especially around
Yet people’s personalities are not fixed,
but constantly evolving. This is an opportunity. If we can become aware
of factors affecting people’s confidence and self-perception, and in
particular those factors beyond an individual’s control, we can
subsequently devise ways of addressing them – together.
If you ever find yourself thinking of someone, ‘why aren’t they more confident?’,
it implies you are in a position to help them. You might not consider
yourself especially charismatic, social, or self-assured. Yet if you can
identify someone else’s lack of confidence, it probably means you are
confident by comparison – and they could use a friend, or at least an
You want someone to just be confident? Then be their
confidence, at least until they internalise it enough to generate it
independently. Reach out to them. You can be supportive without being
patronising. Invite them into the group if they’re on the edges, even if
they’re not saying anything (which is fine, incidentally); they may
simply be waiting for a chance to join, and if not, at least you
provided the option. Include them, refer to them, and simply be a
The truth is, sometimes self-help can’t quite get rolling without
other people’s help; and if other people have long made the wallflower
feel invisible, the situation can be a vicious circle. So break the
cycle, and try approaching someone who might not have the confidence to
put themselves forward.
Show that person, ‘I see you’.