We’re in the throes of the rainy season here in the southeast. I’d never realized how many different types of rain there were: fine-misted droplets that float in the air, fat, frigid droplets that soak you clean through in minutes, full-on sluices that seem to fall from the sky in an unbroken stream.
But this past weekend, the rain took a break, and we had a brief window of blue skies and sunshine. Just in time for a visitor from the snowy northeast: one of our professors (and family friends) from undergrad. Aside from having an excellent weekend all around–full of walks through the blooming campus, tacos galore, and long conversations late into the night–it got me reminiscing about my time in college.
I loved my undergrad experience. But that wasn’t true at first. Going into my first year, I was terrified of everything. Terrified of having no one to eat with in the dining hall. Terrified of my roommate (and if you knew her, you’d get it). Terrified of my classes and professors. Terrified of sweaty fraternity basements (looking back on it–also definitely justified).
The confidence that I’d garnered as a senior in high school seemed to have evaporated over the summer. I felt highly dependent on my small social circle, and had trouble branching out. When my roommate was a shit head (which she frequently was), I had trouble speaking up for myself. I wore my lanyard around my neck like a talisman. And I sometimes got lost, even on our tiny campus.
Slowly, that changed. I got a job as a camp counselor during my first summer, and received a peek into the inner workings of the school. I learned how to pick up and drive the school vans, explored new buildings. I made friends with upperclassmen and staff. When I came back my sophomore year, I had a new sense of confidence.
And that grew with each semester, until as a senior, I was part of the tightly knit community of HWS. I’d stretched myself to learn new skills and to feel comfortable in new settings: I presented research I’d done over the summer at a conference, ate by myself in the dining hall without a second thought, sipped cocktails at the Red Dove.
Not everyone has the same fearfulness in new situations. My personality tends to be pretty reticent to try new things. I take awhile to adapt, and I’m not a huge risk taker. But even with those tendencies, I think my lack of confidence is something that most people feel coming into a new place, with a brand new culture to learn, and new rules to follow.
It’s a common trope in both high school and college: you come in as an insecure first year, and by the time you’re a senior, you’ve got the system down pat. You’re confident. You’re cool. You know your place in the system and how to work it.
It’s an acknowledged cycle of confidence: you come into a new culture insecure, slowly learn how to function, and gain confidence.
But somehow we forget about the cycle once we graduate from college. It’s assumed that your confidence levels are fixed. That now that you’ve graduated from college, you keep the confidence you built up and continue to build it through exciting new prospects.
That just isn’t how life works.
When I started dating Jordan my second year of college, he was about as confident as they come. I even wrote in my journal after meeting him: “He’s just a big fish in a small pond.” (Romantic, I know. Jordan’s confidence irked me initially).
I was right: when he got a graduate assistantship with a renowned wildlife biologist in Mississippi, it disappeared completely.
My husband got airlifted from his pond, and dropped in the ocean. And not in the shallows: the deep South.
Suddenly, he had to navigate a culture with completely different stakes, completely different rules. He’s always been incredibly talented at reading people, but under these circumstances, he found it nearly impossible.
He had trouble making friends. Everything seemed foreign to him: the rigid social hierarchies of the South, the phrases used, the worldviews of his peers. Without his usual confident charm, he seemed like a different person to me–and it shook me a little. Who was Jordan, outside of the context of his family and friends?
But slowly, the cycle carried on. He made friends. He learned the social hierarchies, and regained his charm. Soon he was winning awards for his public speaking, and banging out research. By the end of the four years, he was a big fish in a small pond again.
The cycle happens outside of school settings. I’ve felt it during internships, in small city jobs, as a contractual writer, and then now: working in a big department for a University. I came in quiet, nervous. Glad my office was tucked into the furthest corner of the building. I had no idea who did what. I couldn’t remember the myriad of names thrown at me. And I didn’t fully understand the programs I was supposed to be responsible for.
Now I’m almost a year in. I know people’s names, and I’m starting to make friends. Slowly, I’m starting to understand how this place works. Who does what, and how to make things happen. I understand the purpose of the programs I run, and feel more ownership over them. The cycle is turning, and I’m regaining my confidence.
In three years, I bet I’ll feel like a senior–secure in my role and excelling.
I guess all of this is to say that confidence isn’t fixed. And that’s important to remember, no matter which stage you’re in. Life is ever changing, and so is our perception of ourselves and others.
So be patient with yourself when you feel insecure. Let yourself get acclimated, and remember that you have the capacity to adapt and grow, even as an adult. And that even the most confident among us sometimes falter in new situations.
Also, remember that other people might feel the same way, no matter how secure they may seem. When someone new joins your company or town or school, give them the space to get their feet under themselves. Understand that this may not be a good representation of who they actually are, and that it may take years for them to come into their potential.
Extend them the same grace that you’d want for yourself, and in doing so, give yourself and others the time and room to truly bloom.
What stage of the confidence cycle are you currently in?