Especially when how you feel isn’t helping
You know those kids who grow up hearing ‘try again, you can do it!’ rather than ‘you’re lazy and don’t want to do it right and I feel disappointed’ when they make a mistake?
Yeah, can’t relate.
Don’t get me wrong, my parents are honourable, well-meaning people who did their absolute best under difficult, post-communist circumstances. There was no awareness of atypical brains 32 years ago in Romania. I wouldn’t have known what to do with me either.
Alas, the result of their misguided way of instilling ambition is I’ve never developed healthy self-confidence. It’s probably a bit late to truly, 100% develop it now. You know that cruel experiment a while back, before we had real ethical guidelines in science, where researchers sewed one eye shut in kittens and then later found the animals could never again regain use of the otherwise perfectly healthy organ as adults, once the critical period of developmental brain plasticity had passed? It’s kind of like that. Self-confidence is the ‘organ’ I’ve never used. Those neural connections never developed — and now my brain has absolutely no idea what to do with this ‘organ’ as an adult.
Seeing as I am an adult, however, it’s my duty to care for myself. It would be unfair — and, not to mention, counterproductive — to blame my parents for decisions I make as a 32 year old. So, faced with an inability to develop healthy self-confidence, I went for the next best thing: I fake it. Kind of like an AI teaching itself the human trait of ‘believing in yourself’.
‘Faking’ self-confidence sounds unhealthy, but I assure you it’s a pretty decent workaround. I provide myself with rational, objective evidence of why I should be confident in a given situation — and I act accordingly, even though I don’t feel the actual emotion itself.
For example, I know I’m an above average copywriter. I don’t know this because I actually feel like an above average copywriter. I feel like a failure, all the time, about everything.
Objectively speaking though, I know I have a way with words, an ability to give life to what would otherwise be a mere tone of voice, by turning it into an actual brand personality. I know this because I receive constant feedback to support this conclusion and, yes, I also know this through comparison, because the human mind assesses the quality of a thing by comparing it to other similar things.
Do I feel pride in my skills as a copywriter? Maybe, vaguely, on a really good day, after a client approves something important that I’ve worked really hard on without requesting any changes. When this happens, I might experience a pleasant, foreign twinge of something in my stomach, which I’m told is known as ‘feeling proud of your work’. But it’s a rare occurrence and I need to steal a quick glance at that emotions wheel just to be able to ascertain what it is I’m actually feeling.
I find excuses to justify any ounce of success: it was a lucky guess; anyone could’ve done it, it just happened to be assigned to me; they must’ve been pressed for time, which is why they didn’t request any changes. But, add enough of these ‘anyone could’ve done it’ events and, as a person striving towards reason and evidence-based decision-making, I’m forced to admit that the amount of positive feedback is statistically relevant. There’s too much evidence to support an above-average-copywriter theory for me to ignore it. Therefore, I act in accordance with what I know to be true, rather than with what I feel.
Okay, so what happens when someone tries to undermine me? When another human, for whichever reason, tries to persuade me that I’m not good at my job? You’d expect it to be extremely easy to persuade me that I suck. And you’d be right. It is extremely easy to persuade me that I’m a worthless failure. It took well over 10 years of active working evidence to persuade me that I’m a good copywriter, yet it takes some random person well under 10 seconds to get me to feel like I need to reconsider this conclusion.
But I don’t act on this feeling.
I’m an aspiring Vulcan, my emotions under lock and key to the best of my abilities, my logic foremost. I have to be, otherwise any random word shot my way would get me to quit my job in shame, laptop thrown out the window in a fit of self-hating despair.
I labour to allow these emotions to simply exist, without letting them dictate my actions or even my opinions.
This logic-over-emotion arrangement works. I’ve faced job interviews with my head held high, recounting my experience as if it were someone else’s, as if I were advocating for a dear friend rather than myself. I’ve stood up for myself in the face of clients looking to undermine my expertise, drawing my strength from research and a fierce passion for language.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I hadn’t yet found the gospel of reason. My emotions ruled my life — and those emotions were mostly negative, often toxic to both myself and those around me. I was a ‘textbook Klingon’. Impulsive, overly intense, prone to exaggeration and to episodes of blinding rage, overcompensating for my lack of self-confidence through a venomous sense of pride. I came into my passion for logic as a means of sparing both myself and those around me of my viciously overpowering, bipolar type II emotions.
In other words, where I can’t fully ‘fix’ my broken and counterproductive feelings, I will strive to ignore them. Not fight them, mind you, just ignore them.
This has worked wonders for me, with both my personal and my professional life.
Still, I’ve often wondered who I might’ve been had my father told me one fucking time, ever, that he’s proud of me, for literally anything I’ve ever done. That’s something fathers do, right, tell their children they feel proud of them? Well, mine can list 1000 things I’m doing wrong per minute, without repeating himself. But I’ve yet to hear him list a single thing that makes him feel proud to be my father.
Maybe he isn’t proud to be my father, which is fair. You can’t force yourself to feel proud of someone — or to feel anything, for that matter. I’m sure he had dreams and expectations and I’m equally sure I never fulfilled any of them. Yet, I fake it a lot in my day to day, feeling proud of myself. I’m sure he could’ve done the same, at least for my birthday back when I was 12 and would’ve killed for a moment of his genuine attention. He could’ve pretended to see me, the real me, for what makes me me. He could’ve faked pride in literally any one of my insignificant achievements, just for the fuck of it.
He chose to prioritise ‘being real’ instead.
I respect his decision and most days I don’t even resent said decision. At present time, our relationship is considerate and loving, though occasionally prone to misunderstanding, like people from two different planets doing their best to communicate. I love and appreciate him — and his actions clearly show that, in his own way, he reciprocates my affection.
Maybe I would’ve been a happier person had he chosen to fake a bit of pride in me growing up, but I can’t be sure the healing doing so would’ve brought about wouldn’t have taken away some of the things I value most in myself, like my relentless fight to keep my emotions in check and my focus on evidence-based approaches. The human personality is an extremely complex affair. Kill one butterfly here and prevent it from flapping its wings and causing a hurricane, and your end results may be wildly different from what you expected.
However, despite my fragile yet determined peace with my father’s attitude towards me, the constant tug of war within me persists. It will most likely walk beside me for the rest of my life — and I have to find ways to accommodate this war effort in my day to day life.
The war on self takes up resources in my head every time I need to make a decision that could be in the least bit helped by a touch of healthy self-confidence.
For instance, my fiancé and I are considering the possibility of starting an ethical micro-farm with half a dozen bungalows housing tourists looking to disconnect from capitalism for a few days and pet a live chicken. It’s our dream.
We were pondering variables and happily discussing options when suddenly I hear it loud and clear, as if he’s right there. My father’s voice, telling me how I’m bound to fail because of who I am as a person and because I’m not trying hard enough.
‘You wouldn’t be good at this; you’re too disconnected from reality and this requires a lot of hard work.’
It was a phrase I had heard him say in real life, on more than one occasion, in various situations. I blinked back tears, the wave of emotion taking me by surprise. I’m not sure who I was holding back my tears from — my partner is the most non-judgemental aspie this side of the galaxy. But it felt like a matter of honour to not give in, like I owed it to myself. I was reasonably certain that, should I surrender to it, the self-doubt would swallow me whole.
I took a deep breath and tried to let the emotion exist without giving it any credit, to just let the wave subside without allowing myself to dwell on it. That phrase started playing in my head on repeat, my father’s voice echoing in the infinite expanse of self-torture that is my brain.
Then, from a totally different place, a calm, commanding voice arises. It takes me a while to realise it’s my own voice, the one I use in my head when I’m trying to get myself to see reason and do what needs to be done. It’s so different from my usual meek, I-apologise-for-daring-to-take-up-space-and-to-exist tone. This is a woman who knows what’s what and will take no shit.
‘You don’t know that. You’ve never tried. There’s insufficient evidence to support such a conclusion at this time. Pick that spreadsheet up and continue the feasibility assessment. We will only know if you’re any good at this if we try.’
Tears are still balling up in my throat, but I comply. I research EU funding for small businesses. I look up land prices. My fiancé is showing me regional architectural guidelines and I carefully consider the most eco-friendly and cost-effective ways of adhering to them while also incorporating mandatory 21st century facilities. I allow the research to wash over me, cleansing me of self-doubt and redirecting my focus towards what we do know.
It’s not up to my father’s disembodied voice living inside my brain to decide whether I will make it or not. Only by conducting an actual real-life experiment will we be able to ascertain whether I will make it or not.
Anything else is just noise. It’s misinformation, it’s the flat earth society telling you the earth isn’t spherical because the horizon appears to be a straight line upon examination with the naked eye. And what we do with this noise, is ignore it. Should our mental resources allow it, we fight back against the misinformation with evidence-based arguments. But, at the very least, we ignore it and move on with our lives.
Put enough distance between yourself and the noise, and reality always begins to assert itself: seen from space, the earth is undoubtedly, monumentally spherical (if you believe NASA fakes those images, please don’t @ me). I’m sure that, glanced at from the porch on our ethical micro-farm, the obligatory-failure theory would prove equally unfounded.
If you’re out there doubting yourself, I see you. If you’re struggling with crippling self-hate, I see you. If you’re fighting against yourself to succeed or to follow your lifelong dream, I see you.
What you’re feeling is valid; it’s the result of your environment and, possibly, some glitches in your genes.
But, what you’re feeling is also useless. It’s not serving you, at all. Trust me, you’re better off ignoring it and basing your opinions about yourself, about what you can and cannot do, on actual evidence.
You are worthy and you deserve to fail by trying, rather than by condemning yourself to not trying due to a lack of self-confidence. Focus on the facts. Fuck the noise, ignore the bollocks. I’ve never been there, but I just know it in my bones that the view from space is worth it.
Now pick that spreadsheet up and continue the feasibility assessment.
Thank you ever so kindly for joining me on yet another personal journey into self-acceptance. I hope this has, at the very least, helped you feel less alone or given you a different perspective to entertain. Whatever your reasons for sticking around, I’m immensely grateful for your time.
And, as ever: stay safe, nerds.