The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


In the bleak years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, one figure of wit, charisma and a talent for survival against the odds captured the imagination of the American public: the con artist. Swindling and scamming his—and sometimes, her—way across the silver screen and the pages of noirish detective novels, they enthralled and terrified by turns.

“Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat,” explained a clearly enamored Professor David Maurer, writing on the secrets of the confidence trade in 1940. “Confidence men are not ’crooks’ in the ordinary sense of the word. They are suave, slick and capable.”

Confidence has always dazzled. We might feel a stab of envy around those who glide effortlessly into the party, shake hands, charm all the important people (everybody laughs at their jokes!). But as much as other people’s lack of self-doubt shimmers with mystery—and perhaps mild SUSPICION: can they be trusted?—our own confident feelings are yet more elusive, lost as quickly as they are found. From the Latin con (with) fidere (faith), the word’s earliest uses were associated with the feeling of trust in divine support: a sign in the sky or vision in a dream lent boldness to your endeavors, the blessed expectation that everything will turn out in your favor. The suspicion that confidence is beyond our control still haunts us. You know how to take the fast bend on your bike, exactly the angle to throw the paper ball into the bin, the perfect moment to pirouette on roller skates without a humiliating tumble. But you can’t entirely say why or how. “Let go your conscious self,” instructs Obi-Wan Kenobi as he trains Luke Skywalker to use the Force. “Act on instinct.” But if a future Jedi Master struggles with overthinking it, you can bet the rest of us do too.

In the 1950s, American psychologists began to wonder if the mystery might be taken out of confidence. Thinking itself seemed to be the key. By the 1970s, self-help gurus were claiming that the only difference between you and that charismatic individual for whom doors swung wide open was confidence. And how to get it? You had to perform a confidence trick on yourself, using a simple bit of magical thinking: “Fake it till you make it.” From assertiveness classes to Alcoholics Anonymous, the “fake it till you make it” mantra was adopted. Was it a little contemptuous, this attempt to fool other people into believing we felt more optimistic about our abilities than we did? If it was, then we were the real target of the con. Not least, because the “fake it till you make it” mantra may have also spawned a belief that confidence in itself could be a reasonable substitute for competence (see: VERGÜENZA AJENA).

More recently psychologists have come to think that tricking ourselves into being confident may leave us with more self-doubt: we end up feeling both like a shifty imposter and their target, unsure whether we can even trust the allure of our own performance. Studies have shown that if we continually pretend to be a person we’re not, we lose faith in the abilities that we do have—or else feel terrified that we’ll be found out (see: FRAUD, feeling like a). What’s more, too much confidence can inhibit, stopping up the desire for self-improvement that drives more insecure people to work hard. Perhaps, then, instead of always chasing that glorious sensation of invincibility, we might also put some trust in smaller, quieter feelings, and learn to love UNCERTAINTY, hesitation and confusion too.

See also: FEELING GOOD (about yourself).