How I lost my confidence – in more ways than one – and how I’m winning it back.

Photo of a dock on Shawnigan Lake from a few winters ago (by me).

We’ve lived here for five years now, and are finally getting around to exploring the trails that loop around our neighbourhood, through the bear- and couger-infested forest.

There’s one trail we’ve walked regularly, the Silvermine Trail, which travels behind the houses on the other side of the street. But since our side of the street butts up against the (very large) property of Shawnigan Lake School, there are a lot of trails to explore in that direction as well.

We’ve decided we need to walk every day. I know, it sounds weird to have to tell yourself to walk every day, but when you work at home and live in a non-pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood, sometimes you have to be intentional about it. So we printed off a map of trails in the area and started walking.

On Saturday we walked into the woods and figured if we just stayed left we would end up back on the road around the corner from our house. So at every intersection we turned left. We started on road-sized trails, which is what we were expecting (and why I didn’t bring my hiking poles) and then suddenly were on a very narrow and hardly travelled trail, though it was marked everywhere with metal signposts: The Borderline Trail.

I thought with so many signposts it must be used regularly, but it sure didn’t seem that way. We wound through grass and Himalayan blackberry on a deer-sized trail. And then we came to THE BRIDGE.

Regular readers may remember that I fell on a hike last March and fractured my patella and femur, and am still doing rehab (physio again on Thursday – woo hoo! :)) for it. I need to build up more leg strength to avoid more knee problems in the future (I’ve had quite enough of them in my past).

So here we are, walking along what was originally supposed to be an easy trail, when we reach a log that straddles a pond-like waterbody. It has old shingles nailed on top, and a rudimentary railing that involves rope and 1×4 pieces of wood. The right hand railing is useless and dangling in the water. The left-hand railing is pretty rickety and doesn’t inspire confidence.

Speaking of confidence: I don’t have a lot of confidence in my legs since my accident. We hiked the Stoney Ridge Trail a few weeks ago and I had a few “moments” where I needed some help around what really was just a small descent. We also walked the defunct rail line near our house and I needed help when we had to cross rail bridges and I accidentally looked down at the raging river through the gaps in the railway ties and froze halfway across a bridge. Thank goodness my husband was able to help me across.

Despite this lack of trail confidence, I’d be damned if I’d let THE BRIDGE stop me. I was determined to do the walk we’d chosen and not be a wussy and turn around. So I walked across THE BRIDGE – and I only needed a bit of help at the end to get the right footing while stepping off the log.

My husband has since confided that he didn’t think I’d cross it, that we’d be turning around. I’m glad to have proven both him and myself wrong.

Confidence isn’t only important for hiking, though I have to say I felt pretty good after overcoming that obstacle. I would even walk that trail again, knowing that I had to cross THE BRIDGE. The next day we walked the same area but managed to stay on all the road-sized trails without any mishaps.

Confidence is a key ingredient in how we face the world and move through it.

I’ve had my periods of high and low confidence. During my undergrad, when I was taking some great classes and getting some good co-op jobs and doing triathlons, I was pretty confident. Even during my PhD, when I was swimming 3,500-4,000m 3x a week, lifting weights, cycling, and doing outdoor winter sports, and working on my research, I was pretty confident.

It was my first mental breakdown that initially made my confidence falter. I didn’t feel the same afterwards, as though some small part of me had been taken away and I couldn’t get it back. Then, after my second breakdown, I didn’t think I’d ever be confident again.

I felt less and less confident in academia the more I was judged and critiqued. Manuscripts, grant applications, student thesis defences (these usually reflect back on the supervisor to some extent), teaching evaluations, annual reviews…I felt like everything was stacked higher and higher against me, that I had to attain higher and higher goals just to be considered competent.

Now this may have just been me, but I’m not the only one to have felt that about academia.

I used to be a happy person overall, and more of an optimist. Working in academic philosophy has killed that…what my inner monologue is actually telling me most of the time is that I am worthless and a fraud and a failure, and that I should quit…I don’t think it’s likely that these kinds of external messages about my being worthless and a failure are even going to stop, or get better.”

Carrie Jenkins, UBC Philosophy

Dr. Jenkins makes an excellent point here. And she wonders, in another section of the interview, about whether or not she should stay in academia, given the stultifying of ideas in academia and the fact that academics are sometimes closed to new ideas.

After I left academia I was a shell of myself, both because of my illness and because of what I’d gone through as an academic. I had no confidence in myself at all – I could barely make a decision to save my life.

But since then I’ve tried to build it up a bit. Doing writing and editing as I’m able has been helpful. Starting to swim again has been great – I had a good swim yesterday morning, actually. Gardening helps. Fabric art helps. All the things that keep me from comparing myself to other people helps.

I still struggle with it, though. Like yesterday, when I had a less-than-pleasant email from an editor about a book review I’d worked quite hard on, on short notice as well. It’s hard to stay positive – confident – in the face of things that make you think you have no idea what you’re doing.

In that context, another confidence-booster is my online women’s writing group. We talk about books, society, politics, environment, funny emojis, new articles, what we’re working on, etc. And it helps to have this group of supportive women around me, reassuring me that I know what I’m doing, even if it doesn’t come across that way sometimes. Did you know that “75% of female leaders maintain an inner circle composed primarily of women?” That would be us and our circle.

On a side note, I think confidence can be built from anger. I’ve written previously about women’s anger as interpreted by Soraya Chemaly and others, including myself. This Q&A with writer Reema Zaman really hits at the heart of the anger issue.

The more we own our wisdom found through anger, the more solutions we can find, the more well-being we discover, and the more the world will wake up and take heed to what we have to say.

-Reema Zaman

I’m not saying I have to be angry to be confident. But I have to acknowledge that anger on my way to becoming more confident. There’s definitely no shortage of it.

So if you’re struggling with confidence and wondering what to do – try moving forward. Keep your hand on the ratty rope of THE BRIDGE, keep your eyes ahead and away from the water rushing under your feet, keep your mind on the goal and you will build that confidence. It will come to you. And to me, too.

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5 thoughts on “Confidence”

  1. Good work getting across the bridge…it’s so difficult to overcome our fears, no matter how irrational they may seem. You seem to be making great progress in getting your confidence back, so keep up the good work! I also love your dock picture, absolutely gorgeous.

  2. This completely resonates with me. A year and a half ago I was hiking the Ice Aged Trail and slipped in the mud and broke my right wrist. I was alone and had to drive myself home the 40 minute drive. Arriving home I nearly collapsed in my husbands arms because I used all the confidence and strength (mental and physical) to get that far! I’m happy to say the next year I still got out to hike… yet with much trepidation.
    Doesn’t help that 5 months ago I was just walking across the street downtown and tripped and broke my left wrist the very same fracture! Plates and screws in both arms- setting airport alarms off!
    But I got some walking poles for Christmas and I’m itching for the weather to turn and try them out!
    It’s one thing to pick ourselves up from an accident, dust off (or accomplish therapy ) and start again. Highly another in your field of expertise where, day after day, one can be faced with criticism from outside sources. It’s scary, frustrating and can eat at ones core… if we allow it.
    I haven’t figured that out completely… all I know is walking helps clear my mind- but look where that got me!! Lol I’m excited to start following your blog! Take care.

    • Hi Kate – breaking both wrists a few months apart?? How terrible! Walking poles are awesome. I’ve started using them more regularly after my knee injury, and they give you an upper body workout as well as leg stability. Yes, academia can be brutal sometimes. I had to leave for health reasons so luckily am not subject to that negativity right now. Just have to focus on managing my illness.


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