In 1979, as I was about to enter seventh grade, my parents moved our family from one suburb of Chicago to another where we soon discovered anti-Semitism ran rampant. Changing schools for any boy of thirteen is traumatic enough, but finding myself persecuted verbally and physically for belonging to a particular religion made the transition so awful that by the end of the year my parents felt compelled to move our family back to the original suburb from which we'd come.

Only when I began practicing Buddhism during my first year of medical school did I ever seriously wonder why I'd allowed myself to be victimized as I had (I wasn't absolving my tormentors of responsibility for their behavior in asking myself this question but rather trying to take full responsibility for mine). There were many responses I could have had to the kids who persecuted me but didn't: I could have fought back rather than run when I was attacked; I could have boldly proclaimed I was Jewish when asked during the first week of school rather than skirt the question as I did (already knowing "they didn't like Jews" there as one Jewish boy I befriended during the summer had told me). But instead, everything I did was calculated to make me appear likable, helpful, and in general an all around good guy---not in order to create genuine friendships but rather to keep me safe. And every morning for a year I awoke feeling a horrible anxiety-induced nausea, terrified that my strategy was going to fail.

When I learned, however, a full decade later about the concept in Buddhism that we ourselves are ultimately fully responsible for everything that goes on in our lives, it didn't take me long to realize that the root cause of my experience had been nothing other than my own lack of confidence.


Confidence always results from a belief—specifically, from one of three particular beliefs that occur in one of three realms:

  1. Belief in your competence. This typically occurs in realms in which you've had training. For example, I possess great belief in my ability to practice medicine (beware overconfidence) but not in my ability to cook (just ask my wife). The repeated experience of success is what instills a belief in your competence (whether in medicine, cooking, math, debate, relationships, parenting, reasoning, or whatever) and no substitute will do. The ultimate in competence—mastery—may or may not take years to develop, but it always takes dedication, discipline, persistence, and a drive to continuously improve. But once you've achieved it, the confidence it brings is unconscious and largely unassailable. An area in which you've trained is the easiest realm in which to develop a genuine belief in your competence, and therefore confidence.
  2. Belief in your ability to learn and problem solve. This typically occurs in realms in which you've had no training. How do you develop a belief you can solve a problem when you see no path to the solution? First, you must learn to recognize any internal voice that tells you that you can't (what's called a "devil" in Nichiren Buddhism) for what it actually is: an unhelpful idea that only lives in your head. This voice may sound like your father or a teacher or a friend, but it only has the power over your resolve that you give it. You should be neither surprised nor frightened by "devils," but rather remain vigilant in monitoring them so you can ignore them. You may also have to combat past experiences of failure. But past failure doesn't predict future failure if you have the courage and open-mindedness to try out new strategies with which you're uncomfortable. I tell all my patients who are trying to quit smoking that most people who succeed in achieving long-term abstinence have a history of having tried and failed multiple times in the past, as I described in a previous post, Cigarette Smoking Is Caused By A Delusion. The human mind has the potential to be far more resourceful, creative, and determined than most people ever ask theirs to be. The bottom line is this: if it can be done, why not by you? Genius may be born, but skill can always be acquired.
  3. Belief in your own intrinsic worth. From where do we derive our self-esteem? Unfortunately, even those of us with the healthiest sense of self-worth tend to build it upon shaky foundations. The easiest foundations upon which to build it are only available to a small percentage of people: good looks, money, fame, some unique talent like writing or painting or singing. Foundations harder to build it upon are paradoxically accessible to more people and include: being liked or loved by others (described in an earlier post, The Good Guy Contract), doing the right thing, helping others, or making some kind of important contribution to society. The problem with both kinds of these foundations, however, is that they're easily wrecked. Looks fade, weight is gained, money is lost, fame turns to infamy (or worse, apathy), people stop liking you, goals remain unattained, you retire (and stop living a contributive life). Further—to switch metaphors—self-esteem is a hungry beast: you must continue to feed it these morsels to keep it satisfied. And as we all know when it's not satisfied it often turns to confidence's opposite, arrogance (the clinging to an attitude of superiority in an attempt to convince oneself of one's own value). Genuine self-confidence exists in a vacuum, requiring no one of lesser worth to be near it to justify itself. The best way, in my view, to build that kind of self-confidence is to fall in love with your own life. Not with your smaller self that sees the world in terms of what's yours and what's not, but rather with your most expansive self, your larger self, the part that sees all people as equally valuable and precious, that brims with compassion, that has an unmeasurable capacity to forgive and to understand and to carry out good acts. A part that hasn't been wounded by any trauma you've ever suffered. A part you may not actually believe exists but which does. If your self-esteem was shattered or its proper development stunted by a traumatic or love-deficient early childhood, it may be feeding off of any and all of the sources mentioned above. But it will never be satisfied by any of them. Only awakening to your larger self will do that.

Why, then, did I allow myself to be victimized? Because I lacked confidence in the 1st realm (in my ability as a fighter) and was constantly afraid of being hurt or embarrassed, and because I lacked confidence in the 3rd realm (having had a thirteen year-old's self-esteem) and took the message my environment was sending me that I was in some way inferior to my tormentors as the truth. But what does not kill me makes me stronger, and since then I've built tremendous confidence in the 1st and 2nd realms, which have become the foundation of my confidence in the 3rd realm. And I suppose I could remain satisfied with that. But I'm not. There are still situations that confront me that sap my confidence in the 1st and 2nd realms and by extension my confidence in the 3rd realm. And that's not the kind of confidence in my self-worth I want. I want the kind that can't be shaken by anything. Don't you?

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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