There are two angles to consider here: the personal, individual one, and then the perspective of the group, the environment of the collective. The personal one is what we tend to focus on almost exclusively in our culture. We think it is up to the individual to surmount obstacles, to achieve his goals, to believe in himself.

And to the extent that this is true, the individual’s self-confidence, basically, is grounded in self knowledge. As we cannot know for sure that circumstances will enable us to accomplish any of our goals, we have to make sure we have the skills, the knowledge, the experience, and the drive to do our best to succeed. With that, we can believe in ourselves.

This is in part about having a realistic assessment of our abilities and aptitudes. Much of this is accessible to consciousness, of course. But some of it is about what we don’t know we know about ourselves, the parts we have not encountered but also the parts we don’t want to think about or recall.

In general, people tend to rank themselves more highly in intelligence, taste, attractiveness, and so on, than objective measures suggest they should. Our inbuilt narcissism inflates self-esteem. Moreover, we are carefully guarded by unconscious mechanisms against particular injuries to self esteem, dangers of embarrassment or failure. Without knowing that we do it, we avoid the risks, reframe the issues, change the subject, recall things differently.

We can’t do that, though, in areas where we want to be truly confident. Athletes review their performances over and over, replay their games and relive their disappointing moments in order to glean more insights into how they can improve. They can’t always anticipate the moves of their competitors or the sudden injuries to which they may be prone, but they can know themselves as players who can count on themselves to understand what they are able to do. Real self-confidence requires this.

But the group adds a vital perspective. It can support and reinforce what the individual believes about himself and sometimes it can virtually destroy what the individual has achieved. We seldom take this into account, but those who have been scapegoated for the sins of a group know all too well how their self-esteem crumbles and how any attempt to hold onto their sense of competence is virtually impossible in the face of that onslaught.

Even those who are laid off as a result of corporate downsizing will often be devastated, unable to hold on to their sense of self-worth, much less their confidence. We are mirrored in the minds of others and sustained in their image of us — and usually we have little conscious awareness of now powerful that is and how necessary to us it is to have that preserved. We learn of it usually when it is suddenly stripped away.

So even self-confidence, no matter how much a product of individual effort, must be reflected and sustained by others.

To be continued — and with your thoughts and experiences as well.