Psychologists, especially amateur psychologists, emphasize self confidence as a major predictor of success and happiness. On the other hand, spiritual traditions like Theosophy, Buddhism and Sufism stress the fact that our personalities are a major source of trouble and we should let them go.
Can those two views be connected? Sure they can. They target very different life-experiences.
First lets look at why self confidence works in so many ways. A friend of mine in high school, lets call her Esther, was a troubled teen. Obviously teens, most teens, lack self confidence – but they do express that in very different ways. Some limit their lives to partying. Some work harder because it never seems good enough. Esther wasn’t the best student, but she was a fabulous dancer. She really had energy and style. She also had a weight problem and her bone structure would never have passed most performance dancing standards. She had a choice, after high school, to pursue dancing and perhaps become a teacher of dancing or to do what her family wanted her to do: work with kids. Being an insecure teen, she went along with what her parents wanted. I am very curious where she ended up. Had she had more self confidence, perhaps she would have lost the weight and become the best dancer she could be and taught it to others.
Now Esther’s parents did have good reason to discourage this. After all: working with kids is a more stable career move. Perhaps she did have to let go of the dream and serve humanity through working with kids. This is the sort of thing that is very hard to judge. Balancing out realism and just going for it is one of the main challenges in all of our lives. It is part of the struggle of modernity.
Spirituality is about letting go of self. Letting go of hurt feelings, when someone does something to make you feel slighted for instance. But to let that go, one needs a certain amount of emotional maturity, self confidence if you will: you need to know that in many cases such things aren’t about you. People are busier thinking about themselves and their own preoccupations than about your needs. Letting that go is wisdom, but it’s also hard if you don’t have self confidence. So actually, it seems self confidence and wisdom go hand in hand.
On the other hand, like all virtues, too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing. Too much self confidence does become arrogance. Too much self confidence also makes for less of a willingness to learn. Self confidence is needed for learning as well. Self confidence can help with perseverance, certainly a trait necessary in learning. Arrogance stops a person from being open to the world and learning from it. N. Sri Ram put that aspect differently by saying:
To be conscious of one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, and an ignorance of parts will not trouble the man who has achieved a happy sense of relationship with the whole. All truth will come to him who has a living relation to things, since to live is to grow and progress. (Thoughts for Aspirants, the chapter on Wisdom)
Paradoxically perhaps – only when you are really secure in yourself is it possible to really be open to the whole. Psychologists might put that differently. They might say that arrogance actually isn’t self confidence. Arrogance is an artificial shell people who are really not so confident hide behind. I’m not sure I agree with that though. Some people have just had so much success that it doesn’t seem necessary to listen to others, be open to them, learn from them. That is self confidence, but it is surely harmful in the long run. Some types of criminals suffer from too much self confidence as well. So self confidence is not the panacea to all the ills people have.
I do feel that in this crazy world one needs self confidence to find ones way – which may be part of the reason ‘the secret’ is so popular.
By the way, I have a very good Robert Frager quote on various levels of transforming the self within the Sufi tradition on my website.