Recently, I was in the company of one of my best friends, a woman for whom I have the highest affection and regard. Her intelligence, work ethic and determination leave me in the shade, and her accomplishments, both personally and professionally, are many. We sat, and we talked, and we shared many things that day, but among them was a deep and painful thing, a secret that we’ve both been harbouring, and something that – sadly – I think may affect many women.

And this is it.

We feel like frauds.

Image: bartbusinessgroup.com

Image: bartbusinessgroup.com

My friend is extremely well-educated, and has worked harder, all through her life, than anyone I’ve ever known. Yet, she feels like any opportunity that comes her way is down to someone doing her a favour, or taking pity on her, or making a mistake. She convinces herself that whenever something good happens, it will all be taken away in the next breath when the error is discovered. She feels she’s not qualified, or not worthy, or not entitled to the fruits of her own labour, that she’s just ‘lucky’ or ‘in the right place at the right time.’ I was horrified and saddened to hear her say things like this, not only because she’s wrong – because everything she is offered, she has earned with her own toil and talent – but because she described, almost exactly, what it feels like to be inside my head.

In the last few days, I’ve read a couple of articles (The Confidence Gap and Time to Man Up!) which have really made me think hard about what it means to be a woman in the professional world, particularly a woman in a creative field. I can’t speak for all women, of course, and I’m not in a position to make claims on sociological or biological truths about gender and its relation to the workplace, but these articles did make an impression on me. Are girls encouraged, from a young age, to ‘follow the rules’ and be ‘good’, not to take risks, not to muddle through, not to learn on the job? Are they rewarded for being ‘perfect,’ for knowing everything about a subject before they start, for not embarking upon a task without being fully prepared for every eventuality? Are they trained – even implicitly – to value doing things by the book, without any room for improvisation, over taking a chance and seeing how it works out?

From my own experience, yes. From my earliest days of school, yes. This is how it was. Boys were allowed to be messy, praised for doing a ‘good enough’ job; girls praised for doing ‘pretty’ or ‘perfect’ or ‘beautiful’ work. A boy could colour outside the lines, and still be praised for completing his picture. A girl would be encouraged to do ‘better’ next time. Taking chances, approximating, imperfection which nonetheless worked well enough – those things are alien to a lot of women, because as girls we were rewarded for working hard to get things just right, and always doing our best to be perfect. The sad thing about this is that a lot of women grow up to believe that their best is never good enough; a person’s best can never be completely perfect, of course. So, your ‘best’ can never live up to the idea of ‘perfect’ that you hold in your mind.

And there's all this to live up to, too... Image: stepfordwives.org

And there’s all this to live up to, too…
Image: stepfordwives.org

Like my friend, I work hard. Like her, my professional life revolves around the world of the mind, a creative career which involves self-possession, self-confidence and an ability to ‘market’ the skills and talents in our possession. The major drawback to this is that, like my friend, I have very little self-possession and self-confidence, and self-deprecation comes far more naturally to me than its opposite. I also convince myself that any opportunities I am given are down to favours being done behind the scenes, or strings being pulled, or mistakes being made. I am constantly waiting for the ‘hand on the shoulder’, the apologetic email telling me that an error has occurred, terribly sad about it, please do forgive us. It’s a struggle to believe that anything I achieve is down to my own ability or hard work; I have to force myself to silence the inner voice that says ‘you don’t deserve this.’

It’s like taking a shovel and digging holes inside yourself, boring away at your self-belief, the foundations of your person. It’s like tunnelling away at the ground beneath your own feet, until you fall into a pit of self-doubt from which it’s practically impossible to escape. It’s nothing short of crazy, and yet I do it – and now I know that one of the women I admire most in the world does the very same thing. It makes me sad at the same time as it gives me comfort; I’m not alone, but it allows me to see how truly silly a thing it is to do.

Last week, I was given an amazing opportunity. I was chosen as one of seventy-five writers who will have a chance to meet face-to-face with a literary agent specialising in their field at an event called ‘Date with an Agent’, being held as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival. This is, of course, an incredible chance, for which I am immensely grateful, but I’ve spent so much time over the past few days telling myself I didn’t really earn it, that I’m just pretending to know what I’m talking about, that I have no idea what I’m doing. Perhaps if I’d been encouraged to think flexibly, embrace the idea of taking chances, and allowed myself to make intelligent mistakes when I was younger, I’d feel differently about this situation.

And perhaps I wouldn’t. Who knows?

I’m sure many men can understand what I’m saying here, too; women don’t have the monopoly on self-doubt or societal pressure, of course, and I know men who would struggle with the same insecurities as I’ve described here. It might also be the case that I’m putting too much emphasis on things learned at a very young age, things that – logically enough – should have been put aside in favour of adult thinking a long time ago. But all I can describe is how I, personally, feel: all I can say is ‘this is my reality.’ I’m not sure if it’s down to being a woman, or to any amount of other factors, which may not even be related to one another. It is an issue which is larger than me, though; it’s part of the larger challenge of negotiating the world of creative work, and the reality of being a woman in a world which rewards traditionally ‘male’ behaviour like confidence, risk-taking and on-the-spot learning.

All I know is: I’m going to have to put my tunnelling shovel down, and stop undermining myself. Perhaps, by doing that, I can show other women – like my dear friend – that they can do it, too, and if we all stop digging tunnels, it will shore up the ground beneath everybody’s feet – men, women, creatives and non-creatives alike.

image: rollingfruitbats.com

image: rollingfruitbats.com

Any thoughts on this? Do you empathise with the self-doubt I’m talking about here, or do you think it’s a load of hooey? Do you think it’s gender-based, or down to something else entirely?

12 thoughts on “Tunnelling

  1. alisonwells

    Thanks so much for this, it really resonates. I definitely suffer from the tyranny of feeling I have to be perfect or, as you say, if my work is chosen I often think that it’s because of something other than my abilities or that it’s not as much of an accomplishment as someone elses. I was watching a programme about a chef looking for a Michelin star on telly last night. He was a perfectionist, nothing was ever good enough, he felt he was never good enough and had to keep striving. This push for perfection, this striving is good in that it makes you aim to be the best you can be but there is also a massive downside because you will never be perfect and you’ll always be critical of and annoyed with yourself for not achieving what you believe is the necessary level. It doesn’t make for a fulfilling creative life. There is always this dichotomy for the creative person between ambition and endeavour and feeling that your work is good enough at a particular time and place and feeling proud. I do agree there can be gender differences (and possibly youth vs age differences? )in what we might call arrogance (confidence without caveats or comparison to others) but it’s probably more a general thing amongst creatives. There is always an ideal towards which we strive, the complete picture is probably unattainable but we need to keep that optimism and verve in order to keep going and keep working towards satisfactory expression.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Alison – what a great comment. I’m glad you feel it’s not gender-based so much as to do with a creative mind; I don’t like reducing things to gender stereotypes, and I like to think of ways to look at issues like this beyond the man/woman divide. Your anecdote about the chef is a perfect example of how perfectionism – which is a great motivator – can also be hugely destructive.

      I do try to remember the mantra ‘You Are Enough’ – whatever ‘enough’ might mean at that particular moment – but it’s not always easy.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment – I really appreciate it. πŸ™‚

  2. Kate Wally

    I don’t know whether this is gender based or whether women are more or less susceptible than men. I do know you’re describing me. I live my life day by day waiting for people to realise I’m quite hopeless at everything I do, that all I have achieved was an utter fluke or that someone simply felt sorry for me and allowed me to pass. There is no other logical reason for any of my successes. I’m a fraud. Someone please arrest me.

    Thank you for writing this post and for writing it with such clarity. I’ve written a couple of posts on this myself, but deleted them for fear they sounded like I was fishing for complements. This is perfect.

    We *should* be talking more about this. I’m sure many others relate to it. xx

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Kate. I certainly don’t wish to fish for compliments – and I know what you mean when you say that it’s hard to write a post like this without sounding as though all you want is for someone to tell you you’re wonderful! πŸ˜€ That’s not what it’s about, at all – as you know. I’m sorry you feel like this, too – and it further bolsters my point that it’s the most capable of people, the hard-working, conscientious types who can be prone to these feelings. It’s remarkable how we taken any chance we can get to pull ourselves down.

      Thanks so much for your comment, and your honesty. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope that you’ll be able to put your shovel down and walk away from the tunnels in future… πŸ™‚

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Misha. I guess I went down the gender route because that’s what my friend and I were discussing, and that was the angle in the articles I linked to. As I said in the post, though, I’m pretty sure there are men who feel just the same way – and you prove that point. As another commenter said, it might be more about the ‘creative’ mind than the gender of that mind.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Tara Sparling

    I must first give you heartiest congratulations for your date with an agent! You deserve it! – Now take the compliment πŸ˜‰

    I don’t know either if it’s a gender-based thing with me, or an Irish thing. Or a west of Ireland thing. Where I come from, anything complimentary said about yourself was considered to be boasting, which was a terrible thing to say. “Self-praise is no praise” was a mantra in my national school. What a horrible thing to do to kids.

    I don’t find it creeps into my professional life as much as it used to, but I work in a male-dominated environment, so maybe it is a gender thing, and I’ve been converted… When it comes to my creative life, though, I am a complete sap. Every achievement is an anomaly. I think I’m preparing myself for disappointment, but am I actually making myself fail instead I wonder?

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thank you for the congratulations, Tara. (Phew. That wasn’t so hard! :D)

      Oh, yes – we had the ‘self praise is no praise’ drummed into us as kids, too. Being big-headed – or, being *seen* to be big-headed – was a one way ticket to Pariahville when I was younger, and I think that’s lasted all the way into adulthood. Of course, there is a fine line between arrogance and self-confidence, but I think a lot of people I know have squashed any seed of self-belief so completely underfoot that all we’re left with is neurosis, which isn’t good either.

      Ah, male-dominated environments. I used to work in those, for a long looooong time. I found they made me worse. Perhaps it depends on the kind of males you’re working with. πŸ™‚

      Maybe we should start a self-help group, where we can reassure one another that we’ve earned our achievements, and that they haven’t been bestowed upon us just ‘because.’ It’s an interesting point you raise in your last sentence – if we’re always preparing for disappointment, are we setting ourselves up for failure? :/ I don’t know, but it sounds like there could be a lick of sense in it. That would be so sad.

      Thanks for the comment, and for your thoughts.


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