Recently, my partner asked me to stop being so hard on myself as in — “please work on this, it’s not helpful”…. and so now I am in a state of noticing. Noticing all the times I stop myself, second guess my responses, think mean things about myself in the back of my head. Let me tell you, this noticing is annoying. Really annoying.
For example, just the other day, my fellow blogger over at Small, Delicious Life, posted a partial article he is working on and then went on Facebook to solicit feedback on the thoughts therein. First of all, I was flattered – because isn’t it nice that someone thinks I’m smart enough to comment on their smart ideas? And then I decided that responding was just going to get me in trouble because all those other smart friends he tagged were sure to be smarter than me. But of course, I can’t help myself – because I have thoughts! And so I quickly drafted up some of them, deleting them twice before finally posting them (and removing a link back to an article on my own blog in the process) – and of course qualifying all of them by saying that they were “not cogent” and “draft” just to underscore how much I don’t think my ideas matter very much.
Right, so you get the point. That is fucking exhausting. And it’s pretty much how I live a great deal of my life. If I go for a jog (as I did the other day for the first time in ages) I spend most of it internally commenting on my out of shape, middle-age body. In work meetings where I am the subject matter expert, I find myself constantly apologizing for having an opinion even though I am one of probably about two people who have my specific expertise in all of North America (and my opinion is more than welcome). I am critical of myself every time I purchase something to the degree that I have (at least once) had a breakdown over the purchase of a new pair of shoes. And then there is the fact that I pretty much avoid looking in the mirror as much as is possible without becoming slovenly because I have *never* learned to like the way I look (fat or thin).
And it’s not like any of that changes my approach to things or betters me in any way – my internal anxiety about buying things (for example) does not make me more green than other people, just more miserable about spending money.
Here’s the thing. I know I am smart. I know I am not lazy. I know I am actually very good at what I do professionally, and that I have the capacity to write and make music as well as anyone – and yet I go out in the world pretending that I do not think any of those things. And worse than that, I tell myself that I do not think any of these things even when I am busy demonstrating to people how much I can do so well (make money, knit scarves, bake bread, run significant projects on behalf of the federal government, pickle beets, represent as a union advocate, sew garments, make love, play the ukulele, write personal essays on this blog, put on fabulous parties, etc. etc.)
There’s a part of me that wants to hate on myself for this one more thing thing – this internal critic – but I’m pretty sure this is mostly not my fault. For when you are good at things, when you are opinionated, a little bit loud, and possibly even show some leadership capacity *and also a woman* – there is a whole world out there ready to put you in your place from childhood on up to middle age. There are younger men who will get jobs you are 10 x more qualified for. There are women who will pull you aside when you are a young union leader and tell you that you are arrogant (or – heaven forbid – they will just whisper that you are a lesbian) just because you stand up and know what you are talking about. There are all the people (especially family) who will diminish your accomplishments because you don’t have children (and that’s what really makes a woman, right?) Or if you do have kids, you will constantly be criticized for how you raise them, 10 million times more than their fathers will ever be. (If you are a stepmother, for the record, it will be assumed you are a homewrecker with no familiar relationship to your step-child).
Most of all, you will have to develop a million deflection strategies so that no one feels threatened or diminished by your competence – and that’s where the bad habits (of self-deprecation, internal criticism and so on) set in.
The other day, I read this celebrity does a triathalon article in which America Ferrera relates her own battle with internalized negativity and how she confronted that while training for an athletic event she didn’t ever think she would do. This piece isn’t unique, because this is such a common part of the female landscape, but it landed with me at a time that I was already thinking about this self-destructive defense tactic and how much it makes me unavailable to enjoy my own experiences and successes. Her strategy for combating the voice is really just the cognitive behavioural trick of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones – enough so that those become the habit of self-reference – and it’s pretty much the only thing I can imagine would work. External validation has nothing to do with it – obviously – you can have heaps of that and still hate yourself. It really is about deciding that we don’t have to be “sorry” for being who we are.
Now, I want to qualify – this doesn’t only apply to women. Tons of people suffer from these same ingrained responses due to class, gender, race, and other social status situations – it comes up all the time in people around me who have vastly different experiences of the world than me….. But the fix is probably the same for the most part. We have to start with taming that internal voice. We have to take our rightful place at the tables where we belong and not take the external criticism of the world in. And once we can do that, then we are far more equipped to dismantle those external barriers and start building a society that doesn’t tell so many of us that we are inferior all of the time.
So 2017 is going to be a year where I work on that. It didn’t really show up in my year compass as a big focus, but in the last few weeks it’s been on my mind.
I started practicing yesterday when I was in Vancouver for meetings. A co-worker stopped me in the hall and told me that she thought I would be a good president of our union local (the election is only a month away). Instead of qualifying my response or trying to be funny about it – I simply said “Thanks – I think I will be a good local president – I’m the most qualified person to take it on right now.” It is the truth, and it felt pretty awesome to say it out loud.