Q: How can I develop self-confidence? Every book I’ve read about achieving success stresses the importance of developing confidence in one’s self, of knowing that one is good at whatever one wants to do. Unfortunately, I simply haven’t that confidence. No matter how hard I try, I never seem to do things as well as I’d like to do them.
SK: I’ve glanced through some of those books, and find that what they’re trying to do is promote egotism. Egotism means pride, which Paramhansa Yogananda said is “the death of wisdom.” Without wisdom, any success achieved will be fragile. What I suggest is that you study the different kinds of success, and the kind of self-confidence that led to that success, and see which works the best.
Q: Are you saying that some kinds of self-confidence work better than others?
SK: Yes. Self-confidence that is not boastful, but rooted in calm self-knowledge, is much more effective than the “crowing rooster” kind.
Q: Well, I’m not interested in outstanding achievements! I just want to be able to do well whatever I do, without dreading the possible consequences.
SK: Evidently, then, you’re struggling with an inferiority complex. Most supposed “cures” for an inferiority complex focus on helping a person to build up his self-esteem. Their purpose is to resuscitate a weak or ailing ego. That can be helpful if the ego has been damaged, but it doesn’t take into account the fact that having an ego at all can be damaging. Why? Simply because it is self-limiting!
The goal of life is to find God. In that search, the first thing you need to overcome is the usual focus on the egoic self. What those attempts at creating self-esteem and self-confidence accomplish, generally, is to replace an inferiority complex with a superiority complex. Both of these “complexes,” Yogananda said, are more or less equally obstacles to true and long-lasting success.
Q: Can you explain further why both of those complexes are obstacles to success?
SK: Ego, considered as a flaw, is simply exaggerated self-involvement. To be insecure can be as much an expression of exaggerated self-consciousness as to be over-confident.
An inferiority complex is like a sponge. It sucks energy into itself, leaving little energy for what needs to be done. Over-confidence, on the other hand, cuts one off from the source of life-giving energy, rendering dry and uninspired whatever one accomplishes.
Q: Can you suggest ways to help me overcome this weakness—this inferiority complex?
SK: Certainly. There are essentially two ways. One is to shift one’s focus away from self-preoccupation, and direct it toward whatever is being done. Once people become really good at doing anything, they usually accept that competence. Self-confidence is no longer an issue.
The second way is to focus on seeking to channel a higher power.
Q: I think I understand that I need to focus less on myself, and I can see the importance of praying for God’s help when the work one does is for Him. My problem, however, relates to work I do for personal ends: seeking work to support my family, or even doing something trivial like defending my point of view in a discussion.
SK: The devotee should always try to include God in everything he does.
Q: But isn’t it somehow wrong to ask Him to inspire me with ways of winning a discussion on political issues?
SK: I agree with you. In my desire to rise above ego, I have always refused to pray for my own needs—such as for a healing when I am ill, or even for reduced pain when I am suffering. Once I had an acute kidney stone attack, and suffered for several hours from the most intense pain I had ever experienced, but I didn’t want to bother God with a plea for help.
It was only hours later, when I suddenly realized that in fifteen minutes a roomful of people were expecting me to give Sunday Service, that I finally said to God, “If You want me to give that service You’re going to have to do something about the pain!” Unbelievably, almost like breath fading from steel, the pain vanished from my body and was replaced by an equally intense joy!
Still, you see, I didn’t pray for myself: I prayed to be able to serve those people if God wanted me to. It’s important to exclude ego-motivation as much as possible. I have held to this principle throughout my life of discipleship.
Q: I do see your point, and hope I won’t forget it. Here’s another point: I find my self-confidence failing in situations where I’m expected to “produce”— such as to speak in public, or even to express my ideas before a small group of people. Under such circumstances, I certainly do pray to God for help — desperately! But I’m so worried about the impression I’ll make that the thought of Him gets crowded out of my mind when I’m speaking.
SK: What I’ve always done, and it has helped me also as a public speaker, is to keep in mind a “worst case scenario.” I’ve said to myself, “What am I afraid of? Isn’t it the thought that people might think me a fool? Very well then, I’ll just accept that maybe I am a fool! If that’s really my problem, what concern should it be of mine that others find out about it?”
If in any other way I turn out to have bungled anything, well, I’ll certainly try my best the next time, but all I can do, even then, is leave the matter in God’s hands. I can’t be responsible for being something I’m not. My only responsibility is to do my best, trying always to improve.
Q: Some of the books I’ve read tell me to visualize myself doing a good job. Might it have helped you to try to visualize yourself as a good public speaker?
SK: Most of a person’s ability to succeed at anything comes from attuning himself to whatever state of consciousness most closely resonates with success in that field. Yogananda one time, as the young director of his school at Ranchi, India, hired a well-known artist to paint a portrait of Lahiri Mahasaya, his guru’s guru. When the job was completed, Yogananda saw that the artist, though competent, had not captured the spirit of that great Master. The artist was upset by Yogananda’s response and challenged him to do a better picture.
Yogananda accepted the challenge, bought a set of paints and brushes, and set to work on creating another painting. His first few attempts were unsuccessful. Each time he failed, however, he tried again more carefully, gradually attuning himself to the skill required for the task. After a week, the new painting was finished.
When the artist saw the new painting, he had the humility to admit that it was better than his own. Yogananda, I suspect, had felt his sincerity, and therefore took the trouble to show him the importance of concentrating more on the deed than on oneself as the doer!
So you see, you must bring God into your work. However, don’t just pray, “Make me successful.” Say, rather, “Guide me, that I understand how to do better whatever it is I do.”
Q: This idea of attuning oneself to the task to be done is new to me. Can you elaborate some more?
SK: Yes. Whenever I’ve really wanted to do something well, I’ve found that by asking God to guide my understanding, rather than asking for the blessing to succeed, I’ve done many things for which no experience could have prepared me better. I’ve found, moreover, that by tuning in to what was needed the answers simply came to me, almost without effort.
Strange as it may seem, I’ve never had much confidence in myself about anything. Writing, I suppose, might be considered an exception: I’ve always known I could write. It is probably safe to say that my self-confidence here was a memory carried over from a previous incarnation and the only exception I remember to my usual lack of self-confidence.
On the other hand, I’ve always been certain I could do anything well I set my mind to — not because I considered myself particularly adept, but because, instead of holding the thought hopelessly, “I can’t do that!” I’ve told myself, “Even though I don’t see how I can do that, I know God can do anything, even through the poorest instrument!”
When I was asked, years ago, to write a book for Ananda’s twentieth anniversary in 1988, my schedule was such that I only had one week free to write it; after that, I had other commitments. With regret I replied that it just wasn’t possible.
Afterward, however, I suddenly thought, “It’s true I myself can’t do it, but God can do anything! Let me open the flood-gates and see what flows out.” Banishing all doubt as to my own ability, I sat down and, not affirming that I myself could do it, simply let come from God what would come. Ideas, and the right words in which to clothe those ideas, simply poured through my fingertips onto the computer keys. I was able, in spite of the time limitation, to write the book within that week.
So here, for the devotee, is an important solution to the problem of lack of self-confidence. If you think, “I don’t see how I can do it,” remind yourself, “but God can do anything!”
The matter goes even deeper than that: It shows that lack of self-confidence can actually be an aid, not a hindrance, to successful accomplishment. Frankly accepting one’s own incompetence will dismiss from one’s mind the whole agonizing process: “Can I? How can I? Do I have the experience to make the job even remotely possible? Couldn’t others do it better? ”
Remember the formula: “I can’t, but God, through me, can do anything!” How many times have I found my solution in that simple thought! In fact, one consequence has been that my own deep-seated self-doubt, brought over from past lives, and its accompanying lack of self-confidence, have been important keys to what perhaps few would deny has been a successful life. That lack of belief in myself, directed outward from myself, has resulted in finishing innumerable projects simply because, in self-forgetfulness, I was able to concentrate one-pointedly on the projects themselves.
Q: Is that formula another reason why you’ve never been nervous about public speaking?
SK: In part, yes. My initiation into public speaking was surely as dramatic as anyone might wish for. I was only twenty-two years old and had been with Yogananda only eight months, when I was asked to take the Master’s place in giving the Sunday morning service at our church in San Diego, California. The announcement had already gone out that he would be speaking that day.
When the curtain opened on the stage that next morning, to reveal this callow youth standing there instead of the great Guru everyone was expecting, a tangible shock went through the whole congregation. Strange as it may seem, I wasn’t nervous. Slightly apprehensive, yes, but I was so keenly aware of the letdown everyone was experiencing that I could only pity them; I hadn’t energy left over to feel sorry for myself.
Well, but that’s another key for overcoming lack of self-confidence: Lose yourself in the thought of (or, in my case, in my concern for) the people, or of the job at hand. Don’t make a big issue of getting yourself out of the way: simply focus all your attention on what needs to be done, and on the people you’re serving.
I’ve found it very helpful to focus also on the “worst case scenario.” I’ve imagined the most dreadful results that might loom before me. Then I’ve asked myself, “Well, so what else? Such things happen, and most people manage somehow to survive them.” Even death, when it comes, is not really the end of very much: just of another phase of existence. Thus, even if death should be the outcome of that “worst case scenario,” think to yourself, “What of it?” Death will have to come some day, so why not prepare yourself for it now?
With that thought in mind, I’ve found I can relax and forget all about being nervous. I should add that it does take a certain firmness of resolution to entertain such thoughts as these.
Q: Frankly, it would be difficult for me to focus on the “worst case scenario.”
SK: Doing so will contribute greatly to your own peace of mind. Often, people fear what will happen, but accept the thing calmly once it has happened. Thus, that “worst case scenario” can help as a visualization. Visualize that worst, then mentally accept it. In this way you’ll stop worrying about your competence, or lack of it, or anything.
Basically, I think the reason I haven’t had a problem with lack of self-confidence is not that I lacked it, but rather that I simply accepted that lack. I haven’t had enough self-confidence even to bother about not having it. By accepting it, and telling myself that God, on the other hand, can supply every lack, I’ve always found there was nothing to worry about.
The whole secret lies in accepting that we, of ourselves, really can’t do anything right, but that God through us can literally do anything!