People often assume I’m extroverted and that I’m a Confident Person. They mention my public speaking, writing this blog for almost seventeen years, and my love of dancing and letting loose to 90s R&B or dance. I’m quite introverted though. I also have my shy, socially awkward and not-that-confident moments.

My husband is wise to my ways. For instance, he knows that I experience anxiety at events where I don’t know anyone. Pre-pandemic he’d brace himself for a call from me hiding out in the bathroom or hovering by the food table at an event. He also knows I’m feeling unconfident about something when he sees me vacuuming in the middle of the day.  

If your partner or loved one has their own shy, unconfident moments, and you find them baffling, especially if you’re a lot more confident or you’re confused by some of their triggers, it’s critical to recognise that everyone has something that triggers a less confident version of themselves. Everyone, even you.

In situations that take us outside of our comfort zone, past events and beliefs affect our sense of self.

Fear shows up when we stretch ourselves, bracing us to be savaged by wild animals when all we want, for example, is to let our partner know that we’re in the mood for sex. Asking for help, expressing a desire or concern or being around new people or in unfamiliar situations might make us feel short of breath or on guard. We might feel as if we’re going to have a case of bubble guts, break out in a sweat, or suddenly be transported back to childhood. On some level we’ve become aware of the real or imagined potential for embarrassment, criticism, the unknown, scrutiny, or praise. Our associations with these potential consequences impact our confidence levels and how we show up. 

So, for instance, take a situation where a seemingly more confident person doesn’t feel nervous, or they do but go ahead anyway. That same situation might feel very different for someone with less confidence or who feels triggered in those instances. Consciously or not, the situation might bring up painful associations or feel threatening to their sense of self. They might behave shyly even if there isn’t anything to be nervous about. Or perhaps they’ll feel nervous, retreat, maybe behave awkwardly, but then gradually warm up.

It’s vital to distinguish between generalised lack of confidence and having unconfident moments.

A general lack of confidence (low self-esteem) undoubtedly affects how we experience everything. It’s difficult to feel good about one’s self and have the confidence to be and do things when we’re looking at ourselves through a lens of being not good enough. Knowing, liking and trusting ourselves from an honest place gives us the confidence to know what we can expect from ourselves. We’re able to differentiate between the past and the present, and so we allow ourselves to grow.

Having unconfident moments that bring out the shy and awkward side of us, however, is very different.

And I think it’s crucial to acknowledge this because we humans are too quick to judge ourselves and others. We decide who ‘should’ or is confident based on our projections and biases. If, for instance, we had it tough growing up and we use this to explain our confidence levels, we might find it difficult to empathise when someone has less confidence despite what we perceive as their ‘easy’ upbringing. We’ve also all grown up with distorted ideas of what confidence as well as introversion and extroversion mean, and we need to pay attention to where we’re substituting truly knowing and seeing people with baseless assumptions.

There are plenty of things I’m fairly confident in doing, but there are also plenty I’m not. It’s called being human. What I’ve allowed myself to be and do has evolved the more I’ve taken better care of myself. It’s also been crucial for me to challenge my own perceptions of myself. What we think we can and can’t do is very different in reality. That, and I also don’t subscribe to, for instance, outdated notions of introversion and extroversion.

Other people’s confidence levels are not a reflection of us.

It can be frustrating when our partner or loved one baulk at asking for help when feeling uncertain or shy despite being in the relationship for what feels like forever. Same for when they catastrophise despite past experiences which prove that they’ll be just fine. Sometimes, we don’t want to feel as if we have to drag or coddle something out of them. We might not want to feel as if we have to constantly bolster and cheerlead, especially when we might have our own stuff to grapple with. And, yes, maybe it would be nice if they’d initiate instead of it feeling like it’s always us. Totally understandable. 

Some people do take a little while to warm up in certain situations, though. And all humans have emotional baggage that affects the way they think, feel and behave in certain situations. We don’t need to make it our job to fix, speed up or overcompensate for them.

The truth is, people second guess themselves even when they have the safe space of a loving relationship. And this is okay. A romantic partner had a whole life before the relationship and is processing their past as they move through life. And even if we’ve known a loved one most or all of our life, they’re a separate person. If, for instance, our child isn’t confident about something, that doesn’t mean we’ve failed as a parent. It’s not a judgment about us if someone isn’t as confident about something despite our love and support. If we make it about us, we’ll overstep theirs and our boundaries.

We don’t need to tone down or amp ourselves up to become like our someone else’s version of ‘confidence’.

What we need to avoid is casting each other in roles like the Confident One and the Shy One. If we don’t, we will inadvertently play to and reinforce the baggage behind our own and their confidence habits. Roles blind us to instances that don’t fit them. If, for instance, we play the role of being the Less Confident One, we’ll think, feel and behave this way even though we might be perfectly fine in a situation if we allowed us to authentic instead of playing the role. If we make it someone else’s job to be confident, we quite simply won’t notice when they’re struggling. Playing roles also causes us to, for example, speak over or for our someone, make assumptions, or hang back and let the other crack on. 

Acknowledging where we play roles takes noticing whether there are assigned ‘tasks’ and functions in the relationship. For instance, are we wedded to an identity that affects our confidence levels? When we overidentify with how we’ve labelled ourselves, we won’t put ourselves in situations that contradict that identity. So if we’ve decided that we’re incompetent, we’ll play to this. We won’t allow ourselves to be in a situation that lets us realise more success. Are there times when we’re resentful at always having to do a certain ‘job’ in our relationships? Maybe we resent always having to lead, or perhaps we resent having to take a back seat. Of course, we don’t have to subscribe to situations or patterns that aren’t serving us.

Making a conscious effort to break out of roles makes us more boundaried and intimate; we have to be present.

It’s not uncommon for someone who appears less confident to secretly desire more of the proverbial spotlight but have an underlying fear of usurping their partner or loved one. This doesn’t mean [if we’re the More Confident One] that we have to change ourselves. However, it’s worth acknowledging, for example, what drives our pattern of being in the spotlight or the spokesperson.

If it feels uncomfortable to not play a role in our relationship, this is a call for us to look at where we’re hiding behind it to avoid the intimacy of vulnerability. 

Of course, it’s crucial to encourage our partner or loved one (and vice versa) to be vulnerable. This is especially so in areas that affect the intimacy of the relationship. It’s also, however, important to note progress in how each party’s opened up over time. The great thing about our intimate relationships is that we have the opportunity to be honest. We can point out where our partner or loved one is exacerbating something that makes them uncomfortable, even if, initially, they give us the side-eye.

There’s also plenty to learn from feeling confused, frustrated, resentful, guilty or anxious about our own or other people’s lack of confidence. These feelings call on us to pay attention and be present. They’re letting us know not just what our emotional baggage might be but where we need to be a little more boundaried. Which assumptions, biases and generalisations can we let go of? How can we be even a little more compassionate and honest? Where are we taking responsibility for something that isn’t ours? When we give ourselves and others a bit more grace, we feel more confident in ourselves and our relationships.

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