Is it just me, or do we become less confident as we grow older?

When I was 21, I thought I could conquer the world. Everything was in front of me. I had limitless potential. I knew I was brilliant, nice, attractive, well-educated. I had only to set my mind on something and it would be achieved, accompanied by support and praise from those around me.

Perhaps my outstanding confidence was due to the fact that I was a big fish in a very small school. I went to a women’s college that had only 650 students. I was one of three classics majors, and I was the most talented. My professors loved me and encouraged me to go to grad school in the classics. As I graduated from college magna cum laude and gifted with the annual Sibyl Smith Latin award for the third time in a row, I knew I was destined for great things.

Over the next couple of years, that sense of ability and power began to wane. I arrived at grad school, and for the first time in four years, I wasn’t the best anymore. Others in my program were smarter, better, had more potential. It was a blow. I began to realize that I wasn’t all that special. I neglected to make the same kinds of connections I made with my undergrad profs, and fearing that I didn’t have the chops to continue with the Ph.D, I made my decision to leave with a masters in Latin.

Another factor in changing my course away from academia came in the form of my fiance Mike, who was finishing his Ph.D in economics from Yale. I knew that even if I finished my doctorate, the chances of us getting hired at the same place were nonexistent. How could my grad experience at UC Santa Barbara possibly compare with his five years at an Ivy League? Contemplating the comparisons between us and our different academic and professional possibilites also no doubt led to my slipping sense of power and confidence.

The fact that I was beginning a new life with Mike also played into my waning sense of direction and purpose. As a 21 year old with no serious romantic possibilities, it had been easy to fantasize about rising to the top of whatever profession I chose. As a 23 year old, I was forced to come face to face with my biology and the fact that I would be at some point having babies. And how to balance that with a serious academic career….? All these doubts piled into my mind, and I withdrew away from the academic world. And into a terrifying world of grayness. Of not knowing my future. Of not knowing if I am living up to my potential.

I entered my 20’s brimming with possibility and optimism. I am now leaving my 20’s unsure of my future but pretty confident that I’ll never make the big splash in the world that I once anticipated. I wonder if this is a normal progression. If many people in the confidence of youth think that they are destined for great things but then come to realize that their lives and their abilities really aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. Does this realization occur as our lives become more circumscribed by family or geographical limitations? Or is there a flipside I have not experienced? Does confidence grow as people enter into professions and/or parenthood that they feel they are truly suited for?”

Caroline is a part-time high school Latin teacher who dabbles with classes in library science. She enjoys reading female-authored novels, commenting on feminist blogs, and fantasizing about adopting more animals from shelters. She lives in Southern California with Mike and her two rescued pugs, Sophia and Sibyl. She is expecting her first child this summer.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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  1. RLJ says:

    I actually do feel more confident now that I’m older, but I think it’s not only age (I’m about 6 years older than you), but the experience of having children. Having children will humble you like nothing else in the world. I guess once I got over the devastation that my life would not go at all like I’d planned, I was able to pick myself up and be prepared to work harder and longer for what I want. It’s still a struggle. So I still have periods of self-doubt (that’s putting it mildly), but I think my new sense of perspective has served me well.

    I guess this means that confidence can be a cyclical thing.

  2. Tracy M says:

    It would seem that confidence is cyclical- my experience is not too different from yours. Also, young, gifted, favored, felt I could tackle the world, etc. Also, experienced some disillusion as I progressed through my twenties.

    But now as I am looking at 34, expecting my 3rd baby, and going on 7 years of marriage, I see that it was a natural process. You cannot go on feeling infallible and on top of the world forever- a humbling is necessary, and rlj is right, nothing humbles you like having children. Also, when you pick up your pieces and figure out who you are now, you might be surprised and how much you like yourself as opposed to getting so much validation and esteem from the opinions and kudos of others.

    I know that I am on more solid personal ground, with a sence of purpose, self and personal empowerment that I never had as a younger woman. I can only hope it keeps getting better as time goes by, but I do know that even when I hit the bumps in the road, they are only temporary, and no longer rock my whole world.

    Cheers to you- You are doing just fine!

  3. Anonymous says:

    i think there’s a powerful lesson about expectations here. high expectations and goals help drive people to make significant accomplishments, but they also lead to dissatisfaction and disappointment if a person falls short of the mark.

    is this universal? will this continue the rest of our lives? is there a way to balance out the two? can you set high goals without forming strong expectations?

    and i wonder if god (mother and father) also go through similar bouts of falling short and lack of confidence. i mean, they lost a third of their children right at the start. would that have affected their confidence?

  4. Mike says:

    My self-confidence has fluctuated, too, but maybe not to the same degree as your confidence. I also think that confidence is multi-dimensional. You might not be confident in your worldly impact not, but you might also–at the same time–be more confident in your sense of right and wrong, and so on.

  5. Eve says:

    Clearly this is an area where individual experience differs a great deal, but my confidence has gradually increased with age. I wouldn’t go back to my teens or early twenties for anything. Not only am I more confident (although like rlj, I definitely still struggle with self-doubt), I think my confidence now has, or at least strives toward, a more secure foundation. Various crises of confidence and failures have forced me to seek, although certainly not completely attain (!), a more profound and more religious kind of confidence (like that described in D&C 121:45) that emerges from my relationship with God and is more independent of external circumstance. I sometimes feel (and fear) that my life has and will continue to strip me from transient forms of confidence arising from others’ approval by denying me the approval that I too often lust after. I’m still too vulnerable to the praises of men and women, and it frightens me sometimes to consider how much I have learned from my failures, because it suggests that in order to continue to grow in confidence, I very well may need to fail some more at some heartfelt, pet projects.

    I really like what Mike says about increased moral confidence, even as other forms might diminish. That resonates with my experience.

  6. Caroline says:

    It’s good to know that you found a lot of confidence in parenthood. I’ll have a baby this summer, so maybe the advent of the baby will be accompanied by an increased sense of power and impact. Hope so.

    Tracy m,
    I’m glad I’m not the only one who experienced that particular cycle. It’s true that my plummeting confidence has also been accompanied by me no longer getting the worldly kudos I once did. But I do feel like I’ve progressed in this area at least: I no longer crave the praise of those in authority like I once did. (I’m a bit mistrustful of hierarchy these days.) So perhaps an increased sense of my own power and import is coming next…

    you’re right. I’m absolutely a victim of too high expectations of myself and my “career.” Interesting point about our Heavenly Parents struggling with confidence when their children make bad decisions. I’ll have to think more about that.

    Mike and Eve,
    I like what you describe in terms of increased type of moral and/or religious confidence. I think I definitely have experienced this type of personal growth. I was actually telling Mike a couple months ago in a long car ride that I’ve decided to believe in a God who thinks like me. One who loves inclusivity, kindness, compassion, open-mindedness, equality, and that he mourns when people and (even inspired) organizations on this earth don’t live up to these ideals. I told him that I had so much more peace now that I’ve decided to be confident in my moral convictions.

  7. Caroline says:

    Mike and Eve,
    I like what you describe in terms of increased type of moral and/or religious confidence. I think I definitely have experienced this type of personal growth. I was actually telling Mike a couple months ago in a long car ride that I’ve decided to believe in a God who thinks like me. One who loves inclusivity, kindness, compassion, open-mindedness, equality. One who mourns when people and (even inspired) organizations on this earth don’t live up to these ideals.

    I told him that I had so much more peace now that I’ve decided to be confident in my new conception of God and in my moral convictions, since moral convictions are apparently the only type of “spirit” I’ll ever feel. There’s nothing more horrible than feeling that God is fundamentally unfair and wrong. But that’s the subject of another post…

  8. Caroline says:

    ummm. oops. I meant to delete that last paragragh of my first response. sorry for the repetition.

  9. amelia says:

    it’s been interesting to read this discussion. i used to trip blithely along, believing I could do everything and that (of course) everything that was *supposed* to happen in my life (read marriage, children, love, etc.) would happen. As I’ve gotten older and those things haven’t happened, I’ve experienced quite the shock to my system. I’m still a fairly confident person when it comes to knowing who I am and what I want. and I’m pretty outspoken about what I think. So I think I usually come across as confident. But as I’ve struggled to come to some peace with the fact that everything that was supposed to happen in my life by now (if you’d asked me ten years ago where I’d be today, I would have said I don’t know but I’ll be married with a couple of children) has not happened, I’ve also had to deal with the fact that my discontent with my marital status has also rendered me less confident in other areas of my life. Just as i should be making more effort and working harder at succeeding professionally (because it looks like I’ll be dependent upon that profession) I find myself believing less in my ability to do so. I think this correlation is in part due to general malcontent. it is hard to believe in oneself when one is not happy. and I’ve tried hard to be happier, and have had some success in the last six months. But I also think that part of this is due to the fact that it feels like I couldn’t succeed in even such basic things as marriage and family (when I’d been blessed so many countless times that I would have these things and was always taught to just expect them, as if they were givens), and therefore why should I believe I can succeed in other ways?

    I recognize the poor logic of this reasoning. But it’s not really reasoning that’s happening. It’s much more instinctual than that.

  10. Mike says:

    Caroline, your confidence dropped in one dimension but rose in another, while, Amy, your drop in confidence in one dimension dragged down confidence in another. A contradiction? What is different between your two cases?

  11. stacer says:

    Amy, I know exactly what you mean. You articulated everything I was feeling as I read Caroline’s original post. Even though I’m quite successful at a number of things–got a master’s, now working in a job that’s really moving my career along, and have a number of friends who are writers telling me that they know I’ll be a great editor someday–sometimes I look at my life and think, “This is it?

    And then the guilt comes–because I have *so* much, and I should be happy with what I have, but there’s just that bit that’s missing that seems to throw everything else off balance. (Of course, it doesn’t help that when I allow myself to hope again for things I used to hope for without question, those things continue to elude me. Thus the confidence takes a nosedive, again.)

    It’s actually comforting to hear someone who is married and expecting a baby express that same feeling of discouragement, because then I feel it’s more a factor of growing up and missed expectations in general, rather than feeling like the particular hope I have for marriage and a family eluding me.

  12. Caroline says:

    Mike, interesting question. I don’t know why my confidence has dropped in one area but risen so steeply in another. Probably just a survival mechanism. If I’m going to go through life with any happiness at all, I have to believe in a loving, egalitarian God and in a universe that is not fundamentally unfair and biased against half the world’s population. Of course, I can’t answer for Amy about why her confidence in one area has dragged down hers in another to some extent.

    Hah! That’s what I say to myself. “This is it?” This is all there is? This is all I can do for the world? This is all I’m capable of? Me leading my selfish little life while the rest of the world continues to suffer and starve…? And not only am I not really doing anything to help the world, I don’t even get looked up to with respect for being a professonal or get a feeling that I’m doing a really good job with something.

    The grass is always greener, I guess.

  13. amelia says:


    i think it might be in part due to where the expectations of what i would be were coming from. it seems that the expectations caroline was talking about (how she would excel, how she would change her world, etc.) were, while informed by things outside her, mostly her expectations for herself. my lack of confidence is born of not being what i was told from an external source of authority what i not only should be but what i had a divine expectation to be (again, it wasn’t just that i was always taught i should/would be married with children, but also that i was repeatedly blessed that i would be). i think the divine aspect of that equation makes it a bit different.

  14. Dora says:

    Like eve, I think my level of confidence has risen with age. Or, to be more specific, it has gained a steadier foundation. As a child, it was easy to find confidence in the indestructibility of youth … I could conquer the world. As an adult, I have found that there are circumstances which I cannot conquer, at least at this time. So, I redirect my energy to what it is possible for me to do, and try to discover joy in each new opportunity.

    An example would be personal testimony. Who has not seen a young child bearing testimony, repeating words they hear from their parents and teachers, with perhaps a glimmer of comprehension? Fast forward 20 years …(hopefully) the words have gained substance through experience and spiritual striving. The statements may not be as broad, but they are more specific and grounded.

  15. Markie says:

    I have some of these same confidence issues – being a small fish in a big pond, academic failures, a big drop when the PhD turned into “just” a Master’s degree, not having the children that I thought I was entitled to, and when a child finally did come having the great humbling experience of realizing that I have no idea what I’m doing. But, I (like several other responders) feel like it’s a very cyclical experience. I haven’t put my finger on what it is that makes my confidence levels go up and down (although I’m sure I will never feel as ‘confident’ (actually, more prideful and cocky) as I did in my teens and early twenties), but when I feel it slipping, at least I know it will come back someday. And, like Eve, I like my life better now than I did in my teens and early twenties and wouldn’t want to go back. I guess my biggest complaint is that it is impossible to be a thirty-something child prodigy (which was always my ambition and a piece of my identity that is hard to let go of). Oh well, I guess it’s past time for a new life-goal.

  16. Anonymous says:

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  17. C. L. Hanson says:

    I’ve had a similar trajectory to many commenters here: hotshot undergrad discouraged by becoming a middle-of-the-pack grad student. 😉 I stuck it out and finished my Ph.D., but in some ways the decision not to try to continue in Math research or become a professor feels like an admission of failure even though it was a deliberate choice.

    Since then, though, I’ve set and accomplished a bunch of new goals (that I hadn’t even anticipated when I was younger) which have boosted my confidence far beyond where it was in college. Without question I have more confidence now.

    One bit of evidence that made this hit home was re-reading old journal entries and being shocked by the bragging and by the petty things I’d written about people I remembered having liked and learned from. It was like I could see the insecurity jumping off the page…

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