(This Korean term comes from the expression 근거 없는 자신감 (geungeo eomneun jasingam) which literally means “confidence without grounds.” It is when someone has a huge ego or confidence about something that they really shouldn’t).
Having unfounded confidence is puzzling to me since even founded confidence is elusive at times. I have always been fascinated with how one attains healthy self-esteem. I once rather simplistically believed that with some financial security, decent education, stability and love by caregivers, one would love oneself. But anecdotal evidence I’ve collected over the years suggests there are other factors involved. Take, for example, my roommate from my first year of law school in NYC. She was a sprightly, maybe 5-foot blonde Canadian. Let’s call her Quinn. My law school placed us together using a roommate survey, which goes to show you: 1) those surveys are bunk and 2) not all introverts mesh. We shared a dark, furnished one-bedroom loft in the East Village with a good friend of mine who wasn’t a law student. Our place had plum-colored, wall-to-wall carpeting and some bad patio-style furniture. Imagine glass-topped tables with wrought iron legs overrun with tangled vines and leaves. I slept on a mattress on the “loft” above our common living space. The ceiling was so low, I had to crawl on hands and knees or bang my head on the cement ceiling.
Because of my year sleeping above the sofa and TV in a small common room, I have some hostility to the X Files; for Quinn did all her studying, eating and unwinding on that couch while blasting that show. (She was moony-eyed for Mr. Duchovny). (Admittedly, I may have held some resentments that she could study under those conditions and do far better than I did at law school).
Quinn had a lot of quirky habits that would have been charming if I’d liked her more. She drank five to seven Coca-Colas a day, which permanently left her front teeth a translucent neon green. She claimed she could guess the soda’s expiration date by the its taste. (We tested her and she was spot on). Quinn collected so many ten-to-fifteen-dollar European fashion magazines in piles so high they rose like towers in our cramped shared space. Of course if she’d catch me or my friend trying to read one, she’d ask us not to. Her interest in these magazines seemed out-of-left-field, as she didn’t appear conscious of her own appearance or generally interested in fashion. The magazines must have been pure escapism.
She grew up in a small Canadian town I’d never heard of and her dad was the only doctor in town. Consequently, she lived a life of privilege and comfort. She’d gone to the same school most of her life, was mentally swift with good grades, had consistent school friends, and had extended family she was close to. When I met her parents, they were warm, smiley, similarly petite people. I had expected a Medusa-like mother with a stony stare and a penchant for eviscerating comments because Quinn had inordinately poor self-esteem. This surprised me- she had an occasionally funny sense of humor and was smart. I admired that she had no conflict about law school, made law review and seemed humble about her intelligence. I appreciated less how she’d always put herself down and somehow lump me in with her (“well, you and I, with our low flat butts, have trouble wearing certain pants.” I had never thought of myself that way!)
One evening, as the three of us girls sat on the sofa with some drunken, disheveled guy friends who liked to escape their condemned Williamsburg building and lounge with us in our relatively suave digs, Quinn brought the spotlight on herself. One guy friend interrupted our bleary-eyed chatter to look at Quinn and say “You know, you’re not bad. You’re even pretty,” his long-held crush on display. Before we knew it, Quinn stood up, stomped her feet, pumped her arms like a child in tantrum and shouted “I am not! I am not!” We stared at her, perfectly confused. She was the only who hadn’t had a drink.
As a parent, it’s a bit disheartening to recall my roommate and realize that regardless of all the love, support and stability I give my offspring, there’s no guarantee they will end up with an overflow of self-regard. Supposedly there’s a gene, the OXTR gene, that is associated with one’s optimism and self-esteem. (This is separate from the depression gene). As an adoptee with a mysterious gene pool, I greet this news ambivalently. Does this mean my years of therapy could be futile at some point as my genes might limit my self confidence and self-esteem? Could my Herculean efforts to accept myself be, in fact, Sisyphean?
It’s nice to know that to some degree, self-esteem is mutable over time. I’m certainly happier about most aspects of myself than I was as a high schooler and young woman. I wonder if Quinn has become a confident middle aged-woman now, or if she’s still rotting her teeth with Cokes and putting herself down constantly. I certainly hope she has grown more appreciative of herself. It’s less nice but not altogether surprising to know that “[self-esteem] increases in stability throughout adolescence and young adulthood until midlife and starts to decline thereafter.” Geez, did we need yet another drawback of old age?? May we (you my reader and I) be glorious outliers and get cockier and cockier as we age. (It’s hard not to hear the song Cocky AF by Meghan the Stallion in my head right now).
Because I am unfortunately a comparative person, this post made me consider how my self-esteem compares to others. I took a self-esteem test on Psychology Today‘s website. I scored 47 out of 100, so a little lackluster but nothing to be overly concerned with. Consider taking the same quiz, because why not? Don’t place too much significance on your score, please. Supposedly, the widely-held cult of self-esteem, the belief that glowing self-esteem is the key to success (and its absence a sign of criminality), which still lingers today, was a hyped up movement that wasn’t backed up by valid scientific studies. (Don’t judge me that I am getting my “research” from this fun but unserious news source. I enjoyed learning how teachers at the height of this movement would not use red pens to make corrections on schoolwork out of the unfounded belief that it harmed student self-esteem). As this article points out, some criminals have good self-esteem (and might score well on the test) so self esteem is obviously a good thing but is not proven to be the key to a good life.
I conclude by circling back to the Korean word geunjagam, unfounded confidence. The word has a largely negative connotation. I think of unqualified people running for difficult political positions that they are not suited for (e.g, former mayor DeBlasio or worse buffoons who run for President). Unfounded confidence reminds me of the arrogant partner in a law firm who co-counseled an employment discrimination case with me years ago. He had no employment law litigation experience and I had many years at that point. I had carefully drafted a federal court complaint and sent it to him. In surprising, lickety-split time, he emailed me a very scratched-out version without any comments. Each of his substantive edits were blatantly wrong—evidencing no understanding of the law. When I defended my edits and explained them, I remember thinking “how amazing he showed no signs of embarrassment!” (I would have turned into my most fluttering, apologetic self. dug into myself with base names/insults and probably replayed this mistake to friends and family ad nauseum).
But there are indeed some examples when unfounded confidence is admirable. I’m thinking of the gripping Korean drama I recently watched on Netflix, Start-Up, where the scrappy young program developers enter a very out-of-their league competition with their barely completed program and of course do a lot of faking it until they are indeed making it. (Yes, I did use that cliched expression here). I admit, I even feel a tinge of admiration for the law students who apply to be interns at my office and declare they are very proficient in Spanish on their resume when they are more like “I use Duolingo once a week” speakers. Later, when subjected to an on-the-spot Spanish conversation test at their interview, these students inevitably do not pass. But is their unfounded confidence (absent blatant lying about their language ability) so bad? It gives them an interview and chance to fake it, wing it, and maybe luck out. They can, after all, take a crash Spanish course before starting the job. Is it crazy to say my New Year’s resolution is to dabble in unfounded confidence once in a while? For those with weak to average confidence, maybe it’s sound advice. Who knows what doors will open?
(Much thanks to my teen son who always edits my posts because he’s a fantastic editor. He’s stopped me from italicizing things like Instagram, calling TV, t.v and using commas wrongly. Xoxo).