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.
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.
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.
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?