Tag Archives: self-belief

Tunnelling

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?

Just Like Starting Over

This morning, we woke to a refreshed world. Heavy rain fell in most places last night, washing away the dust and dessication of the last few weeks, and the air feels lighter and clearer this morning. For the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I’m wearing a too-tight hat made of red-hot metal, and a headache isn’t threatening to engulf me. It’s a nice feeling.

Because of all this freshness, several related things are on my mind this morning, things like: learning from the past and then leaving it behind, new beginnings, corners being turned and change being made for the better (hopefully, at least). Today’s the perfect day to think about things like this. The earthy, rich air is coming in my open window and the grass is sighing with relief outside, and everything feels new.

Image: flickriver.com

Image: flickriver.com

Nobody goes through life without making mistakes, or doing things that, on reflection, they would have decided against if they’d been given a second chance; everyone has done or said things which cause them to cringe with embarrassment when they creep into mind weeks or months or even years later. I am no exception, of course. Learning from your mistakes, allowing them to shape your future in a positive way, and eventually letting them go, is a very important life skill. I’ve always had trouble with the ‘letting them go’ part of this model; I find it very difficult, and always have. I tend to hold on to my regrets and my embarrassments, and over time they ferment into something more damaging, something which feels a lot like guilt.

Guilt can be a terribly corrosive emotion – I’m not even sure ’emotion’ is the correct word. Perhaps ‘force’ is better. It’s something which can erode a person’s self-belief and confidence, warping their ability to lay down plans for their future life, robbing them of any ability to move forward and keep going. I’m not talking here about ‘justified’ guilt – i.e. the natural and perhaps deserved guilt a person may feel if they commit a crime or harm someone else or break the law; I’m talking about the pernicious kind, the self-directed, self-harming kind, the sort of guilt that eats you up over mistakes made, things said in anger or in error, things for which you can’t forgive yourself. Things which you carry with you like a ball and chain. I think certain people are perhaps more prone to this sort of thinking than others; perfectionists, for instance, or people who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are carrying a burden of expectation, or people who are serious, and careful, and who like to be right. People, in short, who can’t deal with the fact that sometimes, they’re going to say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time, and that it’s just another part of life. There has to come a point, however, where this foundation-dissolving guilt is allowed to trickle away, and the person can be washed clean of it; that’s difficult, though, when the person can’t let themselves get past it.

When I make a mistake that causes me to be embarrassed by my own behaviour or when I engage on a course of action that I later regret, I tend to build a skin of forgetfulness over the whole thing; of course, like any skin, it’s vulnerable and porous and prone to being popped. I push away my mistake, I try not to think about my error, I don’t allow myself to deal with it rationally and come to the (inevitable) conclusion: ‘it wasn’t all that bad. What are you beating yourself up over?’ Instead, the memory remains, buried deep, ready to explode at any moment. Like a sore tooth or a niggling pain, though, the awareness of the bubble of guilt deep within me is always there. I might choose to ignore it, but I know exactly where it is. In that way, then, my attempts to forget it, to cover it over, to leave it behind, are all fruitless. It becomes the focal point of my mental life, and an insurmountable obstacle.

I’m not really sure why I do this. Perhaps I’m a bit of a weirdo.

Forgiving oneself, and starting afresh, are not always easy things to do – but they have to be done. You can live your life with a bubble of guilt and regret inside you, but you won’t take any risks, and you won’t do anything for fear of doing something wrong, and you won’t say anything at all for fear of saying something inadvertently hurtful or stupid or embarrassing – and what sort of life is that? I find it difficult to allow myself the space and compassion to make mistakes, to learn from them and atone for them, and to move on without the burden of them hanging around my neck, but as I grow older I am getting better at it. I’m trying to treat myself with more kindness and consideration, and trying to realise that I am going to make mistakes, sometimes, but that it’s perfectly all right. On a day like today, when the cooling rains have come to refresh my little patch of world and make it new, I’m going to make another effort to keep this lesson to the forefront of my mind.

A life of writing, where you are your own sole motivator, is a life incompatible with being handicapped by guilt and regret. You can’t keep moving forward if you’re afraid to move on, after all. It’s time to leave my regrets where they belong and allow myself the freedom to learn, and grow, and move into the future.

Image: guardian.co.uk

Image: guardian.co.uk

Happy Thursday, everyone! It’s almost the weekend. Hang in there…

Positivity Will Catch You – Honest

In conversation with my husband last night – after a long, long day for both of us – the topic of positivity and optimism came up. I described to him how hard it is, at times, to keep my thoughts positive and focused, and how easy it feels sometimes to let myself sink under the burden of ‘Why bother? This whole stupid writing dream is never going to happen, anyway.’ My husband, as he is wont, made a statement of such profound wisdom that I felt the need to share it with you all this morning.

Being positive is a safety net, he said. Think about that for a while.

Image: tayaradio.net

Image: tayaradio.net

Isn’t that a brilliant thought? Positivity will catch you, like a safety net. What he means is, of course, if you keep a positive outlook, little setbacks (like rejections, failed story-ideas, missed deadlines) will somehow not seem so bad. Being positive helps you to take things like that in your stride, and every time you choose to be positive in the face of a setback, it gets easier. There’s an added benefit, too – every time you choose to be positive when something relatively minor goes wrong, the easier it gets to stay positive when something more serious goes wrong.

Having said that, nothing serious (thankfully) has yet gone wrong for me, really. Things are, more or less, going to plan. But as anyone who’s been alive for longer than a few months is aware, nothing ever goes to plan for long.

Image: awaypoint.wordpress.com

Image: awaypoint.wordpress.com

Habits, like plans, are easy to form, and hard to break. This is not news. For example, I’m a person who’s notorious for chewing the inside of my mouth; I’ve done it all my life. Even though I know it hurts, it can lead to lacerations, and all that, it’s a habit I can’t break. I do it without even thinking about it. Heck, I’m probably doing it right now. Of course, this is a bad habit, and one I could easily do without, but because people are complicated little things, it’s always easier to form bad habits than good ones. They do have something in common, though – the more often you repeat an action (whether good or bad), the more habitual it becomes. The same thing applies to mental habits, and particularly to positivity. I do believe positivity is a mental habit, and I believe it can be practised and learned and encouraged to become habitual. It just takes a huge amount of effort, particularly for a person who isn’t naturally positive – i.e. me.

My mother spent my entire childhood telling me to develop PMA, as she called it – Positive Mental Attitude. I knew she was right, and what she was saying made sense, but for some reason I could just never do it. I allowed myself to be beaten by pessimism time after time, making silly choice after silly choice, giving up on dream after dream. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m older, or more secure in my life and myself, or because I’m doing something I really, truly love and want to devote my life to, but being positive now seems like the only logical thing to do in a situation like mine. Mam, if you’re reading this: I finally learned what you were trying to teach me all those years. And – you were right.

As well as the benefits of trying to think positive, and taking the optimistic view in every situation, there’s also this to think about: the more often you succumb to negative thinking, and pessimistic choices, the easier that becomes, too. Every knock-back you get, if you’re in a negative frame of mind, puts you down so much that you just don’t have the time or energy to fully recover from it before the next one hits you. Then, you get put down again, and you sink even lower than you were before. And so on, and so on, until you reach rock bottom, and you’ve no further to sink. Negative thinking, like positive thinking, is a cumulative thing; every choice builds on the one before it, and forms the foundation for the one after it.

This is easy to understand in an abstract sense. It probably sounds quite logical (hopefully) when divorced from a context. When you’re going through something crushing or complicated or upsetting, of course, it’s not so easy to keep your thoughts positive. But, if you’re anything like me, once you start trying to do it, and you let the light in just a little, it begins to get easier and easier, until eventually – I hope – it will become effortless. Imagine what you could achieve if you just believed that you could do anything that came your way, and that you’d give it the very best shot you could. If you were enthusiastic about challenges, and met them with a smile on your face, instead of fear in your heart.

I hope it helps to remember my clever husband’s phrase – positivity is a safety net. He’s right, of course. Start small with positive thinking, and see if it doesn’t bloom throughout your whole life. It’s worth a try! I’m by no means there yet – positive thinking is still a conscious choice for me, a conscious turning away from the downward-pulling power of the negative. I hope eventually it will be instinctual.

When the knocks really start rolling in, and the challenges start mounting up, we’ll see how much progress I’ve made. I’m going to practise as much as I can in the meantime! And, of course, if I can do it, so can you.

Workin’ Nine to Five

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Image: bbcamerica.com

Image: bbcamerica.com

I’ve worked at a great many things during the course of my life so far; some of them have been great fun, but a lot have not. The first job I ever had (besides the usual suspects of household tasks and babysitting) was in a ladies’ fashion boutique, where I worked one summer at the age of fourteen or fifteen. My duties included cleaning (which I actually didn’t mind), as well as helping to serve customers. I was probably the least fashionable human being on earth at that point in my life, so I often wondered what the customers thought of me – a creature in Doc Marten boots and long flowery skirts – attempting to offer them advice on what to wear. I learned several valuable lessons in the course of this job, however, including how much I hated the lengths to which some retailers will go to try to sell things to people, and how much I hated being considered ‘just’ a person who worked in a shop.

I worked in a supermarket for years, too, through my secondary school life and well into my time at university. The work was hard, the hours were long, but I made friends in this job which I’ll keep forever. The camaraderie among the younger staff (I was young at the time, don’t forget) was always good, and we nearly always managed to find something to smile about in the course of our working day. One of the first things I was ‘headhunted’ to do during this time was work behind the supermarket’s fresh meat counter, to my horror; I was sixteen, going on seventeen (sorry if you’re now thinking of ‘The Sound of Music’), and a newly fledged vegetarian, but at least my stint as a ‘trainee butcher’ didn’t last very long. I remain, to this day, the only person I know who has ever started a conversation with the line: ‘I used to cut up hearts for a living’. I always hasten to reassure the listener that I’m talking about beef hearts, of course, but they’re often not reassured. There were many disgusting aspects of this job, but I don’t think I’ll ever top the experience of taking the blade of our huge band-saw off in order to clean it, and having it snap back and hit me in the face. If I was to pin-point the nadir of that job, I reckon that would be it. (It didn’t leave any lasting injuries, thankfully.)

I went on to work in several offices, a health centre, a printer’s, a tourist office (which was one of the biggest patience-testers I ever endured), and at a university for many years. The only thing all the jobs I’ve done have in common is that they all involved hard work, and that’s something I’m really glad of. Every first day was fraught with terror, every new thing I learned seemed unimaginably difficult until I’d got the hang of it, every new challenge gave me palpitations and sleepless nights. But – importantly – I met every challenge I faced, and I prevailed.

Image: danandrewsmarketing.blogspot.com

Image: danandrewsmarketing.blogspot.com

So, even though I’m not ’employed’ in the traditional sense at the moment, I have many years of work experience behind me, and every second I’ve ever spent in paid employment up to now has gifted me with knowledge, expertise and skills that I’ve found indispensable over the past number of months. Writing, as a career, is an extremely difficult and slow-moving thing, which calls for huge reserves of patience, resilience and self-discipline. The jobs I’ve done in my life so far have all brought something to my life – whether it’s the conviction that I never want to do anything like that particular role ever again, or simpler things like how to prioritise tasks and manage time effectively – and I’m grateful for them all. When a job is hard, or the work is heavy, or you’re not getting on as well as you could with your workmates, or you’re getting injured from flying blades (ouch), it can be hard to remember that there’s a point behind it all, and it can be tough to imagine that, one day, you’ll look back on it and realise you’re grateful for the experience.

I’ve often found myself, during the course of my working life, in the middle of experiences I never thought I’d have, wondering how I was going to get out of them. When I was thigh-deep in thirty years of correspondence, paperwork, and filth as I cleaned out a retired professor’s office, I asked myself what I thought I was doing. When I was waist-deep in student records, trying to alphabetise and file them in a room smaller than the average downstairs loo, I asked myself if I was crazy. As I dealt with the loudest, longest and least patient queue of customers I’d ever served in my first week of working in a university bookshop, I had to convince myself not to run out the door. And as I set foot into the biggest lecture theatre I’d ever seen, ready to deliver my first lecture (on the major historical events of the fourteenth century, and their likely effect on English literature of the period), I almost had myself convinced I couldn’t do it. But I did, and here I am – finally doing the one thing I want to do more than anything else.

These are the things I think about when I feel like what I’m doing right now is ‘too hard’, or ‘beyond my capabilities’, or ‘too much’. I remember that I’ve organised an international conference, I’ve delivered lectures, I’ve set exams, I’ve given expert advice on books, and I’ve dealt with busy-ness, deadlines and stress for the last twenty years. I also realise that I’ve done so many things which I’d really like not to have to do again, and how lucky I am to have the freedom, at the moment, to pursue what I’m doing. I know, too, that I have all the skills I need. Treating writing as a job, even if you’re not being remunerated at first, is vital to making a success of it, in my opinion, and I hope I’ll never be ‘changing career’ again. If this is true for me, it’s true for anyone who wants to write – every challenge you’ve faced makes you better able to write, and every working day you’ve had deepens and strengthens the skillset you need to be a writer.

In other news: I came second (or, in the friendlier American term ‘first runner up’) in this flash fiction competition at the weekend. Check out all the entries – they were amazing, and it was fantastic to see so many different takes on the prompt image. As well as the motivation and skills I’ve been talking about in today’s blog, and how they’re helpful in forging a writing career, little successes like this one are just as important. So – write! And enter competitions! And – most of all – believe you can do it, and keep going no matter what.

Happy Monday!