I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last couple of days wallowing in self-doubt. Up until Thursday I was ok (in fact, better than ok) but the precarious walls of my “confidence” came tumbling down over something really dumb. The embarrassing part about this is what triggered the self-doubt.
It was a LinkedIn request from someone who had a really impressive profile and about a gazillion articles and publications to their name. It happened in the middle of the night; I spent a few minutes sleepily perusing their profile and immediately regretted accepting their invitation to connect. I felt so inferior. Anyone who saw my CV against theirs would dismiss me in a heartbeat. I thought, “Who am I to call myself a writer when I’ve published a fraction of what this person has?” And suddenly all my insecurities, which for a few months at least, had been conveniently squashed beneath the busyness of mothering a newborn baby, started to bubble to the surface. Long after I closed the LinkedIn app on my phone, I heard their voices haunting me. Questioning my experience. Questioning my qualifications. Questioning my commitment as a freelancer, my skill as a writer, my creativity as a designer, and so on. And when my brain had exhausted the list of professional abilities to question and tear down, I started questioning myself as a mother.
What type of mum lets their four year old watch a movie every afternoon because she’s too tired to do anything else? The answer, of course, is any normal mother, but when in the middle of a self-doubt episode, you’re convinced you’re the only one, and you’re also terrible for doing it. Every Instagram post or online ad about creative activities for preschoolers reminded me of how long it’s been since we have, in fact, done anything creative.
What type of mum cringes when their feverish preschooler clings and whines for a cuddle? Or tells them off (and makes them cry) for even the slightest display of attitude? The slack mum. The mean mum. That’s what the demons in my head were telling me. Or, maybe, it’s just the mum who’s exhausted and sleepless, and wants just a few minutes of personal space, or the opportunity to sleep, eat, shower, go to the toilet or simply sit in one spot without a little human wanting to cling on to them? Or the mum who is trying to raise her son to be grateful and polite, instead of self-centred and entitled?
The demons of self-doubt are really good at making me feel completely incompetent. I know, deep down inside, that I’m actually quite competent (I’ve managed to keep both kids alive, so big ticks for me) and I shouldn’t believe what they say. But sometimes, those demons are louder than usual. On some days, they’re like heavy clouds that fog up my mind. They just linger, waiting to question whatever decision it is I’ve made, whether it’s to do with my kids or my career, and they shit all over what would otherwise be a perfectly good day.
We all have these demons
Whenever I’m having one of these episodes of self-doubt (I call them episodes because they last anywhere from an hour to a few days, or when I’m feeling particularly low, a few weeks. Whatever the case another one will inevitably follow, like the next installment of an unpopular sitcom), I let myself believe I’m the only one who could possibly be feeling this way. That at any moment, everyone around me will discover that I’m just a fraud who is faking it until she makes it, and that I have no idea what I’m doing and everything about me is one big sham, and all the mistakes I’ve made and the things I’m afraid of will be discovered and broadcast for the world to see, and someone will realise how unfit a parent I make, so they’ll probably confiscate my kids too.
There are two problems with this theory. First is, I am not really anyone of consequence, so 99.9% of the world doesn’t give a crap what mistakes I’ve made so no media outlet is going to give that air time. And second, even if they did, imposter syndrome is actually a thing. Everyone feels like a fraud. Everyone is faking it until they make it. And, it turns out, most of the time, that’s ok (unless, of course, you’re breaking the law by faking it, like Mike from Suits, or the people who make dodgy pyramid schemes for “cancer curing” “health” products that aren’t approved by anyone with a medical background).
The world can continue to revolve as we go on, just doing our best with whatever imperfect situation our imperfect selves are in. No one is perfect. No one has it all figured out. And anyone who thinks they do is kidding themselves (or is a psycopath). The demons are normal, because imperfection is normal for all of us. The sooner I remember and accept this, the sooner those demons shrink away and go back to their hiding place. And the sooner I realise it’s perfectly ok to let my guard down and ask for help when I need it.
Step away from the demons in your life
We’ve all got those people who give our internal demons an external voice. The family member who doesn’t understand your job, so tells you to pursue something “more stable” every time they see you. The friend who is there when you’re down in the dumps but can’t stand it when you’re succeeding. The boss who cuts steps out of your career ladder when you’re not looking. These people don’t deserve air time.
Letting go can be hard, especially when it’s a close friend or an awesome job but a terrible boss. Some people don’t even realise that their words or actions fuel the demons of self-doubt. But I’ve learnt the sooner these people are out of my life, the better. Cutting ties with the people or things that tear us down means we get space and strength to grow stronger. Sometimes it’s impossible to get rid of them completely, so I limit my exposure. I’ve learnt to keep them – or at least their opinions – at arms length.
Don’t give the demons space to grow
Something I’ve come to realise over the past few days is the self-doubt creeps in when I’m clouded by the need to compare myself to others. That space I think is empty just because I don’t have what that other person has, is the space where these demons grow. Social media makes it really easy to fall into this trap – especially since our Facebook and Instagram feeds are only ever the “highlights” reel of life. No one wants to see the poo explosions instead of giggly baby smiles, the tantrums that occurred before the playtime, the rejection letters that came before the editor said yes, the hours of unpaid work that went into that project, the dozens of photos it took to capture that perfect one, or the spousal fights that occurred between those fancy meals or colourful holiday snaps. And no CV on LinkedIn is every going to capture the mistakes and mishaps that got people where they are today.
Failure is just what happens, but we are all afraid of it. And we kid ourselves into believing we are the only ones. But we aren’t. We all fail. We all fake it.
But we all succeed too.
We all have wins worth celebrating, and we all have moments when we surprise ourselves by the boundaries we’ve pushed or the fears we’ve overcome. When we are busy comparing our failure to someone else’s success, it’s really easy to question whether any of those efforts count, and we miss out on appreciating what our achievements – no matter how imperfect – are worth.
I am trying to dig myself out of this hole, so I am telling myself to stop comparing. To stop doing what I stupidly did to get myself into this wallowing mess of self-doubt and self-pity (with a complete stranger, of all people). I need to count my blessings. I also need to remind myself that there will always be people who are better and worse. In the words of Max Ehrmann: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
While I’m at it, I should share this part of Desiderata too:
We can fight the demons together
Do me a favour? If you’re in a position to do so, reach out to someone you know and send some encouragement their way today. Pay them a compliment. Remind them that you’re there for them. Do it now, and do it often. The world has so many people who are ready to tear others down (I was reminded of this yesterday by Emily, from Have a Laugh on Me, who wrote this awesome Open Letter to Jealous Bitches) – instead, we need more people committed to building others up. I want to be that type of person. I want my sons to be those types of men. The more we commit to fighting the bad stuff and keeping the good stuff, the better this world will be.
So start small, and think about someone who needs a bit of love and send some their way. You just never know whose demons are loud and clouding their judgement today, and they might need your message of strength more than you realise.