For a significant portion of the human race, the sensation of self-confidence is but a mental construct. Its internal structure is imaginatively “guessed” and projected on those who evidence its external markers. But like any good alchemy, the recipe remains elusive and secret. As a child, I wondered at the magic of my friends who “put themselves out there.” From whence came this skill, exercised with that mixture of spontaneity and success? When I developed into a brainy sort in my teenage years, I can remember being earnest but timid with my opinions, observing the wizardry of friends who comfortably opined without restraint. Any attempted mimicry of their motions was sure to come out awkwardly, overly insistent and earnest at one moment, apologetic and self-doubtful at another.
It only takes a little age, of course, to realize that the apparent self-confidence of one’s fellows often isn’t quite what meets the eye and isn’t as unqualifiedly enviable as one might imagine. There is a distinction between healthy self-regard and pathological self-promotion. And as such, it can be difficult to know what to aim for as one matures. If one were to move from an unhealthy timidity to a healthier self-regard, what does this actually “look like” internally? Is it, for instance, characterized by no longer caring what anyone thinks of you? Is it characterized by a spontaneity of self-offering? What does “healthy” feel like?
It is tempting to measure this by contrast with the oft-cited phenomenon of the “snowflake.” Such persons are likely wounded and process the world through the lens of their pain. Often they have subtly internalized the messages of primal abusers—whose pronunciations and actions persist as a stubbornly unsilent “voice in their head.” These “voices” can only be drowned out by noisier others. And so such persons demand that the human race atone for its original sin against them by perpetual and unconditional affirmation. They advocate for a playground whose safety demands would defeat the purpose of recess. They demand that others sacrifice much on the altar of their comfort. The goal in all of this is actually to have relationships, but relationships that are safe at the get-go—having already passed inspection.
Many of the presumably stable and resilient, on the other hand, “couldn’t care less” what others think, appear impervious to criticism, and unmoved by conflict. And yet, it only takes a little digging beneath the surface to discover that many such persons have precisely the same instability as their alter-ego, but have strategized handling it differently. At one level of their consciousness, they are as afraid of rejection and pain as the fragile persons whom they criticize. But rather than respond to this fear with the demand that no-one judge them, they create a psychological court whose lone jurist is their own self-regard. They create an internal court that is impervious to critique. Crucially, though, they have done this not because they don’t care what others think, but precisely because they do. And indeed, this is manifested by many such persons’ apparent need to project their alleged confidence in public. Invulnerable to critique, they are not invulnerable to praise. Moreover, what a man ridicules reveals a lot about him. To ridicule the fragile snowflake is to declare what one finds shameful (even in one’s own self). Said differently, it is to declare what one finds fearful (vulnerability and rejection). Moreover, their loud proclamations likewise serve to define the rules and virtues of the playground in such a way that they are recognized to possess certain virtues. Their self-perceived lack of need for the affirmation of others stands in transparent contrast to their actual behavior.
The dialectic between these resonates with David French’s recent observation that the conservative critique of political correctness is often just itself a negative photocopy of the agenda of the left—a reflexive parasite that fancies itself a leader and is manifestly a follower. Whatever healthy self-regard feels like, this kind of denial is surely not it.
We can gesture, I suspect, toward what stability is like by clarifying the foundation that is prior to the strategies of the two variants of “snowflake” mentioned above. That is to say, implied in any strategy to avoid one’s relational fears is a certain craving. In short, we crave to be fully accepted in all of our relationships. And yet, we find ourselves in a world that inevitably frustrates this craving on several counts. We cannot control the behavior of others, for one. Moreover, we recognize that we are not entirely lovely. These cravings are vestiges of a paradisiacal existence, long since forgotten and sedimented over in layers of habituated “hardened” realism and self-protection. And yet, like magma from the earth’s core shooting up through the layers of hardened rock, our original longings are worn on the surface of our actual behaviors. The words of others always matter—a fact reflected in the Bible’s frequent warnings about the use of the tongue.
Interestingly, each of these responses requires a certain kind of self-evaluation. The stereotypical “snowflake” has an internalized self-loathing that requires external counter-balance. The narcissist variant of the slowflake pretends, by contrast, to live in a world sans exposure, as though the world were not an infinite jury of evaluators, as though the final judgment were rendered simply by one’s own egoist fetishization.
There is a third type of “snowflake,” however, whose peculiar flutterings are forged in a different sort of turbulence. In the most extreme instances of the above dialectic, the social agent is likely to be acting out against some primal active wound. But there is another strategy that is forged less in the flames of active abuse, than in the passive experience of abandonment. Concocted in this elixir, the world is not seen through the lens of distorted relationship offered, but through the lens of proper relationship withheld. The former has a tyrannical or indulgent father. The latter is fatherless. They move into the world not as wounded or misguided, but as unguided. Like the aforementioned type, they often require their identity to be mediated by the recognition of others, but not for precisely the same reason. It is not as a medicinal yes to someone else’s poisonous no, but as a something to someone else’s nothing. They long for an identity created rather than one healed. They are less self-loathing than self-numb. They are less fearful of what they don’t know about the world than what they don’t know about themselves, and what the world might reveal about them. Consequently, they tend toward timidity, which functions to keep them safe from the exposure that inevitably attends self-offering. Critique is excruciating not because its content is automatically internalized, but because they find it difficult to know what is true of themselves. They might have unusual self-knowledge and a tendency to social transparency, not for the sake of relational connection, but for the sake of protecting themselves from relational exposure (controlling the narrative, so to speak).
None of these, of course, is a hermetically sealed box, and individual persons perhaps straddle all of these strategies at various stages of their lives (or stages of their day—people often “perform” quite differently in different relationships). But arguably, the layer of our fragility represented in this third type is prior to the previously mentioned resolutions. Prior to our scripted resolution of ourselves in the direction of self-loathing or self-love, we do not know ourselves. Some are more conscious of this than others, of course. But the most self-aware recognize that (like Paul) they cannot make a final evaluation of themselves. Being riddled with sin and living before the gaze of others, we desire a stable sense of identity from which we can move into the world, but such a foundation is not ultimately found in our own self-regard (though it may be reflected there).
For those on the other side of either pathological or healthy self-confidence, then, what might one imagine a stable movement into the world to look like? What internal state are we after? I’d suggest the following:
First, godly stability is not measured by one’s numbness to criticism, but by the ability to stably endure the unpleasantness of criticism because one lives before God, whose yes is prior to His no in Christ. While not seeking relational pain, the godly risk experiencing it to be in a position to love others. And they can do so because the experience of the love of God enables them, like their Lord, to live in openness to their neighbor.
Second, those who have godly self-confidence are neither the easiest nor the most difficult to persuade or to correct. They live in the truth about themselves, and the truth about themselves is that they are far more sinful than they know, but also that people can be wrong about them. Moreover, the truth is that correction and insight can come from any person, even if it is most likely to come from some rather than others. Living a life of daily repentance, such persons are ever open to the grace of exposure, even in the mouth of an apparent enemy. Repentance is a relief to the godly.
Third, then, godly self-confidence gives one’s gifts not for the sake of self-promotion (using the responses of others as a means to stimulate one’s own ego), but precisely because they love to give what God has given them to give for the sake of their neighbor. They desire to love.
Fourth, godly self-confidence, while ever open to repentance, does not obsess about the self. Such persons are characterized neither by excessive self-examination nor by any sense of having arrived. Rather, they are bold to live in their neighbor, and trusting in God to examine and shape them through His word and His people. This is an especially important goal for obsessive Christians (the “scrupulous”), whose awareness of their sin can cripple their self-offering. This is almost certainly suspended atop a false impression of God (who is felt to reject what isn’t offered in perfect righteousness). But it is precisely such an image of God that requires obsessive repentance, because it diminishes both the gospel, and the character of God behind the gospel—that God is goodness and generosity Himself, and delights to not impute sins in Christ.
Fifth, finally, godly self-confidence looks like a human at rest, not in one’s sense of internal coherence or self-assessment, but in taking up the conscious self-possession of one’s own story through the freedom afforded in the gospel. Sins forgiven, Spirit-empowered, and glory-bound, Christians love God and do as they please. Not deaf to God’s warnings, the Christian nevertheless does not obsess as a slave. He rests as a son.