10 – Confidence Is Chemical

Seven of the ten deadliest snakes in the world are native to Australia; the deadly funnel-web spider is rife in suburban Sydney; the box jellyfish, with its deadly stinging tentacles, inhabits the waters just off the coast of northern Queensland; Phillip Island, just over 100km from Melbourne, is a breeding ground for the deadly Great White Shark…

…Qantas have never lost a commercial passenger jet.

At least I had one comforting, non-deadly piece of antipodean trivia to ponder over as Qantas flight QF10 rose gracefully from the tarmac at Heathrow Airport, before heading south-east into the night sky to begin the long journey to almost certain venom.

As we climbed to cruising altitude, I looked back over this closing chapter in my life. I could scarcely believe it had been only eighteen months since I had heart-wrenchingly bade a fond farewell to Glasgow and headed south to begin a new life in the hustle and bustle of The Big Smoke.

I had always wanted to experience life in London; I had been determined to stick it out for at least a year. I also wanted to face up to the homesickness demon that had always plagued me, and prove to myself that I could actually live beyond the borders of Glasgow.

But I never settled in London, never really enjoyed the place. To make matters worse, everyone there thought that I spoke so rough and fast that I sounded more like a Staffordshire Bull Terrier on heat than a man speaking the Queen’s English.

Well, having scratched the Big Smoke Itch, and scared a few Londoners, the last golden opportunity that my job in London gave me was a chance to live Doon Unner for a year. I’d always wanted to experience living overseas too, so how could I say no? Once again, I was determined to give it a go.

But as I sat there buckled firmly into my upright-positioned window seat, finally with my back to London, I severely lacked the confidence that I would last the distance. Given my track record with extreme gut-retching homesickness, and the fact that Melbourne was not the short flight from Glasgow that London was, my safety net was now gone.

I also lacked the confidence that I wouldn’t be bitten or stung to death halfway through this next chapter. Yep, my what-if anxious mind made it quite clear it had come along for the journey too.

If only I’d looked back a little further, I would have realised this was the story of my life – dogged determination, kept in check by a lack of self-confidence.

If, for example, I had looked back as far as my schooldays, when it came to girls, I was a complete confidence-free zone. I always envied the confident in-crowd guys at school who dated all the girls. They seemed to live in a different world; they were the stars on a glamorous television show, and I was just a viewer. I barely uttered a word to the girls in my year, and I found the whole ordeal quite depressing.

I just didn’t realise back then that a lack of self-confidence doesn’t cause depression but rather goes hand in hand with depression. Like depression’s wingman.

I used to hate it when someone would say “you just need to develop more self confidence, Mark.” Statements like that just made matters worse, I tell you! I mean developing self-confidence is hardly the same as developing a photograph. How can you develop more of something when you don’t know what it is that you are trying to develop?

Once I left school, my determination fortunately got a boost and I started asking out practically every girl who caught my eye. But I still lacked the confidence that any of them would ever say yes – so I never knew what to do next with the ones who actually did.

There were some whom I knew I didn’t stand a chance with, but my determination meant that at the very least I had to find out – I was never going to die not knowing.

I certainly had more ‘no’s than ‘yes’s over the years, but some of the ‘yes’s really were unexpected surprises, nay shocks.

One that really sticks out in my mind is when I was working part-time in a bar in Glasgow, every Friday night. Many of the staff and regulars had their eye on my jovial and not unattractive boss. As, of course, did I.

Once I had decided to make my move, I was practically falling over myself with nervousness as I walked into work.

“You mean, as in a date?!” she replied, somewhat surprised, when I fabricated the opportunity to get her by herself. The only thing I was confident of at that point was that I was about to get a polite rejection.

When I clarified my intentions, to my utter amazement she followed up with a “sure, why not!” It may have only gone on to last two dates, but unless my maths are wrong, two dates is infinitely greater than no dates.

Talking of maths, I also did not too badly on the academic front. OK so I did excel (even if I do say so myself!) at primary school – but that is hardly curriculum vitae headline material, is it?

I didn’t, however, stand out like a genius at high school or Uni – but I did ok. I was quite good at some subjects, but I made up for it by being complete pants at others. Nor was I ever a star on the sports field, but I was always reasonably fit.

My favourite subjects at school were French and Italian, ones in which I would class myself as above average, though by no means outstanding. My worst subject on the other hand was English, where I literally managed to scrape through. No Staffie jokes, please…

But such was my affliction with homesickness that I completely lacked the confidence I would last a compulsory year living in France or Italy if I studied my favourite languages at Uni. I was absolutely terrified at the prospect, so I dropped them. After graduating from Uni, completely lacking any sense of direction, I went on to take up a job in Glasgow as…an accountant. Go figure!

If the truth be told, I didn’t ever stand out at anything I did in life, at work or at play, so I was more surprised than anyone when my London employers actually offered to fly me to Australia and give me a job there.

And I’m not making things up here. I still have performance reviews from my time in London that say I was a reliable, average employee – who lacked in confidence.

I didn’t realise until I was almost in my forties that my average performances were nothing to do with lack of ability, but rather all down to that lack of confidence.

And so I couldn’t help but feel that I was sitting in someone else’s seat on flight QF10 as the map of the United Kingdom disappeared off the left side of the overhead screens. Surely it was only the confident, high-flying career types who literally got high-flown to the other side of the world with jobs waiting for them when they got there?

While I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in part enjoying the adventure, I was also terrified that I’d be found out for the complete fake that I felt like, and that I would be sent packing on the next flight back to Glasgow. I simply lacked the confidence that I was up to the job that was waiting for me.

So what exactly is this elusive little critter we call confidence? Before I started writing this post, I asked a few people for their views.

One friend’s opinion is that confidence is in the eye of the beholder – because she was once turned down for a job for not portraying any confidence, whereas she was asked back for a second interview with a different employer because she came across so confidently.

Another friend reckons that lack of confidence is no pints; confidence is two pints; overconfidence is four pints. He never did tell me what six or eight pints was, though.

My favourite answer was that confidence means believing in your abilities, backing yourself, making decisions with conviction.

Yet none of the above answered the important question – how do you develop more of the stuff?

But before I could find the answer, I had to sit in a dark cave for many years under the watchful gaze of a growling black dog and lacking in self-confidence. Because before I knew what confidence was, first I had to know what it wasn’t.

I have in the past suggested that one of the stigmas associated with antidepressants is the very term ‘antidepressant’. I believe that ‘Serotonin Boosters’ would be a more accurate and less stigma-inducing term, given that boosting brain serotonin levels is exactly what SSRIs do.

Once my own ‘Serotonin Boosters’ kicked in, I began to feel what I can only describe as instinctively normal. My racing what-if irrational thoughts gradually slowed down. Eventually, all the clutter cleared and only rational thoughts remained. Like putting on a pair of internal glasses, I began to have focus and clarity of thought. I also began to develop – self-confidence!

Previously, for example, I might have found myself in a meeting at work, where someone would say something that I disagreed with. But they would say it so confidently, with such conviction, that my racing what-if thinking would convince me in the heat of the moment that they must be right and I wrong – even if I knew deep down that I was right. And so I’d keep quiet. Nowadays, however, I am more confident about expressing my opinion regardless, it doesn’t need to be confrontational!

And how often do we do or say something we don’t mean to or want to, or even at times the opposite, purely out of blind fear or lack of confidence that we may otherwise offend someone?

What if, I now asked myself, what if all those years it was my irrationally worrying mind that had been stripping me of self-confidence? What if it had been holding me back from believing in my abilities, from backing myself, from making decisions with conviction, simply because it was asking too many questions? Questions, that is, that distracted me and made me hesitate in doing the things I wanted to do, saying the things I wanted to say.

What if all my incessant worrying had been giving me not just a second opinion, but a third, fourth, fifth, umpteenth simultaneous opinion about everything – and I mean everything – that could go possibly wrong if I did what I really wanted to do?

And to answer the sixty four million dollar question, what if confidence could be defined as nothing more than clarity of thought?

Just to reiterate from a previous post, the little Paroxetine pills that I take on a daily basis create this clarity of thought at a basic chemical level by acting on the neurotransmitter, serotonin.

Serotonin is temporarily released in the brain to relay signals – commands and thoughts – across the neural pathways. The serotonin is then reabsorbed so that it can be recycled to relay another thought, another time.

Paroxetine and other SSRI medications work by simply delaying the reabsorption process, allowing the serotonin to linger a little longer.

As I’ve literally felt for myself, this “extra time” boosts the signals running through my brain. It strengthens my thoughts by giving them just a little more time to get through.

It also mutes my incessant what-if self questioning, replacing it with clear logical thought, allowing me to focus on what I really want to do and say.

It is this focus and clarity of thought, brought about by a reduction in clutter, that I believe produces a boost in self-confidence.

I also have a theory about how irrational worrying thoughts come to be. I believe that in my pre-Paroxetine days, all my logical true-self thoughts that didn’t manage to leap across my neural pathways before the serotonin was prematurely sucked away were left with nowhere to go. Trapped, they were then left swirling around, trying to find a way out. Unable to do so, they became irrational, panicked, and stripped me of any focus and self-confidence.

On the flipside, I had experienced occasional brief periods of confidence over the years. Nowadays, even with my serotonin levels permanently boosted, I don’t walk around like six pints of superoverconfidence, believing I’m invincible. The balance is simply right nowadays; any more would be dangerous for sure

It also took me several months on my medication to become fully confident that the worst, most irrational outcomes I ever imagined would not happen – and that I was worthy of good things happening to me.

During those initial months, I still experienced blips of depression and anxiety. To this day I still experience ups and downs in mood and confidence, but nothing like the extremes of my past.

I now recognize that these ups and downs are just fluctuations in chemicals in my brain. This all leads me to believe that at its most basic level, confidence is chemical.

I’m not saying that should pop a Paroxetine a day just to boost their confidence. That would fall into the controversial realm of what psychiatrist Peter Kramer calls Cosmetic Pharmacology. Nice side effect for once, though.

In any case, not everyone responds to the same medications in the same ways. SSRIs such as Paroxetine, for example, may be ineffective for anyone whose brain lacks the ability to produce enough serotonin to begin with.

But take a look at successful people like Richard Branson who once had a successful record company that had made him millions. He then sold it to risk his lot on an airline.

I’m sure he had some nervous moments along the way, but I’m also sure that near-perfect serotonin levels in his brain would have contributed to his confidence levels, as well as to the success of his airline.

Talking of airlines, when flight QF10 finally touched down in Melbourne, I was immediately on my guard and looking out for any signs of danger.

As my taxi sped down the Tullamarine Freeway, I was surprised to not see any snakes hissing at passing traffic from the roadside, or huge spider webs draped across the overhead gantries. I also have to admit that I was disappointed to not see any kangaroos leaping clean across the freeway in a single bound. Nothing like I had imagined.

It still took a long time, however, before my overimaginative mind was confident enough for me to stop making detailed snake inspections under my doona (sorry, quilt!) before I could settle down for the night. Or before I was able to slip my feet into my shoes in the morning without cringing at the thought of a rogue bird-eating spider dining on my big toe.

Of course, I would have quite happily taken a bath without expecting to see a shark fin emerge from the murky depths, not even my irrational mind was that imaginative. But I preferred to take a shower, as my bath was only four feet long whereas I am a strapping six-footer.

Over the years, my accent has also softened, ever so slightly. And now that I don’t have constant worries racing around inside my head, I am actually able to listen to what I am saying while I am saying it, so I now talk more slowly. In other words, as well as understanding myself better, I am also more understandable. People no longer look at me like I am a Staffordshire Bull Terrier on heat.

Pour a few whiskies down my throat, however, and my accent and speed of speech still revert back to normal. Don’t worry – I don’t bite.


Part Eleven coming soon! Watch this space…


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