The Three Realms Of Confidence

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In 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 Nichiren Daishonin called a “devil”) 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?

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  • Thank you for your discussion on confidence.

    Anti-Semitism is a virulent reality of life on this planet. I do not have answers for the seemingly illimitable fear and anger people harbor.

    I had my first experience with it in 2nd grade. I remember another tough little Jewish boy standing up and telling me, “Don’t take it from them.” Being a girl, I didn’t know how to fight back. School days were vicious, and I have a different consciousness now.

    If they don’t know my name, I am like the light-skinned black who “passes.” I do not let bigotry get by, however.

    I feel like I live on many planes. Around most people, I care, but not too much. Alone, I am most “in-tune.” I see the connectedness of all things and am sorrowful at the separations and blocks so many people have in place.

    Since I am so sensitive, perhaps I would do better sequestering myself to only the company of other sensitive people. While I can put on a protective carapace, I do not like it. It is burdensome.

    Lisa: I completely understand the impulse to sequester oneself. And yet I also think to myself, wouldn’t it better to work to become so strong that I can leap into the midst of bigotry and by example cause others to reflect on their views and perhaps even change them without being poisoned or discouraged by their prejudiced views myself? Being sensitive brings with it at least one great benefit, that of empathy, which is the first necessary ingredient to reaching another’s heart.


  • “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. ”

    Hi, Alex,

    My husband recommended your blog after he read your comment in the NYTimes. How can you forgive people who deliberately seek to harm you because of the arrogance of their power and position? Right now I am facing major self-esteem issues and lack of self-confidence. I am trying to overcome them by trying to enhance my technical skills and such but have a hard time understanding people who harmed me, which resulted in a job loss. I am a Hindu and do understand intellectually what you say but have difficulty at an emotional level. How can I improve my self-confidence at an emotional level?


    Meera: Your question points out the fundamental limitation inherent in all blog posts: being introduced to new ideas and understanding them intellectually rarely carries with it enough power to affect the kind of change in self-esteem you’re after. I wrote in the quotation you cited that we must “fall in love with our own lives” but didn’t explicitly describe how to do that. To fall in love with our own lives requires that we begin believing our own lives are infinitely valuable. But how do we get an idea to penetrate into a deeply held belief that has the power to affect a change in the way we actually feel? It happens all the time all over the world and yet no one really understands how. The reason I continue to practice Nichiren Buddhism despite having doubts about a great many of its tenets is that I’ve discovered that it really does have the power to change intellectual knowledge (“we must fall in love with our own lives”) into real wisdom (actually feeling love for myself) for me. Once I realized it had this power I knew I would practice it for life, for what greater benefit could there be than finding a tool that enables one to cultivate real wisdom out of mere intellectual ideas that affects the way you feel and live? I would encourage you to be courageous in your search for a practice that enables you to do the same, as I don’t believe one can build a genuinely resilient self-esteem out of a broken one by intellectual means alone.

    Once you’ve accomplished that (and even with a practice that really works it can take years—depends on the strength of your determination), forgiving arrogant people who’ve harmed you actually becomes easy. Once you truly love yourself, independent of your small-minded ego, seeing arrogance in others as a painful cross THEY must bear becomes the only perspective that makes sense. If you’re interested in learning more about Nichiren Buddhism, please click here to have a look at the SGI website. The very best of luck to you.


  • On a more prosaic level—certainly this is not the same as dealing with anti-Semites—however, your thoughts and experiences are relevant in so many ways.

    I have been in business for myself for the last two years as a coach and business adviser and have found a real sense of confidence as I have been challenged to figure out all manner of things from marketing and selling to delivery of services to my clients (it was pretty easy at times to fall into “victim-think” and complain about what wasn’t, but I got over that). The process of getting it together overall seemed like a vertical learning curve for quite awhile. However, over time, I quietly gained confidence. And, I became consciously aware of my confidence at times—in small (and sometimes large) epiphanies. These were real gifts. And, as my confidence grew, I decided to really step up my game and look to those who are at the top of their game in my practice—and emulate them. This is where I am focusing more of my energies now that I have a foundation to build upon.

    To your points:

    1. I practiced—a lot—learned a lot from my mistakes. Learning to stretch and figure out what works by learning what doesn’t work is both humbling and “foundational” in nature. Walking the talk, so to speak, is the reward for study and application of knowledge gained.

    2. I learned to learn…again, after many years of having put that part of my being on autopilot. I learned to love the process of exploration and discovery. It is so wonderful and gratifying—and ultimately is where I seem to do my best work on my behalf and my clients’ behalf. Risk-taking in learning has its own intrinsic rewards.

    3. Finally, as you noted, I have come to really understand that I bring value to the world through my offering of who I am (not just what I know). I love being aware that I can be of service to others and know that it is valuable just by tapping into my own wisdom, experience, intellect, and emotions. That said, I continue to study and learn—to continually master more and remaster what I already know.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  • I really enjoyed reading your thoughts here and am in complete agreement. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach a point where we are competent and confident in the skill we want to master. I believe that is true and have brought this up with my children when they quickly dismiss a new sport or a new skill because it’s too difficult…it takes practice.

    Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book Overcoming Life’s Disappointments expands on Freud’s answer to the question: “What makes you happy?” (love and work) to include 5 elements: family, friends, faith, work, and the satisfaction of making a difference. Difficult to feel confident and satisfied in all 5 areas all at the same time, and I think most of us may have one of two covered (and have a strong belief in ourselves). The other areas are where we may stumble.

    However, if we “work” on these elements, I believe we do our best to address the three realms you so eloquently describe.

    One more thought that has floated to the surface…our very best learning happens in a place of discomfort. Sometimes it takes years to reflect and assess…sometimes we need to learn other lessons or “be” in another place emotionally and spiritually to see an event (especially traumatic ones) through a different lens. I love it when this happens to me…that all of a sudden I’ve been struck by some weird insight that turns on a light bulb over a past memory. Badabing! It’s a divine thing I think.

    PS…Linley sent me your way. 🙂 She’s a gem.

    Dana: Your last point exactly describes what happened to me regarding the experience of anti-Semitism I described in the post. When I realized how I’d allowed myself to be victimized, it transformed my entire thinking about the experience. And please say hello to Linley for me. She is indeed a gem!


  • What a powerful, beautiful piece of writing! Thank you. It strikes me as strange how someone in their mid-60s in retirement after a successful academic career can feel the reins of doubt and fear going way back. Questions of not only who am I, but also am I good enough? Those old questions are haunting, but you challenge me to believe in my own worth. I appreciate your lines on loving your own life. I have been buoyed by poets like Mary Oliver who call us to love the world. But to fall in love with our own life—ah, that’s the call of the wild.

  • Alex, I taught seventh grade for fourteen years. Initially I was struck by the cruelty I saw in my students until I realized it was the result of fear. Fear that they would not be accepted by their peers. Peer pressure at this age is the strongest driving force in surviving. You were a child alone, one with no skills or support in this situation. And you did what you had to to survive; you were not a victim.

    I went to a high school where no Jewish children had ever attended because of city redistricting. It was blatantly anti-Semitic. Parents were concerned and met with the principal, who was Jewish, before the school year began. My mother prepared me by teaching me two phrases in Polish. “Good Morning” and “I have a boyfriend.” I used them frequently. The anti-Semitism was so extreme that it was nearly humorous. But there were many of us; we had constant support. I never took it seriously. The support and camaraderie taught me confidence in this area.

    Or so I thought. I was blindsided by it at twenty-two. I got a teaching job in a suburb south of Boston. I didn’t know I was hired as the “token Jew.” I have blonde hair and green eyes, a generic name, and never was taken for being Jewish. But these idiots decided that anyone from New York must be Jewish. I’m from Buffalo, which at the time had a very small Jewish population. There were swastikas in my mailbox from other teachers; Jewish jokes directed at me by teachers in the lunchroom, etc. Fate intervened: I became seriously ill, my brother died, and I quit. The Harvard intern, who was not Jewish, was treated equally badly. It was a place of ignorance and shame. I had too much else in my life to deal with the situation, but I never felt like a victim. I felt like I was back with my seventh graders.

    I asked a great uncle of mine, who was a Holocaust survivor, what to do in the future. He told me first I must insure my survival, and then speak up. But not just against anti-Semitic remarks, but against all bias.

    Last week I was in a taxi and the driver made a remark against Haitians. I told him I was Haitian and was very offended. He said: “You’re whiter than I am, you couldn’t be Haitian.” I had his cab number and he was freaking out. But I remembered my great uncle’s words. Support gives one confidence. Support given years earlier; words from one who spoke with great confidence himself. Parents, teachers, all those who’ve loved us and helped us survive the equivalent of seventh grade.

    If you are loved early in life and nurtured, you will love yourself enough to have the basis of confidence.

    Andrea: You are so right about speaking up. Whatever group you may belong to or identify with, if you’re within earshot of prejudicial remarks or behavior, stand up against it, whether it’s your own group being denigrated or someone else’s.


  • Identity is the last concept to fall. We are so attached to our birth that we will suffer every indignity to prove our worth.

    Once we realize that our life is eternal, we no longer attach such significance to our birth and the temporary labels associated with our parents.

    Now the challenge is to live up to our potential.

  • “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.”

    Been thinking and thinking about this…I am thinking that we are responsible for how we respond to events in our lives. One can’t possibly be responsible for the trauma, the assault. Or, are we?

    Brendalee: This is tricky. We ARE absolutely responsible for how we respond to events in our lives, yes. But according to Buddhist philosophy, we’re actually responsible for the trauma itself, too, not by having consciously chosen it, but by having made causes for it to happen in the past (according to what Buddhism describes as the universal law of cause and effect). This is quite different from saying we’re to BLAME for everything that happens in our lives, however. A useful analogy might be the following: if we board a train believing it’s headed for New York but instead it’s headed for Los Angeles, we ourselves made the cause, and are ultimately responsible, for ending up in Los Angeles. How I might have made the causes to attract the persecution into my life I did remains impossible to know, but according to Buddhist philosophy, definitely an accumulation of causes I made in the past led me to that moment (describing the overused and often misinterpreted word, “karma”). This is not an easy principle to believe, and frankly I still struggle with it, but in Buddhism it is conceived of as an empowering one in that if you made the causes in the past to yield the results of the present, by changing the causes you’re making in the present, you can change the results that will manifest in the future, and further, use the effects manifested in the present as a springboard with which to achieve happiness. Controversial, I know.


  • I was the smallest boy (throughout my childhood) in school. I have been wrestling with low self-esteem all my life. Chris Rock, on stage, stated he had the same experience, and it was the toughest role for a man to play in life.

    I had no support at home, my mother was busy raising a large family, and my father was a physically ill (absent) father.

    I’m not blaming anyone; it was simply the hand I was dealt.

    I have learned to be successful in many ways and sometimes I am very happy but I still feel sometimes like that lost, tormented boy.

    Mark: I know the feeling. Building a genuinely healthy, self-sustaining sense of self-worth is incredibly hard if your self-esteem wasn’t nourished properly at a critical age in childhood. But I firmly believe it IS possible if you can find and pursue a practice/path that has genuine power to reform your most fiercely held negative tenets that still rise up at times to fool you into thinking you lack of value.


  • Alex, thanks for replying. I enjoy your website/blog and have it bookmarked.

    Mark: Great! Glad to have you.


  • What a thought provoking piece. It evokes my own memories of the torment I endured in middle school. When I later taught middle school, I came to realize that there had been something about me—in my mannerisms or presentation—that put a target on me and invited others to bully me, and my reaction made sure it happened again.

    I wish there had been someone to advise me, but I was on my own, and it took three long years to figure out how to stand up to them.

    I learned a great deal as a teacher—that those who are bullied often bully others, that the most well-regarded students didn’t bully anyone, and that my students could learn that bullying was unacceptable.

    I hope to go back to teaching, and when I do, I will incorporate your ideas.

  • What an excellent post. Thank you, and thank you to my friend for sending this to me.

  • […] entrada es traducción de un artículo de Alex Lickerman, un médico budista de Chicago. En 1979 cuando estaba a punto de empezar octavo de EGB mis padres […]

  • I think this article made some interesting points. I read a textbook directly related to this topic; its called The Experience of Philosophy by Daniel Kolak, Raymond Martin. I found my used copy for less than the bookstores at

  • I am trying to fight anxiety syndrome, and I am finding your thoughts very, very useful. Without confidence it’s basically impossible even begin to heal oneself.


  • To Andrea H:

    I have started to teach in primary school recently and I would love to ask Andrea H for a few pointers she could give a beginner on how to handle the students’ fear and cruelty she mentioned in her comment. Anything would be most welcome.

  • I was hoping for some comments or handles to point me the way forward. I have weird self-esteem or worth issues. On one hand I have great faith (with reservations as we should have as we all make errors) in my capacity at work as a physician, I am financially terribly Celtic-ly prudent and don’t spend what I earn; I have the good luck to be pretty and slim. So I can and do appear very at ease—professionally and dealing with people in public. But I have no confidence about those closest to me and most especially my partner of two decades. I cannot deal with conflict (OK at work), become anguished about any silence, focus on every criticism (of my second language, my arguments etc). I recoil into myself to defend myself from criticism attempting to be beyond reproach. This means that the reproach becomes my absence, my quietness, my lack of engagement.

    I don’t think my partner is a monster; he gets frustrated with me.

    I think this is a mix of cowardice with respect to close people—but from where?

    It may be to do with being away at boarding school—my father went to work abroad when I was 7 and I went to boarding school from 10-years-old (that would be long terms, i.e., 12 weeks at school and a few weeks at home).

    The difficulty is that I feel a fraud too as superficially I have everything to be happy with but I am a rather abject thing; not that I would impose this on anyone. I hide what is written here behind a funny, helpful, competent facade.

    So any ideas of how I can help myself with my nonsense?

    Bridget: My own experience is that problems with self-esteem usually do originate in childhood but remain kept alive in the present by a persistent delusional belief that we’re valueless. Perhaps it might help you to examine if and why you might believe that about yourself. Also, have you considered therapy?


  • I do not think it is a “delusional belief.” I suffer very similar problems—but at work, while fine with my family, so I have “studied” the problem for quite a time. I still do not have a sure-proof tool, but I do know it is not any kind of belief, because I know I am not worthless; I know I am actually quite a good teacher and translator when I make myself to perform my job.

    What it is is a deeply ingrained “gut” automatic mechanism (usually acquired in childhood) that makes you back down, surrender without putting up a fight, so it is a kind of “cowardice,” but not really, because it is something deep down that betrays you. And I can absolutely identify with your feeling of a “fraud”—I often have the feeling of “wow, how can this shit be happening to me? How can I be doing this to myself?”…well it is automatic and (in my experience) it is very difficult to fight.

    What helps me is writing a diary, analyzing my feelings in writing, I try Buddhist meditation, the feeling of emptiness, because an empty vessel cannot be harmed; there is nothing left to harm in the first place. The Litany against Fear taken from Herbert’s sci-fi book Dune has also been an inspiration for me. These things do not always work for me, but sometimes help (therapy may be of use too—if you find a good therapist, which I haven’t).

    If you have any questions, feel free to write to me to ondrej . roldan @ gmail . com …and I would sure love to know if you find something that works for you, because I am still battling this with very mixed success.

    Good luck!

  • […] of his articles, The Three Realms of Confidence, mentions genuine friendships. I had encountered that phrase some when before, but somehow, within […]

  • […] a previous post, The Three Realms Of Confidence, I told a story from my childhood (how I was bullied in seventh grade because I was Jewish) to […]

  • […] is immoral Published on October 10, 2010 Photo: Anamorphic Mike In a previous post, The Three Realms Of Confidence, I told a story from my childhood (how I was bullied in seventh grade because I was Jewish) to […]