Self-confidence: Less self-generated than you notice until you're unemployed

Self-confidence: Less self-generated than you notice until you're unemployed

Posted Nov 07, 2009

Unemployment has reached its highest level in 26 years.  If you're un-, or under-employed this one's for you.  It's for you too if your children recently moved out,  if you just quit a club or ended a friendship or partnership. Really, its for anyone whose life somehow became less populated recently.

Until a few months ago I taught thirty hours a week.  That meant I had a lot of eyes on me, eyes expecting me to be and do certain things. It was easy to play teacher.  I'd wake up around 7:00am maybe slightly disoriented. Coffee would open my eyes and then students would fill them with faces looking back at me expecting me to be teacher-like. 

At some point in my six years teaching, I noticed that even a week's vacation would make me a little fuzzy about teaching. Not a lot--I still knew enough to say with confidence that I was a teacher. But the first day back, on my bikeride to school, I'd notice a touch of Impostor Syndrome.  I would be slightly less confident in my ability to teach. And then, popping back into the classroom and seeing the expectant students would bring it all back.  My sense of self was in large part a function of my social environment.

We think of confidence and focus as something self-generated.  We hardly recognize how much their strength depends on how our environment supports, subsidizes or reinforces them. The company we keep provides structural supports that bolster our sense of who we are and what we're for. Self-confidence is largely a habit of reciprocation between you and the people who expect things of you. 

It's not hard to stay on track and confident you can do something if day after day people expect it of you.   If the company disappears, those structural supports are pulled out, and you tend to feel your sense of self start to melt, seep and leak.  Sure, with the loss of a job or friends, there's sadness and grief at the loss. But it's not just that. In the days and months that follow, you wake up to fewer people expecting anything from you and therefore you're likely to have less clarity, focus and direction.  You may miss your old job less than you miss your stable sense of self.

We become dependent upon our environment in ways we are unlikely to notice unless our environment changes.  If you're unemployed, you may find yourself trying to replace the affirmation you lost in a variety of ways. A new job, sure, but also more face book, more dating, more time down at the bar or church, or more self-generated confidence.

Here's where ego come in.  In lulls, when the world isn't expecting much from me, and yet I want to stay productive, I have to narrate my life more, reminding myself who I am and what I'm for.  I actually talk to myself.  I use informal affirmations, telling myself how it's going to be alright and how I'm still on the path to success.  I'm affirming of the directions I want to go and discouraging of the directions I don't want to go. I might become more opinionated and critical of the things I don't want to be, and more glorifying of the things I aim to be.  I'm likely to sound more egotistical.  I say what I need to hear. And since there's a limit to how much I can hear and believe when I'm talking to myself, I'll tell other people too. Even if they don't particularly want to hear it. When the external supports are pulled out we need to replace them with a more potent self-generated identity and narrative. This has personal implications but also social ones. Radical or fundamentalist movements tend to catch on more readily in bad economies. 

I have an old friend, a former bandmate a guy I remember as pretty easy going back when he was married and had a good job and his life ahead of him. He dropped out of contact after borrowing a few thousand dollars he never returned.  Recently he showed up on facebook, older, a little down on his luck.  He now calls himself "Prince" something, and wrote me the other day to say that he's discovered the meaning of my life and would like to teach it to me.  No doubt.

Is it reasonable for me to judge his egoism in comparison to mine and say he's overdoing it? Perhaps, but only if I'm willing to factor our respective environmental contexts.  He may actually be less egotistical than me even though he's behaving more egotistically.  If I was as down on my luck as he is, maybe I'd behave even more egotistically.

And conversely, if I was up on my luck I'd probably be less egotistical than I am.  It's not surprising to see cool, easy-going confidence in popular people.  It's no mystery that popular gurus can maintain the appearance of enlightened selflessness.  First, eyes are on them expecting them to be selfless.  Second, eyes are on them.  They don't have to generate much of a sense of self because it's being generated for them.

If your partner has lost her job and you haven't, they're likely to act more needy than you.  You do them an unfair disservice if you treat it as a character flaw without factoring in the way you've still got your structure supports and she doesn't. The people who are not busy talking themselves up may be no less needy than the loudest egos around.  They simply may need less self-affirmation because so much of the affirmation is supplied externally.

If you find yourself more self-absorbed than usual,  more inclined to tell everyone about you big bright new plans and great prospects, keep your environment in mind. What it doesn't supply anymore, you're going to probably try to supply from somewhere else, and though it may make you sound egotistical, you may have to increase your self-serving pep-talks at least until you get yourself back on your feet and in the company of people whose presence tacitly affirms you.

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