A reader recently asked me, “How do you approach life so confidently?” I have been asked this more than once and decided this topic deserved to be answered in an essay.
We all build our confidence in different ways. I don’t often share personal stories as I consider myself to be more of an observer and I am less interested in myself than in others, but this demanded a personal answer, so here is my story.
Represent Yourself or Others Will Misrepresent You
When I was a teen, I was a lot like I am now: outspoken, curious, passionate, and creative. I read as much as I could get my hands on and I wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions. I didn’t fear embarrassment and in fact made it a point of pride to put myself out there, wide open for criticism, taking from the feedback what could help me grow and leaving the rest. As an artist, this is part of the creative process. We create for an audience. The interaction between the two is what makes the creation come alive. I write to stir the imagination, fill you with emotion, take you on a journey and make you think. My art is not words, or movement, or imagery or storytelling. These things are my craft. My art is your reaction. I want to move you, inspire you, make you laugh or cry, make you think. I use words to do that. Words are the paint, your response is the painting.
Apparently, I was a little too outspoken in high school because my junior year, I got suspended the second month of school. The details are fuzzy because the reasons were both unreliable and fabricated, based on rumors and finger-pointing. The best explanation was that I didn’t fit in and my presence harmed the small, private school’s image and so I was targeted for removal.
I was suspended right before final exams which meant when I went back to school, I was failing all my classes. In addition, I had surgery planned during fall break to remove my tonsils. So amid all the stress of being suspended, missing my exams, I was also dealing with a significant health challenge.
As you can imagine, there was a flurry of activity between my parents and the school during this time, trying to find a resolution. My parents were upset they were never given a clear reason for my suspension and that it would have such a big impact on my grades. To this day, the only reasons I’m aware of were 1. A former best friend had blamed me for something to avoid getting in trouble herself. 2. Because I was so outspoken, I was a bad influence. 3. I had too many uniform violations. 4. My writing and poetry was “too mature” and eccentric for the school. The school was protecting their reputation and sticking to their guns and the next big check for my enrollment was due.
Meanwhile, I was physically unable to speak. If you’ve had your tonsils out, you will know that for at least a week, eating and speaking are impossible. Even ignoring the pain, I physically could not make noises from my throat to form speech.
I was trapped. My parents were suspicious of me because of the things the school said to them and also suspicious of the school because they were accusing them of being bad parents for not knowing about all the (fabricated) things going on. The school was threatening my future by impacting my grades and suspending me. I was isolated from friends because I couldn’t physically talk to them, but also because I was forbidden from contacting them.
I had no voice. I could not defend myself against the accusations because I could not speak. No one trusted me. I had lost my reputation, my friends, my honor, my dignity and the faith of my parents.
There were so many lies swirling around, some of them were frightening to my parents (the school told them I was suicidal—I was not but even then I was aware of what a big mistake the school was making if they truly believed this. If a child is suicidal, you do not remove them from all of their contacts, take away all of their routines, brandish them as an outsider and then leave them alone for hours every day). Thank God I was not suicidal or I would have had plenty of opportunities and desire to follow through. Instead, I sat at home reading Beckett and Camus and Harold Pinter and Dostoyevsky.
In the end, I regained the trust of my parents by sitting down and confessing my every sin. Some of which were disappointing, but none of which were criminal, harmful, dangerous or even terrible. My crime was being an outspoken, unapologetic individual who was not intimidated by powerful people who did not fit the image that the school I was attending wanted to promote.
My father once observed that I treat everyone the same, whether they are the doorman or a diplomat, as long as they treat me the same.
Jordan Peterson’s Ninth Rule is “Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”
I’d add to this rule Maya Angelou’s “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
There is no reason to be intimidated by powerful people. If they are good, they will teach you. If they are bad, they will show you their true colors and you don’t need to waste any more time on them.
My school turned out to be bad. It was not looking out for my interests as a student or young woman. It was looking out for their power, image and money. These things always corrupt. As fate would have it, the school was exposed in an expose in the Wall Street Journal 8 years later for bribing colleges and fixing wealthy student’s academic records for college applications to get the “right” kids into the “right” schools based on nepotism.
The experience of losing my voice, my right to defend my honor, my ability to defend my honor while being falsely accused and outcast, has stayed with me and shaped many of my experiences. It is a special kind of torture. One I hope I never suffer again and one I will always try to prevent others from suffering.
It is one thing to be unrepresented, it is another to be misrepresented. When someone has to power to label, define and misrepresent you they rob you of your power. You become a prison of their narrative. Represent yourself accurately, loudly, with integrity in everything you do so that you do not become a target. Control your own narrative and your own life. And speak up to defend and express your values whenever possible, or someone else will speak up on your behalf and get it wrong.
Train Your Mind For Strength Like You Train Your Body
In my twenties, I went on a 30 day mountaineering expedition in Wyoming. At 120 pounds, I carried a 50 pound pack everywhere I went, including up the side of a very steep mountain. I was dehydrated. I had blisters on the heels of my feet. I hadn’t showered in weeks and I was exhausted. My travel companions and I were moving in a single file line up a steep mountainside, carrying our heavy packs. We were clinging to the mountain, while struggling to keep our footing and our focus. A misstep by any of us could bring us all tumbling down to our deaths or severe injury in a remote place where rescue was uncertain.
It was the highest altitude we’d reached and I was getting light headed. I was also engaging in a lot of negative self-talk about how I was too weak, and my ankles too wobbly. “I’m not strong enough, I can’t do this. I hate myself. Why did I sign up for this.” Were all thoughts plowing through my head along with a massive chemical cocktail of fear. I was vacillating in my mind between anger, fear and defeat. In moments of anger, I moved forward. In fear I was unsteady. Feeling defeat, I started to cry.
When I got scared, the panic would rush through me and make my movements shaky. A shaky foot and shaky hands when carefully placing each step desperately trying to stay balanced is a very dangerous thing. I would snap myself out of it, angry at myself for being shaky and putting myself in danger, and I would move forward.
Going back was not an option. It was too steep, I was too high up. If I didn’t have the strength to get to the top, I surely wouldn’t have the strength to go back down. And what would I do at the bottom? This was the way out.
I didn’t even know how much further I had because looking up to the top was too risky. I had to stay focused on my steps. Looking to either side, to see the vast blue sky and register just how far up we were was also a bad idea. I kept my eyes focused in front of me, concentrated on each step, on breathing, on moving forward.
The summit felt unattainable. We’d been climbing more than an hour after several hours of hiking. I started to feel sorry for myself and defeated. When this happened, my eyes started to burn with tears, my chest got heavy and hot and it was harder to breathe as a sob pushed through my body, wanting to come out in tears and crying. My shoulders sloped and the pack felt heavier, my legs felt weaker.
Crying was dangerous. If I let the tears flow, I would be dead. I told myself if I wanted to cry, I could cry when I got to the top. If I needed to quit, I could quit at the top. I could beg for a helicopter to take me out. But I couldn’t quit now or I’d go out in a body bag or rot at the bottom on a pile of rocks. I had to keep going. Feeling sorry for myself would have to wait.
I had to find the physical strength to take the final steps but just as important I had to find the mental strength to keep a steely countenance to get to the top. I had to motivate myself using my thoughts, just like I had to move myself using my muscles. There was no difference in importance between my mind and my body, without both working in unison, I was toast.
I used anger. I used grit. I used my pride to motivate me. I used every attitude I could pull from that made my shoulders strong, my eyes focused and kept my body moving.
Eventually, I reached the summit.
At the top, we all cried and laughed hysterically. We drank water and acted like maniacs. Apparently, we were all scared. The leaders of our group admitted at the top that we’d taken the wrong path up and it was much more dangerous than the path we were meant to take. We were relieved with the exuberance of escaping death.
We drank water and ate and celebrated.
We could see for miles in all directions. There were tall grey mountains tipped with white snow and glaciers, there were sparkling blue lakes in deep basins sitting like bowls, surrounded by trees. There was lush green growth on one side with a field of wildflowers. I knew the wildflowers by name and had learned which I could eat, which I could make medicine from, which I could pluck and stick in my hair. I knew how to tell direction with a compass or with the sun. I knew where to find water, how to splint bones, how to rappel down a mountain, how to cross a roaring river, how to start fire, find food and cook and now I knew that not only could I climb a huge mountain but that I could do unbelievable things I never knew I could do. I could reach the summit. I could defeat my mental demons. The only thing that could stop me is me.
There were clouds floating below us. We were in the sky. I was literally on top of the world. I learned when I think I’m on empty I can always find more, mindset is as important as muscle, pain is temporary, the only thing in my way is me. Everything ends. You either survive it or it kills you and you are hard to kill.
You Have More Options Than Those You’re Presented With
In my thirties, a suicidal man who was physically twice my size backed me against a wall, took out a switchblade, put one hand on my throat and held the switchblade in his other hand against my side and told me I had a choice: I could kill him or he could kill me. Pick one.
He handed me the knife and gave me one minute to kill him. “Slit my throat,” he said. “Stab me. You’re running out of time.”
I was on the verge of panicking but I also knew, in that part of my brain where I’d built mental fortitude on the side of that mountain, that panicking would take away all my power.
I also knew that I had more options than what he presented me with. Just because he only saw two options didn’t mean that only two options existed. I was not trapped by the limitations of his mind, only by the limitations of mine and I’d come to believe in infinite possibilities. It was up to me to find another option. Letting fear overcome reason would keep me from that goal.
I found another option.
Neither of us had to die. In a desperate, terrifying situation with an unstable violent man, I had to persuade him to agree to a third choice. The one where neither of us die, no one gets stabbed and life moves on. It worked. I’m still here. I didn’t kill him, either. You have more options than the one’s you’re presented with.
Never believe that choices you’re given are the only ones available. Some options you just need to take.
The Five Keys To Super Confidence
I learned, earned and stumbled on my confidence the hard way by making horrible mistakes and recovering. Probably the exact same way you have or are building your confidence.
Confidence is the sum of five things: trust your judgment, believe in your intentions, develop mental strength, keep things in perspective and know there are more options than the ones you’ve been offered.
Trust Your Judgment
You develop your judgment by taking chances, making choices, executing your decisions, and taking responsibility for the outcome.
Believe in Your Intentions
You believe in yourself and your intentions by regularly taking stock of your nature, your needs, your strengths, and flaws. Getting kicked out of high school taught me that it was as important to know your environment as to know yourself and I have been especially attuned to that awareness since then.
Develop Mental Strength: No Negative Self-Talk!
Climbing the mountain taught me the importance of mental strength and grit to overcome obstacles and challenges and that biggest thing that could truly stop me was myself and a weak mind.
Keep Things In Perspective
Failure is common, embarrassment is natural and universal, growth is the goal.
The thing that is keeping you up tonight will be completely forgotten in a few months. Why not get ahead of the game and forget about it now. Save yourself the energy for bigger and better things.
The only things that matter are the people you love, your health and staying alive. And staying alive is easier than you realize because people are hard to kill.
You Have More Options Than The Ones Presented To You
Don’t let yourself be limited by someone else’s lack of imagination. Believe in infinite possibilities. Nothing is permanent. There are more options than the ones you can currently see. Expand your mind and your mindset as much as possible so the options come to you easier.
Super Confidence Makes for a Super Life!
You might think that because I got kicked out of school, had failing grades, inconsistent academic record, and basically a “bad reputation” that I might have struggled. I was set up for failure, so failure was inevitable. That was the fear. As it turns out, I must have had a hunch at that young age that the common path wasn’t the only path because I made my way.
Without the transcripts, test scores and grades to rely on, I knew I had to find another way into college. I needed to highlight my strengths in such a way that my weaknesses seemed inconsequential. So, I relied on my passion for writing and theater.
I wrote a play in my senior year of high school, directed and produced it in my home city then at two other locations to sold-out crowds. I sent the videotape with the marketing brochures, press releases and an audience question and answer interview to the college of my choice in lieu of a traditional application to show that what I lack in grades and transcripts and test records I made up for with grit, creativity, industriousness and determination.
I got in and eventually thrived at one of the most academically challenging colleges in the country. I had terrible grades and a broken academic record but I had the imagination to see another option and the determination to make it real.
It didn’t take traumatic experiences to teach me these lessons, it simply took me learning the right lessons from my experiences, some of which were traumatic, and others which weren’t. We all have a mixed bag of blessings, miracles and tragedies to shape how we see the world and ourselves. Make the best of what you have gone through.
Take responsibility for your life, learn your lessons and move on. Don’t worry about the things you can’t control. Just roll with it. Chances are extremely slim it will kill you, and nothing else matters. Make the most of what you’ve got and if you need to cry, cry when you get to the top.