The Age of Social Comparison: When Self-Involvement Makes You Unhappy

We live in an age of entitlement and self-involvement.  A Metra train conductor offered an example last summer:

I was taking tickets and the train was getting pretty crowded. I noticed a middle-aged lady standing near an empty seat. I could tell she was asking a young woman to move a package so she could sit. Apparently, to no avail. So, I walked over to smooth the situation over. The younger woman was gorgeous, maybe 25 or so, and attending to her phone, not the person hovering over her. When I asked her to move the stuff she ignored me. I tried again, same result: head down, as if I didn’t exist. OK, now I bent down so I was harder to ignore and told her she needed to let the woman sit; said the other person had a right to a seat. Finally she talks, in a kind of astonished and disrespectful voice, ‘You don’t understand, I’m beautiful!’

Does her beauty make her happier, I wondered? Are her gorgeous selfies (I’m sure she has a ton) the path to everlasting bliss? Taking them, making them, reviewing them, sharing them, comparing them?

The back-to-back hardships of the Great Depression (1929-1939) and World War II (1939-1945), contributed to a more modest and realistic view of a life worth living: a selfie-less and more selfless life. In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined a soon famous expression capturing something now lost and redefined, “that the American Dream of a better, richer, happier life (be available) for all our citizens of every rank.” Not fame or Midas-like wealth, but “enough” in the reach of all.

Granted, he didn’t include blacks in his vision, but at least his view was independent of constant social comparisons, Kardashianized aspirations, and the belief more is always better: a bigger residence, finer clothes, and social status. Where happiness is somehow attached to what you buy and the ability to turn heads until they swivel. Where college is intended not to enlighten you to the glorious natural world, man’s loftiest thoughts, and responsibility to his fellow creatures, but to learn enough technique to receive special treatment for you and your wallet.

I believe a good part of today’s unhappiness, not including the genuine want suffered by so many, is that a large number of those doing pretty-well want more and more with no end to their wanting. Want for themselves.

Perhaps no limit exists because there is always someone with more. We envy greater beauty, infinite wealth, a bigger house, a superior job when they are not ours. Envy assumes “my life would be better if only …” according to Joseph Epstein. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show people flaunting their prosperity. We know how much they make for a living, where they reside, and what cars they drive. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our desire and our frustration.

The question then becomes not how can I get more of what they have (and thereby grab on to more happiness), but does this path lead to my goal?

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provided data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that comparing ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction. “In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.’” Moreover, their subjects tended to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they made those comparisons to those below them.

Following the same logic, even if your wage increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within your comparison group (or unless your paycheck is relatively modest, as noted below). If all incomes go up without changing your rank you would be no happier.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified if it motivated people and led to the prosperity needed to unlock the door to serenity. The problem is, the key doesn’t work. Indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth. We rank 19th of the 34 OECD countries in the 2017 World Happiness Report.

Psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money your neighbor has won’t make your moment-to-moment experience of life much more pleasing unless your income was unexceptional in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel wrote:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it.”

Sound familiar? Similar to kids who are thrilled with their long yearned-for Christmas gifts, we adults put most new material acquisitions on the shelf or use them with little delight after a small passage of time. Warning: if shopping is the way you fill yourself up, this is your future.

The temporary “high” of a new purchase is diminished because of “hedonic adaptation.” Put simply, we get accustomed to things. The momentary excitement of the new possession soon wanes, like the smell of a new car.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested personal contentment would come from knowing yourself, performing social acts of virtue and public good, and friendship. Researchers now recognize the important part friendship, doing good, and being grateful can have on well-being.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction. He points to the capacity of productive and engaging work to produce a sense of “living in the moment:” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. This is called the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive experience. “In the zone” as athletes describe it. A different path to living in the moment, of course, is the mindfulness meditation of those master meditators who are among the happiest folks on earth.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether this is due to the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility individuals who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last point: data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are scheduling a therapy appointment already.

The top Foto is the work of Catarinasilva25 and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The four paintings also come from Wikimedia Commons and are described in this way on Wikipedia:

The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

For the New Year

Conventional New Year’s resolutions don’t interest me much. At least not before careful consideration. Here, then, are suggestions to help reconfigure your 2018 list. They fit with the notion of the road not taken; or the direction not discovered. They are ideas to apply to your resolution-making, not a set of 2018 goals themselves:

  • Slash the resolutions you’ve already made! The more things on the list, the less likely you will attend to any of them. Achieving one or two life changes is remarkable enough. By reducing the number, you must decide what is important to you. The exercise has value by itself. When you consider the rest of the items below, keep this in mind.
  • Challenge your intuitions. Research by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt suggests we quickly and intuitively come to our positions on matters as serious as politics and religion. According to Haidt, our brain acts as a kind of post hoc lawyer to defend instinct-driven moral beliefs and to fool us into thinking we reasoned out our convictions before arriving at them. Opening your mind to rejected ideas isn’t easy, but might enlighten you.
  • Don’t borrow trouble. Most of the things about which we worry never happen. Beyond taking proper precautions over what you control, worry is an anxiety-inducing waste. Yes, look both ways before you cross the street, plan your financial future, eat well and exercise, but don’t obsess. Consternation offers you nothing. Need help? Check out Craske and Barlow’s cognitive-behavioral program with your therapist or consider ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy).
  • Realize the road is not always comfortable. A good life depends, in part, on knowing rocky and smooth stretches are unpredictable, inevitable, and usually temporary; all part of the highway we travel. Years ago I asked a wise financial advisor, Rick Taft, “How do you think stocks will do in the New Year?” His answer? “The market will fluctuate.” We could just as easily describe the inconstant fate awaiting us as an unavoidable fluctuation. No matter how smart you are, Fortuna (the Roman goddess of luck) spins her wheel. Good emotional shock absorbers are essential. Failures and tears add to the richness of our existence, however much you and I wish they could be avoided. You can learn from them, but only if you reflect on your life and keep a mirror handy for an occasional self-inspection.
  • Whose life are you living? The one you want or the one designed to make people love you and accept you? Evolution led our ancestors to concern themselves with reputation. Those who did increased their chances of survival and mating success. Like a number of the qualities evolution “selected for,” a preoccupation with public opinion can drive us crazy. Happiness is not the aim of evolution, only passing on your genes to a new generation. Once again, you might need to fight instinctive tendencies if you wish more than an average measure of satisfaction. Anticipation of the world’s disapproval leads one to display a false self and worry about being unmasked. Remember, this is your life (not theirs), and tuning out some of the voices who criticize is part of creating a strong and resilient personality.
  • Relationships are the most fulfilling thing on the planet. Try to have some! (Oops. I offered a goal).
  • Research suggests generosity to others is more fulfilling than spending your nickles on yourself. Similarly, experiences will offer more pleasure and more satisfying memories (say, of a vacation) than things like an attention-getting sweater or a hot car. Think back. Do you feel warm inside as you remember the set of wheels you had 10 years ago? I don’t need to think hard: until three years ago I was still driving the well-used car I bought in 2000! More on how to get from here to happiness from Daniel Gilbert:

It is said that “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Not always, but often. Just so, maturity is achieved by surviving life challenges plus the passage of time, with some learning thrown in, of course. I’m not suggesting disappointment and mistreatment are equally distributed among us, but each of us knows suffering and, fair or not, it is in our interest to learn from the bad breaks.

All the above considered, here are ideas to push your sail boat off the dock and into the fresh waters of the New Year:

  • It is not that you have done wrong (you have), but whether you do more and more good.
  • It is not that you fall, but whether you get up.
  • It is not that you are a victim, but whether you are a survivor.
  • It is not that you make mistakes (you will), but whether you learn from them.
  • It is not that you get angry, but whether you get over it.
  • It is not that friends and lovers disappoint you, but whether you still believe in friendship and love.
  • It is not that you erred, but whether you took responsibility.
  • It is not that you take life seriously, but whether you also recognize its laughable absurdity.
  • It is not that you’ve forgotten what’s been lost, but whether you are grateful for what you have.
  • It is not that you see life’s ugliness, but whether you seek its beauty.

To close, the following old words from the nineteenth-century Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, seem right for 2018:

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends and soften us to our enemies. Give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death loyal and loving to one another.”

What We Do in Private: the Story of a Good Man

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

By that standard none of us receive a perfect score. Worse still, we live in a historical moment in which the highest officials in our country don’t even pass the daily public tests. But this story is about someone who did pass. Hearing about him might allow the rest of us to take heart that virtue is still found in quiet places, where a person is willing to give up something great for something good. Where no audience will ever know.

The tale came from an unremarkable man. He was in his late 40s, a guy who blended into the crowd and had a pretty dreadful middle-management job. Not an assertive fellow. His wife had hen-pecked him into submission, inheriting the role passed to her by his parents. You could almost see the peck-marks, the little dents on his flesh. I once asked him about his sex-life and he laughed while rolling his eyes in a way that revealed he hadn’t had sex in a decade or more. If you knew about the less-than-satisfying marriage, you might have told him to “man up.”

Let’s call him T.

T was a religious person, a bloke who took his faith seriously, even if he relied too much on Jesus’s message, “the meek … shall inherit the earth.” Still, he was bright, companionable, and funny. He considered himself Republican in the old style sense of fiscal and religious conservatism, but had friends among Democrats. One other notable quality possessed by T: he knew more obscure baseball statistics than anyone I knew or know.

If you believe a good man is hard to find, he might be your guy. Or not. Too easy, too timid, too unmade and overmatched by some of the challenges of life. Like many in my generation, the Great Depression through which his parents lived left their only son with a tendency toward economy. Not rich, T drove a high-mileage, well-kept car, up in its years. He did much of the maintenance himself. A polyester kind of soul, but not without talent.

T occasionally employed a local handyman to do odd jobs around his home and another property he inherited when his folks died. The worker was a casual acquaintance, not one invited for dinner or coffee. Not even a person T talked baseball with. Just someone T knew and called if work presented itself. By T’s observation, the fellow wasn’t the best jobber, but good enough and available enough and needed the work. In other words, no one special.

Our hero heard the man was in the midst of economic difficulties. I could tell you T was always selfless, but I don’t think so. Yet, on this occasion, he did something pretty remarkable. He counted out $714 (baseball fans will recognize the number*) in fifties and twenties, a ten and four singles; enveloped the bills, walked over to the handyman’s place on a day he was out being handy, and put the money-laden wrapper in the mail box. No message, no name, no return address. He did not want to embarrass the tradesman or make an offer that might be rejected. T needed no thanks or congratulations or celebration of his good deed. He did not expect to know what happened to the cash. Helping another was the end of the story for him. I found out only in passing because I was his therapist. I’m sure T told no one else, including his wife.

We live in a time when every act of greed or self-interest can be rationalized. Where too many “know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” to quote Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic. The yellow-fellow on top doesn’t ask, “What would Jesus do?” Or Muhammad or Moses or the Buddha or any other prophet or deity or role-model than the god he makes of himself and his wallet. No, he is not the creature you hoped your sister would marry, your daughter would date.

We Americans are said to be a charitable people, but charity too often applies only to those of our religion, our party, our tribe. Virtue signaling – trumpeting our piety or generosity – masks the misdeeds we do elsewhere. I guess it has always been so.

Research tells us people tend to look at some others as objects, the homeless for example. We hide ourselves in social fortresses of like-minded contacts who hate the people we hate (if we still consider them human) and praise the folks we like. No new thoughts are permitted, no doubts allowed, and “virtue” takes the form of rage and self-congratulations.

But when I begin to despair of the human condition, I turn my remembered gaze upon T: the most average of men, the most extraordinary of men.

He and others I can name offer me hope. He is not perfect and he would not tell you he did anything special. Just what any good person would do.

Thanks, T.

You gave me something, too.

Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The sheet music cover photo of a once popular song dates from 1918.

*The number of home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career.

Is Erotic Transference Ever the Thing We Call Love?

Erotic transference is troublesome. Counselors are trained to view its occurrence in one way only: a counterfeit of real love. Sexual feelings toward the therapist are pathologized, made into a kind of specimen for microscopic examination rather than something more basic. Is there another way? Are a patient’s affection and desire for the counselor ever no different than the early stages of romance? Perhaps we therapists go too far in making something unusual of a thing we might otherwise call love.

For those unfamiliar with the topic, I’d suggest you read my 2015 essay before proceeding. The psychoanalytic view of erotic transference refers to its infantile nature, an unrealistic and intense quality of “wanting” presumably not found in other romantic attachments. The contrast with non-clinical love is emphasized more than the likeness.

What I wrote in 2015 reflected the field’s accumulated wisdom and the observations of countless practitioners who recognized the amorous gaze of the patient across the room: the look that signaled “I only have eyes for you.” The allegedly misplaced affection is a common therapeutic occurrence, marked down because of its commonness and the clinician’s need to guide the process toward a therapeutic end, not a romantic one.

I am not talking about the extreme of erotic transference, where desire becomes obsession and stalking. Within the less acute expression of feelings, however, I would include those patients who profess their love (or keep it secret), say their genitals lubricate (or, for men, become erect) in session; offer themselves in words, dress to seduce, and bring suggestive gifts to the doctor. All these happened in my practice. They happen in every practice.

More than rejection frustrates such clients. They can feel discounted, their yearning made into another treatment issue to be worked on, worked through, and worked-over. They are told their emotions will likely disappear even if those stirrings are the most enlivening experience in their lifetime. The therapist’s intellectualization of the heart-throb and heartache makes the matter of the client’s heart a conundrum for the doctor’s head. The patient and practitioner then operate in two universes: the former feeling the issue, the latter thinking about it, unless he reciprocates the patient’s sentiments.

My profession considers erotic transference a kind of mistaken identity due to your history and because of the nature of treatment. A sensitive and wise healer gives all his attention, looks in your eyes, and accepts you without judging. You know little about his personal life. You automatically infer qualities in him for which you have no evidence, unconsciously imagining he is like the loving parent you never had (for example). He seems to fill a vast, cavernous, lonely gap in your heart. All true, but not so different from other infatuations.

Perhaps we would do better to recognize that love often depends on what we don’t know about the other, not only what we do. How many people understand the partner well before they fall in love? Many questions have not been asked – may never be asked and answered by words or observation. This is true in the extreme for young people, where the right questions are not yet known. They do not even know themselves. Hormones rule the day.

Counselors also should admit – especially in this day of therapists’ websites describing their practices, listing credentials and schools attended, and maybe even including a blog (!) – that we aren’t the blank slates we believe ourselves to be. Unless seated behind the reclining patient’s pillowed head, we have always had a physical presence, tone of voice, a smile, laughter, and movement. No, the client is not dealing with a shadow or computerized speech.

In almost all fresh attractions, aren’t the fantasy, the newness, and imagination what it means to be in any romantic, early-stage love? Throw in uncertainty, idealization and physical urging. These are among the most magical and wondrous qualities of romance. Over the long haul it can be argued that loyalty, devotion, kindness, respect, similar interests, proportion, compatible values, pulling together, and shared experience are more important, but they do not send a shiver down the spine.

Devotion does not levitate, no matter however precious and essential.

Therapists are not the only people about whom one experiences transference (or stimulus generalization). Has not a new person reminded you of someone else in your past? Think for a moment:

  • Bosses, teachers, the next door neighbor.
  • The neighborhood bully, father and mother figures.
  • Political leaders.
  • Mentors, the people we instinctively dislike, and those we are automatically drawn to.

If I am right, the therapeutic management of transference requires a different kind of sympathy, more recognition for the genuine nature of what is in the patient’s heart and the sensual pulse in her being. This will be difficult for the therapist, rather like dealing with someone who says “I love you” outside the controlled atmosphere of his sealed-off office; with its sex-discouraging moat, doctor-patient ethical boundaries, and the requirement of therapeutic distance.

All this suggests that the process of her “getting-over” erotic transference may not only be a matter of uncovering the mistaken identity nature of feelings more properly attached to other people and earlier times, and releasing emotions derived from past relationships. The unrequited love then demands grieving not unlike other lost loves. Perhaps such grief-work can only be managed with a different therapist, although – one hopes – after the remaining treatment goals have been accomplished.

Though many counselors know better, those who believe the mistaken identity only happens in the office need to think again. The same patient who falls for you might already have fallen for others who reminded her of a loved one, with as little ability to look past the transferential aura to the truth of who her partner really was.

One more thought. Should therapists give a written warning to all their new clients?


If you are laughing for more than a few seconds, begin reading again at the top.

The first (undated) photo, School Cafeteria, was taken by the Adolph B. Rice Studios and comes from the Library of Virginia. The following picture of Swimmers Annette Kellerman and C.M. Daniels was taken in 1907 by G.G. Bain and is the property of the Library of Congress. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Don Byrd’s Concerto and the Courage to Make Music

Would you travel 500 miles back-and-forth to experience 30-minutes of music by an obscure composer? You might if the musician had dreamed about the piece for 50-years and his name was Donald Byrd; and if he almost died in the middle of its creation. Five friends, my wife, and I were present along with many who traveled much farther; grateful for Don’s life force, his friendship, and his art.

Don was well-into writing his Violin Concerto – a piece for soloist and orchestral accompaniment – when, in January, 2015 …

I’d been having moderate pain in my left hip off and on for months, and nothing seemed to make any difference. Then it got worse, and I returned to my sports-medicine doctor. He thought I just needed a shot of cortisone, but had me get an MRI. Much to our surprise, the report came back stamped ‘CRITICAL UNEXPECTED POSITIVE FINDINGS’: cancer. A week later, I had a definite diagnosis: stage 2 multiple myeloma. The prognosis was pretty good from the beginning; the treatment plan was chemo, possibly followed by a stem-cell transplant. Well, I responded exceptionally well to the chemo — so well my oncologist wasn’t sure I needed the transplant, but I went ahead anyway … and wrote the middle-section of the last movement in the hospital; I think the cancer mostly helped me focus on completing the damn thing; I really didn’t like the thought of dying before finishing it! The illness also gave me time to concentrate on it, since I couldn’t work much on my normal stuff.

Notice the matter-of-factness in Don’s account? Few of us would have been as resilient or optimistic. Few would have reframed the crisis as a spur to reach a goal.

Rumors claimed, back at Chicago’s Mather High School in the 1960s, that Don Byrd was a genius. What none of us, his fellow classmates, then realized, was that he was more remarkable for his courage. And, as you will read, some other things, too.

Master Byrd is a man who remembers those who helped along the way. A 1990 conversation with a Princeton professor, J. K. Randall, moved him from dreaming to doing:

I told him I wanted to create a violin concerto, but didn’t know how (despite having composed other, less ambitious pieces). He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Well, you’d better write it before you find out!’

Still, another five years passed before Don put any notes down. “Thus, you could say the composition took me only 20-years!”

By profession, Don is an informatics expert at Indiana University (Bloomington) – an aspect of information engineering – and one of the founders of the field of music information retrieval. For those of us less steeped in technology, however, his other interests are fascinating, too:

I’m a certified teacher and lover of t’ai chi. I’m a member of the local Quaker Meeting (“meeting” is the Quaker equivalent of church), and I often accompany hymn singing for the Meeting on the piano. I’m an avid but lazy road bike rider. I like physically challenging and dangerous activities: way back when, flying a plane, riding a motorcycle, exploring caves, swimming across a lake alone at night (and I’m not a good swimmer); more recently, rock climbing, mountaineering, and sky diving (the latter only once, on my doctor’s advice). I’m concerned about American society these days and especially its polarization, and over the years I’ve published dozens of letters to the editor and two or three guest columns, the vast majority in the Bloomington paper.

Based on Don’s daring physical activities, you might think of him as an athletic he-man. He is a small fellow (5’3″) except in his heart. There he is a giant.

As mentioned earlier, people came to the September 24th concert from long distances. Among them was a high school friend named Paul Nadler, an international symphony and opera conductor, who directed the performance. Others included the estimable violin soloist, Madalyn Parnas. Friends and colleagues of Don’s traveled from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area, Philadelphia, Florida, Georgia, New York, Michigan, Alabama, and Chicago. Generosity, too, came from three of the orchestra members and his buddy, Paul, who gave their services gratis.

How to explain this devotion? I asked the question of Doug McKenna, who himself journeyed from Colorado: “Don Byrd is a very loyal person and he inspires loyalty in others.” Many of these folks met the composer in school or became colleagues in the early part of his professional career. Some had not seen him for decades.

One might add something else. Many are, like Don, no longer young, except perhaps in attitude. We all knew the event was not to be taken for granted. The good vibe in the concert venue was enough to float the audience of about 150 people out the door. Lots of smiles and a tear or two. Jealous composers or something else?

We never get to hear eulogies for ourselves, of course, and Don Byrd – thank goodness – didn’t either. Yet, early in his battle against cancer, one could have bet a eulogy was more probable than a performance. My guess is that in Don’s worst moments, his wife Susan Schneider and their children would have gratefully given up the completion of the Violin Concerto for a guarantee of more time. Probably even just the shortening of treatment. But, the maestro survived and his magnum opus was performed. Their grown kids, Alec and Torrey, witnessed it, too.

In this month of children’s holiday dreams, prayers, and guardian angels, we all try to get beyond the world’s dark side.

Don Byrd, his spirit, and his music make that a little bit easier for some of us.

Sometimes dreams do come true.

The concert program and program notes:

Also, before the performance, Don gave a short talk about the concerto, with musical examples played (with hardly any advance notice) by pianist Justin Bartlett. Unfortunately, only the second half or so was recorded, but that recording is here:

Independent of the video, the concert was recorded by a professional audio engineer. An MP3 of his recording is here:

PDFs of the scores of each of the three movements (slightly out-of-date) are at:

1st mvmt:
2nd mvmt:
3rd mvmt:

Read more about Don here:

Twenty Signs of Confidence: the Other Side of Insecurity

Over 200,000 of you have read my essay, Signs of Insecurity, one of my first blog posts. Might you want to determine if you are more secure than you were? I offer 20 signs of confidence. Though I begin with one on the lighter side, the discourse is no joke:

  • Getting over how you look, as much as any of us can. This is easier for a man to say, and essential for a bald one, including yours truly. I don’t mean you ought not be presentable. Dress well if you can afford it and care to. Exercise and eat right for the sake of health, fitness, and energy – you bet. Just give up on the comb-over, dressing as if you are 18 when you are 55, and resign from the competition with your earlier self and the gorgeous young people sprouting like weeds you wish you could eradicate. Accept your appearance until you obtain your next driver’s license photo and scream, “Oh, no!”
  • Keeping eye contact. I’m not talking about a zombie gape or an effort to intimidate, although the “Stein Stare” – as my kids call it – is handy on occasion. You’ll learn more if you can recognize “who’s there” in the eyes of the other, make human contact, and display tenderness. And sometimes you will be dismayed to discover your counterpart’s “lights are on, but no one is home.”
  • Making difficult phone calls. I agree email is easier. But if someone wants you to call, you do this, even if fearful of rejection or otherwise uncomfortable.
  • You are open to your mistakes and learn from them. A wise friend (Henry Fogel) told me, “I try to make new mistakes.” In other words, he wished to avoid repeating the old ones.
  • The ability to give competent business presentations and speeches. This means you practice and present enough to become competent.
  • Doing hard things solo, without hand holding. Travel, for example. Eating by yourself at a nice restaurant. Going to a professional meeting alone and talking to strangers. The same with parties. If you are introverted, you still won’t love group events, but will manage them when necessary.
  • You can tell a story or a joke. Again, you will do better with practice. You laugh at yourself, too.
  • Making difficult choices with a minimum of procrastination and regret. While a few decisions take time, routinely you study them, get the consultation you need, and choose. Most should be possible on your own. No free lunch, however, when the alternatives are both desirable or both bad. Still, you only stay on the high wire for so long, between one place and another.
  • Not taking criticism to heart or attacking the critic as a matter of course. Nor do you believe all the negative evaluation you receive. You choose to listen only to those you respect or who possess a particular expertise; and, the ones who are dear: whose intimacy, happiness, and goodness you value. When you screw up, you admit it.
  • Giving bad news, if possible, face-to-face. I am including here romantic rejections (unless you are dealing with a stalker), job terminations, and saying “no” to those who implore you (say, for a loan or money to buy drugs) when a “no” may seem heartless. Being able to say “no” is crucial, lest “takers” suck the life out of you.

Take a breath. Here are the second ten:

  • Possessing the courage to “risk” in spite of everything. A confident person can sometimes (not always) reframe a crisis as an opportunity. Both the Stoics and 20th century theologian/philosopher Paul Tillich recognized the hardship and pain of life, but tell us we must embrace those evils nonetheless in pursuit of its riches.  The alternative is to turn away or hide; and, thereby reduce our existence to living behind a barricade.
  • You make your way without excess apology. State opinions with tact, but strength. Reflect upon yourself to know what you value, then live those values. You do not sacrifice your interests solely for approval, to please others, or to assuage guilt.
  • You do not crave the spotlight, but you can show leadership. Success is shared with coworkers who also contribute.
  • Being up to most situations, in control of yourself most of the time, not shaking in your boots. You avoid avoidance, remind yourself (except in true extremity) that worse things have happened and you will survive the present moment if it is fraught.
  • Because you accept who you are, you don’t spend inordinate time downing yourself internally or to others. You affirm your positive qualities more than you kick yourself.
  • Expressing and receiving love. You make friends and permit some of those friends to see the vulnerable part of you. Hurt cannot be avoided, but in your openness you will find the greatest opportunity for joy.
  • You master your nerves. The recently deceased opera singer, Carol Neblett, said, “Of course I have nerves. Anyone who doesn’t have nerves is a fool.” Not quite, but many of the greatest performers do. Johnny Carson, legendary Tonight Show host, claimed he never went on stage to give his monologue without nervousness. The trick is to proceed despite your fear, as he did.
  • Taking opportunities. Rather than being self-effacing, waiting to be called upon, you recognize enough of your strengths to say “yes” to those chances that reveal themselves, and creatively seek the dimly lit openings unseen by others, neither overestimating nor diminishing your capacity to succeed. You are assertive. Studs Terkel understood. He signed off from each of his WFMT interview shows with the words, “Take it easy, but take it.”
  • You don’t have to be right. In entering conversations you listen a good deal, considering the arguments that might cause you to amend your view. You do not let pride or insecurity take over and demand you “win.” You identify an exchange of ideas as an opportunity to learn, not triumph.
  • Affirming your truest, enduring, most genuine self. You possess knowledge of qualities in yourself needful of alteration, but embrace those aspects of your being essential to you – essential to your nature. These inform you who you must be when you are most true to yourself. This requires courage, as Paul Tillich tells us. You are then like an early spring robin singing his song. He can do no other. Those who live by suppressing, denying, or hiding their essence inflict a terrible injury upon themselves: self-alienation or self-estrangement.  As Oscar Wilde put it (tongue in cheek): “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Please take the listed items as aspirational, rather than expected or required. I realize accepting yourself and improving yourself are ideas in contradiction, but confidence allows for both. I’ve witnessed it. No one is secure in every situation, every moment, except for a few people too foolish to recognize they are lost at sea.

I’m “confident” you own a paddle even if you are on the water. How do I know? Because, if you have read this far, you are already a thoughtful person.

A good start.

The top image is A Beautiful, Self-confident Woman by Hno. Oscar Galo Artista plastico Picassiano. The second one is a Study of a Nude Man (The Strong Man) by Thomas Eakins. Both come from Wikimedia Commons.

Breaking the Heart of One You Love

My mother said some memorable things. “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?” was among her greatest hits. Another was borrowed from Groucho Marx: in the middle of a less than scintillating party, she might utter, “I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.” Quietly, of course.

Mrs. Stein proclaimed one habitual belief I never quite understood: “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” I gather she was being dismissive of those who looked back in sadness. Though I never took the statement to heart, I regret little about my lucky life. One old sorrow sticks with me, however.

Breaking the heart of a loved one is never harder than when the one is seven-years-old.

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps didn’t recognize just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I valued, however, was her trust in me. Before I answered, I decided I ought not break her trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still envision her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

This was not the last time I caused pain to someone I love, but was the first time I remember doing so to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was a Socratic dialogue possible — a perfect sequence of questions leading her to the same truth without hurting her so much?

A change of the subject, perhaps, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have lied? “Of course Santa exists, Sweetie.” And then left her open to potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book, Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen path for a while, before you realize your selection isn’t quite as good as you hoped. “I probably should have gone the other way.”

No matter which road you chose, “the persistence of the possible” is present. Nothing in life is perfect, but in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind – in the world of abstraction and fantasy – does perfection reside: the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life no ideal solution is available, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. We never know the alternative from lived experience, nor return to the moment; because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the passage of time, the river changed and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heartbreaks when they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain whether a different road would have made all the difference or none at all.

One can only accept the terms life allows. The metaphorical contract we sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at birth grants no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered on the near-Christmas day; not just about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think back, it isn’t knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, but from the pain of life itself.

Such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also be compensated by beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.


The second image is of a Young Ashaninka Girl in an Apiwtxa Village, Acre State, Brazil. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the work of Pedro Franca/Ministry of Culture. This post is a reworking of one I wrote several years ago.