Monday, May 6, 2013 | 2 a.m.
I recently asked readers to give me their feedback about questions having to do with self-confidence: Are women still less self-confident than men? Do we have more to fear from overconfidence or underconfidence?
I’ve read a mountain of responses, and my first reaction is awe at the diversity of the human experience. I went looking for patterns in this survey. Were younger people more likely to say women are self-confident than older people?
But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there. Let me just string together some of the interesting points people made.
Many men wrote to say that the real crisis these days is male underconfidence. Here’s a law student from Chicago: “I firmly believe one of the unintended consequences of the feminist revolution has been that men in my generation are raised without a strong self-identity and, in essence, grow up to be little more than boys looking for mothers.”
A few women wrote that family dynamics were the sources of their underconfidence. One 58-year-old mom wrote that mothers “might as well have had, as a friend of mine puts it, ‘our vocal cords cut.’ We want to talk in nice voices and stay calm and sit down and have a heart-to-heart. Our children want the five-minute version — direct, to the point. They come back at anything we say with smart remarks that knock the wind out of our sails.”
More women wrote about conflicts with other women than about conflicts with men. One retired Army officer wrote, “Girls and women are highly critical of any other girl or woman who exhibits confidence. Men, on the whole, do not ‘shut down’ women who are intelligent and confident, but women do.”
One small-business owner put it this way: “I have enjoyed a lot of professional success because I do not present a threat to other women. They trust me and attach to me and stay bonded because I pay so little attention to appearances, dress and style — theirs or mine. My strategy, if at all deliberate, was to become ‘invisible’ and pass gently through the world as wallpaper, leading as a border collie rather than an alpha dog.”
Mallory Shaddix theorized that men and women may suffer equally from underconfidence, but they present this trait differently. Men are more likely to bluff their way through. Women are more likely to be skeptical, ask advice or be passive. Betsy Frank observed that if you create a confidence scale from “none” to “hubris,” there seems to be more people at the extremes now than in decades past.
A few experienced coaches noted that when you criticize a team or group, the women are more likely to take the criticism personally while the guys are more likely to figure somebody else is at fault.
I was struck by the dappled nature of self-confidence, as people transmogrify from high self-confidence to low. One political consultant wrote, “I am 71, am loving the last chapter of a very successful life and would say I have a great deal of self-confidence. Yet, sometimes it’s as if I have suddenly become invisible — a short gray-haired woman of a certain age can become a blur, especially to powerful older men and to young women who never suspect they will get old.”
A journalist from Utah writes: “I’m an overweight woman, but I feel robust. And I know people like to hug and cuddle me because my body is, as they say ‘comfortable.’ (I sometimes say ‘plush.’) I know I don’t look good in shorts, but I don’t hate myself for it. I choose to wear dresses that are more flattering, and I walk with confidence instead of despair.”
One of the calmest letters came from Carol Collier, who works at Covenant College. She wrote: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven and covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I believe that this is how God sees me, all the time and without exception. I believe that his smile and delight in me is unwavering. This view of myself is quite simple yet with profound implications. It allows me to accept criticism without self-condemnation and to accept affirmations without exalting myself. This is the ideal view of myself that I am always working at. It is a struggle, but a good one.”
I’ll try to harvest more social trends later. But, in the meantime, I’m struck by how hard it is to have the right mix of self-confidence and self-criticism without some external moral framework or publicly defined life calling. If it’s just self-appraisal — one piece of your unstable self judging another unstable piece — it’s subjectivity all the way down.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.