Self-Confidence is an Oxymoron

I’ve noticed that confident people tend to focus less on themselves and more on their outside environment. If you have polished public speaking skills, you don’t think about getting nervous or being embarrassed. Instead you’re focused on the audience and the content of your speech. I’d argue that self-confidence is an oxymoron because total confidence means a lack of self.

If you see confidence as an absence of self, I believe it’s easier to avoid some of the pitfalls that come with the advice to “be confident”.

Is Confidence Important?

I have doubts that complete confidence is the answer. Yes, there may be some psychological benefits to believing you’re without flaws, but there are some dangerous consequences.

Arrogance can catch up to you and unrestrained confidence can cause you to misjudge plans and take unnecessary risks. The Sydney Opera House is a famous case of overconfidence. The project was originally expected to cost $7 million and finish in 1963. Ten years and 95 million dollars overbudget, the project was finally completed in 1973.

Humility can have advantages too. When you’re open to your own potential weaknesses and mistakes, you can seek to improve them. Too much confidence can stop improvement.

Arrogance is Low Self-Esteem

Bragging is usually a sign that you lack confidence in your abilities. If you feel the need to tell everyone how great you are, that is probably because you’re worried they won’t find out on their own. Arrogance can often just be a pendulum swing away from low self-esteem.

I feel this is part of the reason the advice to be confident never stuck with me. When you see that overconfidence is usually a symptom of the same disease, it becomes hard to believe that more confidence is the answer.

But if we redefine confidence to mean being so comfortable with your abilities that you don’t need to think about yourself, it takes a completely different perspective. From this outlook, you are neither boasting or self-bashing. You aren’t worried about yourself so 100% of your energy is devoted to the problem and people around you.

Generally I’ve thought of confidence as being on a scale with low self esteem on one end and arrogance on the other. Perhaps it would be better to see it as a grid, with a second dimension which resembles your level of comfort with your own abilities. This level of comfort doesn’t lie about your strengths and weaknesses, it just accepts them so completely you stop worrying about you and can focus on more important things.


I’m calling this extra dimension “true confidence” but that’s just a label. The concept, not the labels I use, are what matters.

Cultivating True Confidence and Breaking Bad Advice

From a rational perspective, any attempt to deceive yourself into thinking you’re worse or better than you actually are is dangerous. You might take costly risks or become unnecessarily cautious, depending on how you’re biased. How does this fit with the advice to “be confident”?

I think the answer lies in tweaking how you define confidence. When you see confidence as being this second dimension, it begins to make more sense. Now, instead of seeing yourself as horrible or excellent, you stop thinking about yourself at all. Everything becomes focused on the situation and environment.

I can remember hearing advice from someone that if you wanted to be incredibly social you had to “get outside your head”. When you spend your time thinking about “you” rather than just getting out there, you end up standing alone in a corner. Extroverts might have a mastery at this “getting outside your head” for social situations, but the same idea applies to every area of life.

When I write, I try to put complete emphasis on the article itself. Thinking about myself, my issues, some negative comment I received or even positive feedback is detrimental to the article. Only when I stop thinking about “me” and focus on the idea I want to cover does the writing become easy.

Cultivating this true confidence isn’t easy. There aren’t any tricks, just practice and building skills. But at least if you have a picture about what total confidence looks like, it is easier to improve.

Thought Ratio as a Measure of Confidence

I’ve noticed that the areas of my life where I’m least confident, are the ones I have wildly swinging self-oriented beliefs. When I lack confidence about something, I’ll sway from feeling mildly depressed about it to manically positive.

This pendulum swing doesn’t make much sense if you view confidence as being a linear scale. But it makes perfect sense if you see that both of these directions (feeling too good about yourself or being too hard on yourself) are symptoms of a low level of true confidence on this extra axis.

A good way to see your measure along this axis is to ask yourself how much time you spending thinking in a self-judging fashion. The judgment might be positive (“I’m great”) or bad (“I suck”). When your thoughts are mostly self-absorbed, that’s probably a sign you need to build true confidence.

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  • JayCruz

    I’ve been listening to The Now Habit audiobook. The theme is about procrastination, but your idea of true confidence reminded of one the author’s strategy to overcome procrastination. He talks about the fear of failure and the way it keeps us stuck in inaction. And that fear of failure is more than just failing at any particular task or project. Its that all encompassing fear of failing as a human being and letting affect your self worth.

    So I guess another way to look a true self confidence is knowing you’ll probably fail at something, but not letting it affect your self worth.

  • Robert A. Henru

    As many people said, humility is not thinking less about yourself, it’s thinking about yourself less.

    Scott, this paragraph struck me very much…
    “When I write, I try to put complete emphasis on the article itself. Thinking about myself, my issues, some negative comment I received or even positive feedback is detrimental to the article. Only when I stop thinking about “me” and focus on the idea I want to cover does the writing become easy.”

    Thank you so much, this article inspired me to change how I write! Too much thinking about me makes me afraid to write, I’m not productive, my schedule messed up, and I even feel worse about myself. True confidence is thinking about ourselves less.


  • Kali


  • Scott Young

    Thanks Robert,

    It isn’t easy to control this “true confidence” but I think if you realize what it is, you have a better chance. Once you realize that thinking about yourself is detrimental to your performance (good or bad) it’s easier to emphasize thoughts that move you towards your subject and away from yourself.


  • Darren

    I see where you’re coming from, I really do. But I think it’s a wee bit over-analytical.

    “Complete confidence” is, to me, the total understanding of exactly where you stand: both what you can and can’t do. “Overconfidence” is misrepresenting your abilities to yourself — believing that you can do what you cannot do. I do agree that overconfidence is often something that results from over correcting for “under-confidence” (aka low self esteem) — believing that you can’t do what you really can.

  • Scott Young


    Everything I write could be classified as a wee bit over-analytical. 😉


  • Jeremy

    How are you so smart? This is all so true. Just this morning I was wondering why I always swing from crazy fanatical overconfidence to critical and depressing underconfidence. It all makes sense. Thanks for the great post.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks Jeremy

  • Jennifer

    A really thought provoking article, Scott.

    I’m not sure I completely agree with your views on confidence, but you really have me thinking … Thank you!

    However, I wholeheartedly and absolutely agree with your take on the best way to get over your own “issues” is to get outside yourself.
    That’s the key to wealth, to social confidence, to success in any fashion.

    It reminds me of a quote I once heard: “most people sit around waiting for the world to give to them, while the world waits for them to give”.

  • Ses

    Alot of people with no self confidence have achieved great things. look at Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, they are individual with insecurity problems but they made a good out of it, by using all their pain and emotion on their music.