By Melissa Carney, PCB Director of Outreach & Engagement
Confidence is a complicated term. Traditionally, it is described as a feeling or belief of firm trust in and reliance on someone or something. However, there is a lot of wiggle room in this definition. How quickly does confidence grow? How easily can we gain or lose faith in ourselves? Is there a point at which confidence is truly palpable? Does failure make up just as much of the equation as determination?
The answer to all these questions is that there is no answer. Confidence displays itself differently in each individual. Our personal interpretations of confidence are shaped by our experiences and backgrounds, as well as our trials and errors. However, because we express confidence in a multitude of ways, it is imperative to learn from one another and adopt new ideas and perspectives of how we motivate ourselves to find trust in our abilities.
I could tell you how I gained confidence speaking to large crowds on stage, navigating through cities with my guide dog, and standing up for my accommodations and rights as a blind person, all of which made me anxious at first. Instead, I am going to describe a journey that occurred a bit closer to home, something that I am sure most of us can relate to despite diverse backgrounds.
In elementary school, my Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) enticed me with lessons to make my favorite foods, unsurprisingly, for a fifth grader, cookies and pasta. As you may well know, the attention span of a 9-year-old is atrocious. I was excited about the results of these cooking lessons, but I lost interest in the process. I was also extremely nervous around the heat of the stove and oven. My mom did her best to educate me about cooking tips and tricks, even when I sat in the kitchen with her and did not have a hand in the meal itself. However, as I entered middle school and high school, my priorities fell into line with my sighted peers. I did not know a single peer my age who cooked, and so I chose to follow their example by placing kitchen education on the bottom of the to-do list, and putting social activities, acceptance, and sports near the top. I did not understand then that it was important to be ahead of the curve, because one day, I would not only need to learn how to cook, but how to cook in an accessible way.
As college drew closer, I picked up several recipes from my mom. Though I was able to cook them independently, I cringed at the idea of not having supervision, not having someone to fall back on if something went wrong. That was my first indicator that I was truly bothered by my lack of confidence and experience in the kitchen. The knowledge that I might not be able to support my family and friends in return shocked me into action. I promised myself that, even if I might be eating at the dining hall for 4 years at college, I would make more of an effort to pay attention in the kitchen while home for breaks. This was when my journey in the kitchen truly began.
I realized very quickly that I would not become a proficient cook overnight. After so many years of avoidance, I had to work hard to enhance both my confidence and skills overtime. I lost count of the number of incidents in which I spilled flour all over the counter, struggled to peel a potato, or forgot the names of important spices. My family continued to encourage me when they noticed my determination. My mom took that faith a step further by thinking up ways that her cooking methods could be adapted. She taught me how to observe the texture of meat, feeling with a wooden spoon as it went from spongy to solid as it cooked. She taught me how to effectively pour spices and liquids according to their consistencies to avoid spills. Above all, I learned that, once you show initiative, and find that those who care about you have faith in your abilities and potential, confidence is in reach. Half the battle is realizing that you must adjust to succeed. From there, you must make mistakes, figure out how to clean up your messes, both literally and metaphorically, and use each error as a steppingstone to greater comprehension of the task at hand.
I was truly tested once I moved into my first apartment in August, but it turned out that this was exactly the final push I needed. I had the skills by then to prepare meals on my own, but it was a matter of proving to myself that I could succeed, despite being hundreds of miles away from my mentors. I was no longer a student in the kitchen, but an active participant, with her own space to organize and experiment. Over time, I began to understand my own cooking preferences, to tamper with the ingredients of a recipe to slightly alter the flavor, or to design shortcuts to assist with time management after a busy workday. I explored new cuisines, spices such as dill and curry, and finally tried my hand at baking cookies from scratch. True confidence has also helped me to admit to myself when I might need help; there is no shame in relying on your support network for advice when needed.
I do not believe that confidence is something that ceases to grow with time, nor do I believe that it will always show itself as boldly from day to day. What I do believe is that confidence is essential to how we perceive ourselves and our capabilities, and how we choose to advocate for those capabilities both internally and to those around us. If there is a desire to obtain a skill, we should not shy away from that knowledge simply because we do not know when it will become a possibility. We should seek out resources, mentors, and fellow advocates who can point us along the right path. If we have an inner drive to further our independence, we should act on it, no matter how small or monumental the objective may seem. Every ounce of motivation, perseverance, or curiosity is an opportunity to further our confidence and raise our own expectations of what we can accomplish. For those like me who want to be able to feel comfortable, and truly at home, in their kitchen, do not be afraid to phone a friend, blind or sighted, and tell them about your goals. Build a community of supporters, or enter one that already exists, such as your peers in the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind. Be honest with your reservations and concerns, as that is the easiest way to grow and move beyond them. You are in the driver’s seat of your own life.