The common wisdom maintains that the one thing everyone finds attractive in others is confidence. I think, however, that the truth is more nuanced than that, especially when it comes to the self-loathing, who tend to lack in confidence and may not find it particularly attractive in others.
First, what does confidence mean? There are two ways to think about it. The first, more formal version of confidence is similar to faith: it’s based on believing something you don’t know with certainty. If you were aware that you possessed a certain quality, you wouldn’t need confidence in it—it’s only when you can’t be sure that you need confidence. This sense of confidence is purely formal and lacks content, though—one can be confident in this way about anything, from one’s own qualities to today’s weather forecast.
The other sense of confidence, the one that’s invoked in articles on dating and attractiveness, is more substantive. It’s an awareness of who you are, regardless of how you compare or measure up to others. It shows people that you’re comfortable with yourself, which grants you a certain poise, charm, or assertiveness. It also implies that you don’t need to compete with anyone or belittle anyone else to lift yourself up; as a result, confident people are more willing to praise others because they aren’t worried about making themselves look worse. All of this clearly accounts for the general attractiveness of confidence, if for no other reason than its general positivity.
The best kind of confidence is like a classical virtue: it strikes the “golden mean” between self-doubt and arrogance, allowing a person to embody his or her positive traits without bragging about them. (And in the spirit of wei wu wei, this may broadcast a person’s positive traits more effectively!) Confidence can go wrong, however: in addition to falling to one side or the other of this perfect middle, a person’s confidence can also be misguided or mistaken. For example, confidence can be false: a person can be confident that he is well-liked, smart, or attractive even if he isn’t. The stereotypical “playa” or pick-up artist who thinks he’s God’s gift to women (but is really their worst nightmare) is a perfect example. This would be a false positive, having confidence about something that isn’t true—which is definitely not attractive.
But you can also have a false negative, such as when a person has great qualities but doesn’t recognize them—or have confidence in them—herself. This is the problem suffered by self-loathers, who often have great qualities but, for one reason or another, will not or cannot believe in them. Ironically, the self-loathing are often very sure of “who they are”—it’s just that who they think they are isn’t a pretty picture, which makes their brand of confidence less attractive. At the time, however, this also means they’re even less competitive than the ordinarily confident person: they are perfectly willing to praise others, a) because they honestly think others are usually better than them and b) even if they thought that praising others reflected poorly on themselves, they haven’t got much to lose.
We can begin to question the universal attractiveness of confidence if we consider the plight of the less confident person (even if not a truly self-loathing person). Would a less confident person find greater confidence attractive in someone else? Perhaps, if the less confident person thinks some of that confidence may rub off on him or her. Sometimes confidence can be contagious, especially if it comes from a particularly generous person who radiates positivity through his or her words and actions. I’m sure we’ve all known someone who was not merely fun to be around, but actually made us feel better about ourselves for knowing them.
On the other hand, a less confident person may find confidence in others to be intimidating. He or she might wonder, “what would such a confident person would ever see in me?” Confident people seem like they have their lives all sorted out—whether this is true or not—and this can leave the less confident person to wonder where he or she would fit in. Finally, it may trigger a bit of self-loathing in even mildly unconfident people, in which they simply feel they’re not good enough or have little to offer more confident people.
But consider the less confident person meeting someone else like himself or herself: if he or she picks up on this, there is less reason to be intimidated. In the best case scenario, he or she sees a kindred spirit, a fellow misfit, another person who’s struggling to find his or her place in the world and maybe doesn’t know who he or she is yet either. Rather than feeling he or she would be a drag on this person, or not good enough, the less confident person can feel he or she may be a positive force in the other person’s life. Confidence leaves no room for this, but a perceived lack of confidence might.
Confidence is a wonderful thing, but in some cases it can be very intimidating to a person who lacks it. So if you want to take steps to boost your confidence, that’s great—but also know that there is a place in the world for the less confident as well. (I’ll save a place at the table for you.)
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships, self-loathing, adultery, and other topics, see here.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter and visit me at my website and the following blogs: Economics and Ethics and The Comics Professor.