In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our society conveys the message that we should be a strong, confident person. We shouldn’t hesitate to grab what we want and express our views in a direct, forceful way. Being tentative, faltering, or uncertain earns us the reputation of being weak and indecisive. Assertiveness rules. Extraversion is prized. Humility is shameful.
Do we pay a hidden price in our quest to be uncompromisingly assertive and project an image of strength and confidence? Is it possible to become overconfident?
No doubt you’ve met people who dazzle you with their apparent self-confidence and assertiveness. They may even trigger feelings of insecurity in you, leaving you feeling envious toward their self-assured air and verbal communication skills. Turn on the news and it’s hard to avoid seeing politicians and pundits who appear to be super self-assured, who ruthlessly criticize and shame people who disagree with them.
Perhaps in your romantic life you’ve been drawn to confident individuals. But as you got to know them better, you might have realized that what looked like self-confidence turned out to be arrogance — a blustery cover-up for a hidden fear and fragility.
Hypnotized and fatally attracted by a person’s overconfidence, we might take a hard fall when we realize that their personality developed in way to compensate for poor self-worth and insecurity. Similar to a prominent politician whom many people love or hate, what appears to be a compelling capacity to sound good may turn out to be a person who is a polished and persuasive showman.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being confident. But oftentimes in life too much of one quality can leave us unbalanced and destabilized, especially when it’s designed to make up for character flaws or shortcomings.
Emotional Rigidity and Splitting
A mind that is already made up is a mind that is closed to new ideas and viewpoints. Overconfidence implies a mental and emotional rigidity. We think in black and white categories. We engage in psychological “splitting” — putting things in neat categories that offer some order and predictability to our lives. We think in extremes with no middle ground: you’re either with me or against me. You love me or hate me. We see people as either good or bad rather than realize that everyone, including ourselves, has some blend of positive and not-so-stellar qualities.
Such splitting is common when our inner life feels chaotic and unsettled, perhaps due to early trauma or feeling unsafe in our family of origin. Taken to an extreme, inflexible thinking and behavior might reflect a personality disorder (such as a borderline personality disorder). It is difficult to consider other viewpoints or empathize with people’s feelings.
Life isn’t as neatly ordered and predictable as we might like it to be. One sign of emotional and mental health is the capacity for flexibility and resilience, as well as a capacity to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. Acknowledging that we don’t know something or aren’t sure isn’t a sign of weakness. It takes a strong, secure person to declare “I just don’t know!” or “I’m not sure.”
Perhaps you’re a person who could use a dose of self-confidence. If you tend to be perfectionistic, you might hesitate to express your views or needs unless you’re 100% certain that you’re right or that it will go well. On the other hand, might you tend to project an image of confidence that is not congruent with reality? If so, perhaps take a step back the next time you express something with apparent confidence. Better yet, pause before you speak.
Check inside and bring some mindfulness to what you’re about to say. Does it resonate with your inner felt sense? Are you as certain about it as you think you are? Perhaps consider a softer tone that adds a dose of humility to your words, while making room for the ambiguity and uncertainty that is part of life.