The Three Realms Of Confidence, Redux

confidenceIn 1979, as I was about to enter seventh grade, my parents moved our family from one suburb of Chicago to another where we soon discovered anti-Semitism ran rampant. Changing schools for any boy of thirteen is traumatic enough, but finding myself persecuted verbally and physically for belonging to a particular religion made the transition so awful that by the end of the year my parents felt compelled to move our family back to the original suburb from which we’d come.

Only when I began practicing Buddhism during my first year of medical school did I ever seriously wonder why I’d allowed myself to be victimized as I had (I wasn’t absolving my tormentors of responsibility for their behavior in asking myself this question but rather trying to take full responsibility for mine).  There were many responses I could have had to the kids who persecuted me but didn’t:  I could have fought back rather than run when I was attacked; I could have boldly proclaimed I was Jewish when asked during the first week of school rather than skirt the question as I did (already knowing “they didn’t like Jews” there as one Jewish boy I befriended during the summer had told me).  But instead, everything I did was calculated to make me appear likable, helpful, and in general an all around good guy—not in order to create genuine friendships but rather to keep me safe.  And every morning for a year I awoke feeling a horrible anxiety-induced nausea, terrified that my strategy was going to fail.

When I learned, however, a full decade later about the concept in Buddhism that we ourselves are ultimately fully responsible for everything that goes on in our lives, it didn’t take me long to realize that the root cause of my experience had been nothing other than my own lack of confidence.


Confidence always results from a belief—specifically, from one of three particular beliefs that occur in one of three realms:

  1. Belief in your competence.  This typically occurs in realms in which you’ve had training.  For example, I possess great belief in my ability to practice medicine (beware overconfidence) but not in my ability to cook (just ask my wife).  The repeated experience of success is what instills a belief in your competence (whether in medicine, cooking, math, debate, relationships, parenting, reasoning, or whatever) and no substitute will do.  The ultimate in competence—mastery—may or may not take years to develop, but it always takes dedication, discipline, persistence, and a drive to continuously improve.  But once you’ve achieved it, the confidence it brings is unconscious and largely unassailable.  An area in which you’ve trained is the easiest realm in which to develop a genuine belief in your competence, and therefore confidence.
  2. Belief in your ability to learn and problem solve.  This typically occurs in realms in which you’ve had no training.  How do you develop a belief you can solve a problem when you see no path to the solution?  First, you must learn to recognize any internal voice that tells you that you can’t (what’s called a “devil” in Nichiren Buddhism) for what it actually is:  an unhelpful idea that only lives in your head.  This voice may sound like your father or a teacher or a friend, but it only has the power over your resolve that you give it.  You should be neither surprised nor frightened by “devils,” but rather remain vigilant in monitoring them so you can ignore them.  You may also have to combat past experiences of failure.  But past failure doesn’t predict future failure if you have the courage and open-mindedness to try out new strategies with which you’re uncomfortable.  I tell all my patients who are trying to quit smoking that most people who succeed in achieving long-term abstinence have a history of having tried and failed multiple times in the past, as I described in a previous post, Cigarette Smoking Is Caused By A Delusion.  The human mind has the potential to be far more resourceful, creative, and determined than most people ever ask theirs to be.  The bottom line is this:  if it can be done, why not by you?  Genius may be born, but skill can always be acquired.
  3. Belief in your own intrinsic worth.  From where do we derive our self-esteem?  Unfortunately, even those of us with the healthiest sense of self-worth tend to build it upon shaky foundations.  The easiest foundations upon which to build it are only available to a small percentage of people:  good looks, money, fame, some unique talent like writing or painting or singing.  Foundations harder to build it upon are paradoxically accessible to more people and include:  being liked or loved by others (described in an earlier post, The Good Guy Contract), doing the right thing, helping others, or making some kind of important contribution to society.  The problem with both kinds of these foundations, however, is that they’re easily wrecked.  Looks fade, weight is gained, money is lost, fame turns to infamy (or worse, apathy), people stop liking you, goals remain unattained, you retire (and stop living a contributive life).  Further—to switch metaphors—self-esteem is a hungry beast:  you must continue to feed it these morsels to keep it satisfied.  And as we all know when it’s not satisfied it often turns to confidence’s opposite, arrogance (the clinging to an attitude of superiority in an attempt to convince oneself of one’s own value).  Genuine self-confidence exists in a vacuum, requiring no one of lesser worth to be near it to justify itself.  The best way, in my view, to build that kind of self-confidence is to fall in love with your own life.  Not with your smaller self that sees the world in terms of what’s yours and what’s not, but rather with your most expansive self, your larger self, the part that sees all people as equally valuable and precious, that brims with compassion, that has an unmeasurable capacity to forgive and to understand and to carry out good acts.  A part that hasn’t been wounded by any trauma you’ve ever suffered.  A part you may not actually believe exists but which does.  If your self-esteem was shattered or its proper development stunted by a traumatic or love-deficient early childhood, it may be feeding off of any and all of the sources mentioned above.  But it will never be satisfied by any of them.  Only awakening to your larger self will do that.

Why, then, did I allow myself to be victimized?  Because I lacked confidence in the 1st realm (in my ability as a fighter) and was constantly afraid of being hurt or embarrassed, and because I lacked confidence in the 3rd realm (having had a thirteen year-old’s self-esteem) and took the message my environment was sending me that I was in some way inferior to my tormentors as the truth.  But what does not kill me makes me stronger, and since then I’ve built tremendous confidence in the 1st and 2nd realms, which have become the foundation of my confidence in the 3rd realm.  And I suppose I could remain satisfied with that.  But I’m not.  There are still situations that confront me that sap my confidence in the 1st and 2nd realms and by extension my confidence in the 3rd realm.  And that’s not the kind of confidence in my self-worth I want.  I want the kind that can’t be shaken by anything.  Don’t you?

Next weekThe Importance Of Maintaining Consistent Boundaries

10 comments to The Three Realms Of Confidence, Redux

  • […] The Three Realms Of Confidence, Redux « Happiness in this World. […]

  • Mitch

    You are brilliant. And I look forward to every Sunday…do you just crank this out after dinner on Sunday night or do you think about it all week? Thanks for being there for the world.

    Mitch: Thanks for your kind words. (I wish I could just crank these out after dinner on Sunday night!)


  • Colleen


    This line is pretty much the basis of my everyday battle with myself:

    “I took the message my environment was sending me that I was in some way inferior”

    It’s a fine line for me between “believing” and “experiencing.” I can believe all I want that I’m a good person, but all it takes is one expression of annoyance to my presence or actions, and my balloon deflates. I KNOW I’m a good person, but how I am treated by the people I love most, essentially drives my confidence. I want to be the one driving my confidence, but the harder I try…the more I end up being the geeky little girl that was too much for her mother to handle and other kids to relate to. Again, I KNOW I’m a good soul, but how I feel about others reactions to me seems to be more important to me than it should be. I want to break away from it so much.

    I’m a big personality, and very in tune with people’s reactions and physical displays, almost too in tune. I pick up on things that most wish to keep to themselves in order to be polite. I wish I DIDN’T notice body language, and could just move on with my geek self like annoyance didn’t just happen in the other person. I suppose I hate being annoyed more than anything else, so when I see I do that to others…it’s crushes me.

    I want to fall in love with my life, but my sensitivity to others reactions to me… my current crutch. I’m trying, and failing, but I keep trying. I just want to be content with me, as is. It’s been a life long battle. My devil: my mother’s voice asking why I can’t just be like normal kids, or my mother asking what is wrong with me that would make me want to act that way, or what will people think…what will people think. I try to ignore, but it was engraved into my head. This is what I think I need to get rid of to be happy: my devil. I’m still working on forgiving my mother, but I’ll admit, I haven’t yet b/c of my struggles to love myself as is. I know this is what I need to do to get closer to peace. 1) Forgive my mother 2) Ignore my devil 3) Love me as is despite other’s reactions to me.

    Thank you for giving me a guideline to go by, as confidence is my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and I can’t wait to get there…

    Colleen: So difficult, to free ourselves from beliefs so strongly ingrained in us as children. Do not give up! It is possible.


  • Mary

    I enjoy your insightful messages and appreciate their wisdom!

  • I had a picked-on experience once in my life. At the time I was a Christian and when a guy slugged me (my mouth probably asked for it) I remember getting in his face and telling him Jesus told me to turn the other cheek and I dared him to do it again. He probably thought I was nuts and back off and never did it again. I don’t use that line anymore but it is still a good Buddhist response I think. That gave me confidence to stand up for myself and coupled with a six-year- old’s experience of being on the bottom (my mouth again probably) and told if you can’t finish it don’t start it has pretty much got me through life in reasonable happiness.

    I am retired now and on hindsight have done some pretty amazing things (to me) and I know that medicine will keep you from getting overconfident. I’m a veterinarian. But cooking. Come on. All you have to do is stay in the kitchen and pay attention.

  • Odetta

    So your article begs the question, well WHERE DO we get that unshakable confidence??? Well, I believe it is in BEING unshakable…I know that despite my incompetence (I am human!!!), I know I can learn (as MANY tries as it takes!); and I always, always, ALWAYS remember, that I am valuable. I am. There is no if ands and buts about that. I am valuable. And unlike you, the 3rd realm is probably where my foundation for my confidence lies. So while, 1 and 2 can be shaken, 3 is solid and by its extension, 1 and 2 are upholden. AT least, this is what I tell me myself at this point…

    A second more personal reaction to your message…I wonder how your lack of confidence contributed to you finding another set of religious beliefs…and I wonder now, since you have your understanding, how does it change your mind towards your first religious beliefs…I hope I am not too personal. Thanks.

    Odetta: As far as I know, my lack of confidence didn’t contribute to my beginning to practice Buddhism. I was intrigued by the possibility that enlightenment was an actual life state one could attain through practice.


  • Kathryn

    I am currently reading your book and taking written notes to help me remember key points when I lose all hope. I keep hoping that I will have an “aha moment” where I “get it” but then I slide back into darkness and feel hopeless again.

    My questions dealing with this blog entry are:

    HOW does one find belief in their intrinsic worth? How do you EVEN get to the place that you believe that you even HAVE intrinsic worth? HOW do you fall in love with your own life?

    Kathryn: Yes, so much easier to say than do. I can only offer some general observations: there is often a specific reason people fail to feel that their lives have intrinsic worth. It seems to me a good place to start is by identifying that reason if you can. Beyond that, though, feeling that you don’t have intrinsic worth may also be as a result of an over attachment to yourself, to your own ego. May I point you at the following posts? How To Comfort Yourself and When You Don’t Like Yourself. I hope you find them helpful.


  • Colleen


    Thanks for the additional information in your reply to Kathryn! This is something I have not yet considered, an over attachment to my own ego. I think I just had a “aha” moment because of this. I’ve often been told that I need more distractions from myself, not really knowing what it meant. Hmm…

    Kathryn…I’m right there with you. I think with some of us, we will always tend to ride the roller coaster of self-worth a bit, but as long as we try, we can keep experiencing the good times too. It’s so hard when you’re down, but as long as we find ways to keep going back up….it does get a little easier each time.

  • Christine

    Thank you for your post. In many ways this is something I am looking for. I read your blog very regularly for a long time already. Thank you for writing about the questions of being different (like being of different ethnicity)—very few speak openly. These questions do concern me personally.

    I would like to ask a question—you said you worked with yourself using 1st, 2nd and 3rd realm. How did that project on interactions with society (colleagues, other students & teachers, and friends)? My general problem is being afraid to interact with other people (because of my mixed ethnicity causing mixed and unpleasant reactions in people, including family)?

    Thank you once again for a very helpful post.

    I hope you’re having a good day.


    Christine: I’m not sure I understand your question exactly, but I’ll say this: genuine confidence—as opposed to arrogance—has seemed in my life only to produce positive reactions.


  • Inessa

    Hi Alex, thank you very much for this post! I had a similar experience in my childhood. It took me a while to build my confidence (4 years to be precise) and I lost it again, it seems, when I encountered hostility toward myself. Instead of fighting it openly, I succumbed to silent agreement with my opponents. Nothing good came from it, as usual. But, of course, I knew what the result will be. Sadly, that having experienced the same situation in childhood didn’t teach me much. And one would think that we learn from our mistakes—to repeat them again and again…

    Alex, what do you think about victims, victimization, reasons and how to break this circle. Can you post your thoughts

    Thank you.

    Inessa: Regarding hostility toward oneself and possibly how to break through it, you might read this.


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