I’m not a super positive person. My mom would say I’m pessimistic, but I’d argue (incorrectly) that I fall in the “realistic but a little harsh” category. I’ve read a million and a half self-help books on being positive and spent a ton of time in therapy. Strategies like cognitive behavioral therapy have helped me change my ways and overcome negative thought patterns. As a result, I’m generally more resilient and able to stay confident in difficult situations.
But despite my work to fix these habits, I still fall into what I call the “everything sucks” trap. The “everything sucks” trap is the opposite of rose-colored glasses. It’s the tendency to think that nothing is going right, the Murphy’s Law of outlooks. It’s hard for me to get out of this trap, and it’s even harder to stay confident while wading through it.
Why do I care?
The “everything sucks” trap and my negativity once had a more profound impact on my self-worth than they do now. I haven’t always been a confident person. Throughout my life, I struggled with body image issues, doubted my intelligence, my ability to form relationships, etc. I was concerned about being liked, concerned about filling the expectations of myself and others, and concerned about what would happen if I failed.
I’m not an expert in confidence, and I am definitely not a life coach. But from a fair amount of work, I developed some skills that helped me become and stay confident despite *gestures broadly* all of this.
1. Stop trying to be good at everything.
Trying to be good at everything is a surefire way to make sure you believe you are bad at everything. (Or at least make yourself feel like crap.) This is scientifically proven! It’s called role overload, and surprise, it disproportionately impacts women. Feeling like you have to be “on” all the time and succeed in multiple roles has been shown to have a negative impact on mental health.
There is some debate in the literature about whether this is because women, with their ~superior emotional intelligence~, are more attuned to their emotions and therefore more able to detect the negative ones. But outside of my scientific opinion, I don’t really care why something is negatively impacting me if it is negatively impacting me. If I’m in tune with my emotions, great! That’s not helpful if my emotions are predominantly sadness and feelings of insufficiency.
If you want to stay confident when everything sucks, it’s valuable to stop and think about what your role is in everything that you do. Stop seeing it as “settling” to be simply okay at something, and take pride in your involvement.
2. Admit when you’re wrong.
Oh boy, this is a tough one. Sometimes I wonder if what I perceive to be confidence is actually just ego. And this is because It’s wicked hard to admit you’re wrong. If you feel the need to fill all the roles you have set out for yourself, being wrong can jeopardize your self-perception. When you feel pressure to perform, messing up seems like the end.
It takes boatloads of confidence to trudge over with your tail between your legs and admit that you screwed up. If I were reading this article 5 years ago, I probably would have reacted with, “Ahhh but how can I be confident if I’ve made a mistake?”
It takes far more confidence to admit you have messed up and move on than it does to ignore it or circumvent the problem. Mistakes do not define your capacity to succeed. Confidence doesn’t hinge entirely on your successes.
3. Allow yourself to have bad days.
The fact that I am writing this does not mean that I couldn’t wake up tomorrow and think, “I am a literal bowl of mush of a human being and I will accomplish nothing”. That is definitely possible, and if it does happen, I won’t try to force myself through it. I learned this the hard way, as I’ve always tried to improve things with sheer willpower.
As a kid, I did gymnastics. I had no natural talent for gymnastics. But I would sit in front of the TV for hours on end, pushing myself into the splits until my hamstrings couldn’t take it anymore. Eventually, I did get my splits, but now I’m an adult with snapping hip syndrome. I tried to take the same approach to positivity, thinking, “Well if I just FORCE myself to be positive then I’ll be happier!” I was very wrong (see point 2).
Forcing myself to be more positive just became a way for me to deny my negative emotions. So much for my superior feminine emotional intelligence, I guess! It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to tell you that bottling up your emotions is bad. Fortunately, those with PhDs in psychology not only agree with that statement, but they’ve shown a correlation between suppressing your emotions and earlier death.
Does correlation equal causation? No, but given the option between talking openly about my feelings and potentially risking mortality at a younger age, I’ll take the conversation, thanks. Staying confident means being open about your emotions and being brave enough to admit when things just aren’t working.
4. Don’t let bad days become bad weeks (months, years, etc.)
A bad day is a bad day. When I have a bad day, I listen to The National. I eat a lot of Talenti Peanut Butter Sorbetto. I watch period pieces on Netflix. If I did this for a week, I would still feel bad. If I did this for a month, I would feel terrible (and be broke because I picked a really pricey ice cream as my bad day snack).
This isn’t a post on how to develop healthy coping strategies. Even the “healthiest” of coping strategies are destructive if we use them as a crutch. Although we might place a lot of value on exercising a ton and working ceaselessly, it does not mean that these are “good” ways to deal with any emotional distress we may be under.
In general, if what you do to cope helps you and doesn’t hurt yourself or others, it’s probably ok for a bad day. If it becomes more than a “bad day” coping mechanism, that’s where it becomes a problem.
If you have a bad day, wallow for a little, then figure out what’s making it bad. You can figure this out through introspection, drawing, writing, talking it out, whatever. To overcome the “everything sucks” trap, think about what you can do to change the “everything”. Having the ability to stay confident means you trust yourself to think clearly and remove 1 or 2 things from the “everything”. This allows you to move forward.
5. Be realistic.
Confidence doesn’t mean you are 100 percent satisfied with everything in your life. I like my body, but I’m never going to have abs like Emily Ratajkowski at last year’s Met Gala. So I won’t compare myself to that standard. My second favorite President Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy”. While I’m not exactly “joyous” about my abdominal situation, I’m fairly happy with myself. My confidence doesn’t hinge on an unrealistic expectation of where I “should” be.
I use this as an example because we can easily recognize when we’ve set an unrealistic expectation if we’re comparing ourselves to models, but we don’t always do this in our professional or educational lives. Someone who can stay confident recognizes that they need to create their own metrics for success, especially when things are challenging.
The last few weeks have been hard for me.
I’d bet I’m not the only one feeling this way. Every time I turn on the news or open social media, I’m confronted with messages about pandemic, fear, and death. It is a massive “everything sucks” trap. In the midst of all this, I’m trying to make a career change, applying for a million and a half jobs, and getting ghosted by most of them.
While I think that there is some inherent value in doubt, I cannot let this trap swallow me up and take my confidence with it. I’ve had to take breaks to stop, be realistic about things, stop the moping marathon, and show myself some grace. I can stay confident through this. There are great things going on in my life. It’ll be okay.