My freshman year of college was a learning experience. I had a more active social life on the weekends. I made new friends without the comfort of my familiar group back home. I took more difficult courses. I got in trouble with the school that year, but when I showed up for my sophomore year, I was 20 and ready to take the world by storm. I felt like I was hitting my stride, and my confidence level was insanely high.
My freshman year, I was terrified of failing courses, certain that I was not smart enough to be here. By sophomore year, I knew that I had what it took, and my grades reflected that. I’d even established an odd pattern, where I always did poorly on the first assignment a teacher would give me, but once I knew what they were looking for, I’d more than make up for it. I had my real first girlfriend that year, and I was convinced that I was in control of my mood, of my surroundings, of how I felt on a day-to-day basis. It’s crazy to think about that time in my life because I was living a lie. Control is an illusion. The awakening would be ruder than anything I’d ever experience.
When I first noticed my father getting sick, I had a nervous breakdown. Earlier that day, I had seen my father reach into his pocket for his wallet, and he’d struggled to get it out. That was when I knew it was real, that something was really wrong, that everything wouldn’t be okay. That night, I broke down and was a sobbing mess. I’m not sure I’ve ever cried that hard. That day was the beginning of the end, at least as far as my confidence was concerned.
I felt my “control” get ripped away from me, as I kept noticing more and more things my father was no longer able to do. His faculties were leaving him, and all I could do was watch, completely helpless. I couldn’t control what was happening, I couldn’t stop his decline. I had to grin and bear it, just absorb everything that was happening, as I came off the hinges. I say that my confidence was shattered, but maybe it was slowly chipped away. That seems to be a more apt analogy, as it didn’t happen all at once.
Dad passed, and although it’s taken me years to come to this realization, my confidence died too. I didn’t realize until now that through it all, my Dad had been the constant in my life, the man I could look to for guidance, the rock that would get me through the difficult times. When he left, my confidence did as well. I’d based my extreme confidence on the illusion of control and another human being. Rebuilding that confidence would prove to be a challenge, since I was now very aware of my flaws, and the fact that I wasn’t perfect. I didn’t want to admit that I was a human being.
I remember living in the North End, and walking to the store to get a sandwich. If I saw someone already at the counter, I’d take a lap around the store and come back, afraid of any sort of social interaction. I was afraid to go outside, unless it was with my stepmother and the dog, or I was meeting a friend at the bar. I had to redevelop my social skills from scratch; I was afraid to talk to strangers, to people I wasn’t comfortable with. I had to figure out how to get my groove back, something that would not be easy.
Grad school helped my confidence, but it was a double-edged sword. It was intimidating to be around people who were just a bit older than me who had done so many cool things with their lives. They’d gone to schools like Harvard and Emory, and I just didn’t feel like I belonged there for that first year. I didn’t measure up. That self-doubt returned in full force, and the fear that I would fail everything was strong.
In my second year, I worked with a wonderful group of women on my yearlong project, the one that I traveled to Sri Lanka for. This is the same group that I wrote about in my initial post. Over the course of the year, they were welcoming and encouraging, and I felt that confidence start to return, even if it was fleeting. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by great people who inspire me and who have faith in me.
I’m in a better place these days, but my confidence still waivers. Some times I feel like I’m intelligent and bright and able, and others I’m self-doubting, anxious, and withdrawn. I seem to vacillate between the two, and although I’d like to say that the former mindset usually wins out, I’m can’t say that with any sureness. It’s been a very long slog to get back everything I lost.
Maybe this is the new normal. Maybe this is real. College definitely isn’t real. You’re living a life that you’ll never life again, sans any real responsibilities, and that seems to lend itself an absurd level of confidence. I know that some people come across as overly confident, and I wonder if they actually are that confident, or if it’s an act. Maybe they just aren’t aware of their limitations. I wonder what that’s like.
Be confident in yourself, but make sure that confidence is based in reality, that it’s based on your abilities, and don’t be so hard on yourself. I tied my confidence to my father without knowing it, a man who’d always been my guiding light and moral compass. Without him, I had to grow up once again, and figure out who I wanted to be. I’d like to say that I’m a confident person, and although I definitely seem to show it, sometimes I’m just pretending. People tell me I have good qualities and positive attributes. Some days I believe these people and the things they say, and some days I’m admittedly skeptical. I hope to one day quiet the voice in head that tells me I’m not good enough; after all, it’s only me. I hope that one day I’m able to see in myself the things others claim to see in me.