Ego Analysis of Confidence and Courage

The mistake people make about confidence, and life in general, is about shame.  They are living from an orientation that they can’t be afraid.  

The ego analysis of this condition is so shallow that it is deep.  If you don’t want to be afraid it means you think it is bad to be so.  So to be afraid means that you are bad.  They are ashamed of being afraid.  They don’t want others to know they are afraid because they think it is weak, bad or crazy to be afraid about whatever it is they are dealing with.  (As an aside, there may be little difference between excitement and anxiety other than how you relate to them.)

Your fear is ego-dystonic if you don’t want it to be true about yourself.  You are trapped in this sense invisibly by the language signification of the problem:

  • You don’t want it to be true about yourself
  • Therefore it is true
  • You identify with the disavowal

You also don’t want others to know it about you.  This is just as bad since this again carries the presupposition that it is true.  It can seem like there is no way out.  There are three solutions, as I see it: Accepting the truth, fighting the truth, or desiring the truth.

The depressive solution here is to accept the spoiled identity of lacking confidence and believe that you are inferior.  This leads to resentiment.  You can blame and look down on people who are phony, or blame and resent people who have undermined your confidence.  You can appeal to medical and evolutionary explanations.

The narcissistic solution is to deny the shame as noted above and try to get by on convincing others you aren’t afraid.  The unspoken logic goes that if you convince other people you are not afraid then somehow their reaction will eventually transform the fear itself.  This is the “fake it ’till you make it” perspective.

You wind up fighting reality, and by extension yourself and others, living a series of superficial behaviors and manipulations to try and prove that it isn’t true.  If you can successfully fake it, you may relieve your anxiety about it to the point it doesn’t matter.  But you are still always at risk of feeling bad about yourself, or feeling like a phony.

There is a way out of all this that can leave you born again.  The mistake is fundamental and it exists in the belief that you just can’t be afraid.  This belief hides shame.  The resistance to feelings of inferiority can spawn endless searching and striving.

What if you wanted other people to know you are afraid so that they would know you are being courageous?  What if you yourself were not threatened by fear, but indeed wanted to be afraid, too, because you wanted others to know you were courageous?  Isn’t that confidence?

The way out is pride.  You can’t see it because of shame, and you can’t experience your shame directly because much of what we all do is designed to hide it from each other.

We do this from a superstition so deep that we have built the world around it.  That superstition is identity – part of which means that if you feel something, you are something.  If you feel inferior, you are inferior.  That is why shame becomes invisible.  Again this is a trap of language, the infinite regress of signified concepts.

To want to be better means that you really are worse.  

The desire to be know as you are can help you live the experience that you really aren’t anything but desire and experience.  And what you’ll experience is the freedom and pride of being, living your experienced feelings, not a relationship to a concept.

So repeat after me:  The truth is I’m afraid. I’m ashamed of being afraid and I worry you won’t take me seriously if you know that I have doubts and insecurities about what I’m saying.  This matters to me because I care about you, and I care about what I’m doing.  So, now that you know this, let’s get on with things, shall we?

The key is that you can learn to want to be afraid.  Once you can want to be afraid the sting is gone.  Your challenge in life is to find something worth being afraid of, something worth being ashamed about.

The reason you would want to feel ashamed is so you can have pride and self respect.  If you’re looking for the trace of your shame I’ll give you a hint, it’s grief.

Of your fear say, I will it thus!  You may discover all along that the only thing you were ashamed of was living a lie, which can stop at any moment.

8 thoughts on “Ego Analysis of Confidence and Courage”

  1. The stronger the harm to the ego, the more quickly one destroys the ego. Without ego, there is bodhicitta, and when there is bodhicitta, one creates so much merit and that leads one to generate wisdom quickly. Then one can accumulate the two causes, and achieve enlightenment. That is the purpose of being alive. It is what makes life meaningful.

  2. Good post, as usual. Although I think this one could have benefited from the use of some kind of concrete story or example to use as a vessel to demonstrate the more abstract ideas. One of Nietzsche’s rules on writing is worth noting on this point:

    “The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.”

    While I understood what you wrote for the most part, I think you would benefit greatly from taking this advice.

    One thing in this post that I’m not quite clear on is the connection you make between fear and shame. Going into this piece, I assumed that the fear associated with shame was the specific fear of being shamed, not fear itself. You seem to make the connection that being afraid at all is what is shameful, but this seems to be true only for a certain subset of people. And within this subset there is the shame involved in being afraid and the shame involved in being seen being afraid. And I suppose only the latter is real shame.

    1. Thanks Paratrooper – that’s good advice and a good question. My short answer is that the super ego is what makes you feel guilty and ashamed whether others are blaming/shaming you or not. I’ll post a follow up article on public speaking and performance anxiety and will listen to N’s words of wisdom.

      Much like children, if one takes fear seriously the natural response is to express it in hopes of encouragement from others. It is shame – both ego syntonic (I want to be a mature, stoic grown up and shouldn’t feel this way) and dystonic (everyone will think I’m a shitty professional if I fumble my presentation).

    1. Thanks for the Lacan quote – ahh, the difference between being guilty and feeling guilty. Whatever do we mean by this? I offer in response a related TBB-ism: You don’t have to be your own problem. Your problem is other people and shit that just happens.

  3. I see a direct connection between your description of the process of acceptance of conventually negative emotions as something one should have -of owning them outright as contents of conscious experience- and descriptions of the process of mindfulness based interventions that stress the acceptance of thoughts and emotions. Often these descriptions of mindfulness practice describe the accepted material as somehow passing from thought to leave the individual unburdened by their awareness leaving them with a state of calm. This last point seems to differ from the technique you seem to be encouraging. Do you also the similarity in the process and the discrepancy in outcome? If so what do you think about it?
    I have read books and papers describing the similarities between various meditative practices and psychoanalysis. The most memorable is Zen and Psychoanalysis by Eric Fromm. But I was not impressed to strongly by his arguments.

    1. Thanks for the comment. There are some definite similarities between mindfulness and what I’m talking about. For starters, people need some level of ego development to realize they are having feelings, not just living facts. After that things get trickier when you consider questions like: How come I have feelings? Why do I have the ones I do? What are they for? And, finally, what do I do with them?

      I depart strongly from mindfulness where the dharma teachings about desire and attachment come in. For instance when you reference mindfulness leaving someone calm and unattached to outcome, I’d begin to inquire why being calm is so great. Trying to stay calm or in well-being all the time sounds nice, maybe like a minor payoff. Mindfulness, applied or understood too broadly, can become a way of alienating oneself from ones experiences. And I think the teleological questions above do need to be thought about by practitioners advocating it and by those practicing it.

      One advantage of analysis over mindfulness is that you can attend to your feelings while you are talking, something easier said that done. This is complimentary, in my view, to attending to the pattern of your thinking.

      Take for instance being angered by a perceived slight. Mindfulness might help you be aware that the ego attachment to looking good is wrapped up in your suffering about it. It’s harder for it to give you insight about why a particular kind of slight bugs you – which may or may not matter. Psychology can convince you to repress this, blaming it on developmental issues and whatnot. But a certain approach can help you see that perhaps being respected is an ordinary adult need and desire, and the real question is what holds you back from responding spontaneously all those times you really do get slighted in a way that you can enjoy and gets you some of what you’re looking for?

      For this last to be possible you need enough ego development to (a) realize you have indeed been slighted, (b) understand this reflects a desire for respect form others and (c) feel entitled to act upon this. The more confident you are about all of this, paradoxically, the less anxiety and desperation will come across in your attempt to get respect, perhaps leaving you more free to solve your problems instead of stuffing them in favor of remaining calm and unattached to respect.

      One inevitable problem with meditation is that you may just think you are doing something good by meditating.

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