On confidence

After I wrote my last post, a lot of you left really sweet, amazing comments that not only gave me all kinds of feels, but also made me think a little more expansively about what I write about in this blog.  I think I feel like the title/theme of the blog means I have to write things that are explicitly connected to feminism, but I’m coming to see that this is a really narrow way to look at things. Narrowness can be nice because it leaves little room for wandering and getting lost, the flip side is that it can also be constricting, with little room for wandering and getting lost.

That narrow thinking caused me to lose sight of something that’s actually pretty important to the point of my writing on this blog, which is that my pursuit of athletics and fitness has actually been a feminist practice in its own way. I’ve written a lot about how this has changed my self-image over the past several years, how pushing my limits and cultivating my strength has given me a practical way to change how I perceive myself and my body, to recast the terms of the conversation from lack and deficiency to pride and power.

However, the biggest transformation of all happened within my heart.  No, I don’t mean that my resting heart rate has dropped or that I have excellent blood pressure, but that I now carry myself with a measure of confidence I’d never had before. Brian once described me, using his very diplomatic therapist-speak, as having a “particularly pronounced” lack of self-confidence.  I could spend a series of entire posts explaining the circumstances behind this, circumstances that extend back to my earliest memories and that involve the cultures in which I was raised, but all of that is besides the point.  Every woman who struggles with confidence has her own set of circumstances, but the outcome is the same.

Over the past year that all changed very dramatically for me.  I mean, it had slowly been happening for a few years, every time I added an accomplishment to my internal list: college graduate, undergraduate research award, first marathon, real job, promotion, etc. Each accomplishment represented a little tick upwards in the way I measured myself and my competence, but it still wasn’t enough. I still struggled with Imposter Syndrome, like any day I was going to be discovered as some kind of horrible fraud and everyone was going to know I had no business doing anything and that I was going to be sent back to fifth grade where I really belonged.

That all changed profoundly after I ran the Keys 50 in May.  I still remember that night, back in the hotel room.  I stripped off my disgusting racing gear and stood in front of the mirror, naked as a jaybird.  I was covered in all kinds of horrible heat rash and chafing, my lower lip was huge and puffy because I’d forgotten to put Chapstick with SPF on, my hair was limp and salty and coated in spit and Gu juice, I had weird tan lines all over my extremities, and I could barely walk upright. I was a mess.

But instead of caring about any of those things, I grinned at my reflection, without a single lick of self-consciousness, and thought, You are awesome.  And I meant it. I really fucking did.  It was probably the first time in my life I had ever regarded myself with such sincere, thorough admiration. There was no little shitty voice in the back of my head going, “Well, you only did this because of blah and if blergh had happened you would have failed and everyone’s going to realize what a big phony you are.”  It was just this incredibly pure feeling of self-respect and admiration.  I’d never felt it before, and it felt wonderful, not least of all because I knew I had worked hard and I had earned it.

Now, it’s not like I walk around with a Greek chorus singing my praises in my head, because I certainly do have my share of moments where I feel like a complete idiot. I also have plenty of moments where I’m like, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”  And it’s not like I’m like, “I ran an ultra, I can do anything!”  I’m not going to go and attempt neurosurgery just because I was silly enough to spend 10-plus hours running this one time. As far as I’m concerned, hubris is not a desirable state of mind either.

Rather, the difference is very simple: that I now believe in myself. I may not be able to accomplish everything I set out to do, but I believe in myself enough to at least try my best.  I believe in myself enough to at least try.

Of course all of this is all well and good, but I sometimes worry that it’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that all that matters is building confidence, and that once you have it, you’re done, you can dust off your hands and go home.  To me, confidence is just a tool that allows you to accomplish other things.  It’s a waystation, not a destination.

To those ends, I was recently accepted into the training program to become a guardian ad litem with the state of Florida.  It’s something I’m very excited about doing, but I’m also very nervous about this as well. I don’t expect it to be easy – in fact, I fully expect it to be one of the hardest things I’ll ever do – but I am hopeful that I can have a positive impact on at least one kid’s life. I can say unequivocally that if it had not been for the confidence I’ve developed over the past year, I would have never even considered doing this, let alone actually sent in my application.

I guess the reason I share this with you is because I think it’s important to expand the conversation about self-confidence – particularly as it seems to happen in the realm of fitness and body image – so that it’s not just about how we feel about ourselves, but also about how we interact with the rest of the world.  What good is it to do all of this work to feel good about yourself if you don’t do anything with it?  At least, that’s the question I’ve been asking myself over the past few months, and the question I’m trying to answer.

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36 responses to “On confidence

  1. Loved this post and especially the way u described it as a “way station and not a destination”, so true not just for self confidence but a lot of other things too.

    • Thank you! And yes, definitely for a lot of other things. It’s great to focus on self-improvement but hopefully it’s with an eye towards becoming a better citizen of the earth (that sounds clunky but I think you know what I mean) instead of just doing it for its own sake.

  2. Yessss! Love this. I’ve been dealing with improving my own self confidence/imposter syndrome lately as well and I keep reading things in this similar vein lately, and it’s just AWESOME that there is this higher collective consciousness bringing us all to that point right now and embracing the “confidence conversation.”

    It can be so hard to own your own accomplishments sometimes. It’s often those that are out there doing amazing things that feel the most insecure about them.

    Anyway, just had to share that I’m right there with you and happy for your successes 🙂

    • Thank you! Yeah, that Imposter Syndrome is some nasty shit, and it’s amazing to me how many really outstanding people (mainly women, actually) I know grapple with it. I’m glad to hear you’ve been thinking about the same things too and that my post helped a little bit with that.

    • Thank you so much! It means a lot to me to hear from someone like you, who works in this particular field, that this is a worthy pursuit. 🙂

  3. “What good is it to do all of this work to feel good about yourself if you don’t do anything with it?”

    Exactly. I haven’t run any marathons lately but I do feel like I’ve come to a new level of confidence so I understand what you’re saying. ; ) Maybe it’s related to age too? Regardless, the things I used to care about soo much – body image work, proving what women can accomplish, etc. – seem to require less of my passion, conversation and energy. So whadya do now? Turning that passion outward seems like the next step.

    Congratulations and your new endeavor sounds amazing! Excited to see where your blog goes!

    • I definitely think that age plays a role. I was already getting to a point where I was not really giving all that many Fs about a lot of stuff that used to torment me – like, really, a random broheim doesn’t think I’m hot? Someone doesn’t like my personality? SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET?!? Behold my field of fucks, for it is barren – and I think that age has played a big role in that. I sometimes struggle a bit with the mortality aspect of getting older, mainly because I really dig my life and will be sad when it is over, but everything else about getting older has been rad as hell.

      • “Behold my field of fucks, for it is barren” is possibly my absolute favourite thing I have read all day. (And I say this on the day I came across the existence of the USS Ponce. Does that mean something different your side of the pond? I digress…)

  4. While not the main focus of your post, I wanted to say thank-you for signing up to be a guardian ad-litem. We have two older kids in our home that are from “the system,” and I know what an important role the ad-litems play in advocating for kids. So, thank-you for stepping up and volunteering for that role.

    • Aw, thank you! And thanks to YOU for taking in those kids. I am always so happy when someone opens their home to kids in need, and I’m glad you and your family were able to do it for two of them.

  5. Congratulations on becoming a GAL.I am a director of a CASA program and you are starting on an amazing path.You will certainly be drawing on emotional endurance equivalent to any marathon. I am so happy for you!

  6. Awesome. It is amazing what fitness can do to build confidence; what pushing your limits and accomplishing things you never thought possible can do for your mind, body and soul.

    • Indeed! When you start to move out of your comfort zone in one aspect of your life, it shows you are capable of doing the same in other aspects of your life. It can be scary, no doubt, but the rewards have generally been pretty good. 😀

  7. Thank you for this. I came to have a look at your blog for procrastination and inspiration, whilst writing a post of my own, and wasn’t expecting to find anything new (I know you’ve slowed down a lot lately). But as it turned out, what you’ve written here fed very directly into what I ended up writing myself. I’m really grateful.

    So congratulations on your new-found self-confidence. (I very much recognise the experience of grinning at a ruined body in a hotel mirror, and loving what you see.) And thank you for helping me recognise mine.

  8. A few months ago you and your readers recommended New Rules of Lifting for Women as a great beginner’s weight training guide. As a result of following the weight training program, I’ve begun to get the same sense of strength and accomplishment that you described after your ultra. I have never felt so much admiration for what my body can do, even after running and swimming for years. Thanks so much for being generous with your time and expertise, and for helping the rest of us along our own self-love journeys.

  9. I love this:

    “Narrowness can be nice because it leaves little room for wandering and getting lost, the flip side is that it can also be constricting, with little room for wandering and getting lost.”

    Sometimes the places we wander to when we are lost are so much more surprising and satisfying than the destination we originally thought we were supposed to be aiming for.

    Wait, I meant thatmetaphorically–but come to think of it, I have the worlds worst sense of direction so I kinda mean it literally as well. 🙂

  10. Excellent post. Many of the things you wrote about resonated with me because I’ve been on a similar journey over the past two years. Much of this journey was precipitated by a dear friend who lovingly calls me out whenever I don’t love myself for superficial reasons.

    One effect I’ve noticed on my own life is how this newfound confidence affects my relationship with my SO. Getting to a place where I approve of myself has allowed me to really stop seeking his approval and do things for him more purely out of LOVE rather than selfish approval-seeking. I’m far from perfect, but I see this as a huge milestone in my relationship both with myself and with him.

  11. I hope you do feel free to write more, regardless of whether the subject relates to feminism in some way. I came across your blog because I’m a fitness nerd, and I love reading what you’ve written about training and races. You being a feminist just makes everything a little more awesome. And, as an attorney who used to spend a lot of time in family court, I’m crazy excited to hear you’re looking at becoming a GAL. I think GALs are very important and their insights carry a lot of weight with judges. Parents in custody battles can be unreliable narrators, whether or not they mean to be, so it’s a very good thing to have a GAL speaking up for the child.

  12. Caitlin, love this message, about fitness being a path to self-confidence in many more ways than just “fitness”. I have experienced this too, and also your other point about once achieving it, you are not done! Over the last year, since I started writing it’s interesting to see how much progress I have made. And I think, yay! I’m so over that issue (insert issue of the day…). But then, sometimes I get these lows and go back to those old patterns of feeling not-good-enough. Anyway, it’s always a journey and we just need to keep going and keep living and keep jumping over new hurdles to keep showing ourselves how capable and awesome we are, so we continue to believe it. Your posts always inspire, and I’m really psyched for you and the growth you have accumulated this year.

  13. “What good is it to do all of this work to feel good about yourself if you don’t do anything with it?”

    Yes.

    Likewise, and equally motivating in my experience is to look at pain, suffering and failure in the same vein. I.e. “What good is it to have gone through all this shit without giving it some greater value by infusing with a higher purpose?”

    Helps one to avert whinging and whining for too long 😉

  14. Not every post has to be specifically feminist. It is fantastic that you are a feminist and you bring that to your writing no matter what, and that is a very precious thing in this world.
    Congratulations on becoming a GAL!

  15. ” To me, confidence is just a tool that allows you to accomplish other things. It’s a waystation, not a destination.”
    Terrific thoughts, Caitlin. Thanks as ever! And thank you for working so hard to expand our definition of what a feminist looks (and sounds) like!

  16. I’ve been having a huge problem in my quest for inspiring fitness that isn’t for men or wildly sexist and demeaning. I recently stumbled across your blog. I have a lot of problems when it comes to confidence, self worth. I’ve identified as a feminist my entire life, but I fall prey to the lies society tells me about how I should be. I feel very small and weak and inadequate often. I’m looking to change that. Cardio and clean eating, And um, restricting and calorie counting, dropped me down to nearly underweight, and I’m done with that. This was a very inspiring post, an entire inspiring blog, really. I got a little teared up reading this, your description of finally believing in yourself. I hope to feel that one day.

  17. I saw Crabby up there!!! *waves* I love seeing some of my fave bloggers on my other favorite blogs!!! It’s so important to read things like this Caitlin because so few people will own up to things they feel inside that the rest of us struggle with, and the idea that we can all push past what we’re comfortable with and gain a sense of self worth… is huge. Yes, we all have our stories, and the names of people who made us feel small will always be remembered, but it’s so much less about any of that, or them, than who we have pushed past to become for our futures.

  18. ” To me, confidence is just a tool that allows you to accomplish other things. It’s a waystation, not a destination.”

    For myself cycling a mountain is MUCH smaller compared to dealing with systemic racism. Cycling only forms a small part of my own self-confidence which has developed in layers over time. Each time I think a layer has been added, something else in life happens that peels back and reveals another vulnerability I’ve been covering up.

  19. We should never fool ourselves that exercise will boost our self-confidence: one day we will no longer be as mobile, strong.

  20. Beautiful sentiments and uncanny in your perception of the struggles women face in achieving self-confidence. It almost felt as thought you were reading my own mind and struggles. Even as I approach 50, I struggle with this daily and like you, I can trace it back to the culture that I was raised in. No excuses because I am in control of my own destiny. Thank you and I can’t wait to read more…

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