Day Eight is about what’s holding me back, and the many Mephistopheleses whispering at my ears.
So far, I’ve written a lot about what’s been propelling me forward, so this blog post is a bit different. This blog post is about what’s holding me back. Now, surprisingly, writing this post really will be a journey in self discovery, because these demons aren’t something I’ve really given names and tried to identify before. So, join me, and forgive me for the jumbled and slightly incoherent mess it might turn out to be.
I’ve identified three broad categories of demons that are holding me back: Fear, Guilt, and Excuses. I’m sure there are many more, but this is an easy way to start identifying and putting faces to the unknown demons that plague me. I’m afraid of failure and embarrassment, I feel guilty because I feel like an imposter and because I’m not perfect, and my excuses give me a reason not to do anything. My hope is by recognizing them when they rear their ugly heads, I can cut those heads off and move on with my life.
I’m afraid of a lot of things, but not all those things paralyse me. I’m afraid that the terrible Conservative government in power will permanently screw up my country, I’m afraid that if there really is a new normal in investments, I won’t have a pension to fall back on when I’m 65 because all current actuarial assumptions are wrong. I’m afraid of bugs suddenly appearing where I don’t want them to, I’m afraid of getting attacked or raped in a dark alley, I’m afraid of that creak on the staircase when I’m home alone. But those fears don’t keep me from living my day-to-day life and pursuing my dreams. The fears that do affect my day to day life and my dreams are simple: I’m afraid of failing, and I’m afraid of being embarrassed.
Neither the fear of failure nor the fear of embarrassment are very unique debilitating fears. As children, we learn to not raise our hands lest we give the wrong answer. We learn not to say very much so we don’t get laughed at on the playground. We learn to keep things private so no one can throw them in our face. We learn that the easiest way to avoid failure is to never try. The American dream is fueled by not only a desire to do better, but a fear that not becoming successful, not becoming rich and powerful, is failing to be American.
Now, I have a very strange relationship with these fears. It’s only after I’ve done something that I’m struck with the possibility of failure, of embarrassment. I think part of the reason I haven’t been writing these posts as quickly as I’d like to is because I’m embarrassed that I’ve revealed emotions that are so viscerally human, and I’m terrified they’ll come back to haunt me in the very conservative industry I work in. So I haven’t written because I’m scared of what other self incriminating things I’ll say. It’s a pattern that I seem to perpetuate: I start things, but I’m too afraid to finish them.
I can confront these fears, though, by outlining the worst that could happen, and my contingency plans in that case. I’ve confronted my idea of failure by redefining what failure is, and I’ve dealt with my fear of embarrassment on this blog by reminding myself of the core idea of this blog, that I’ll always be able to hold my head up high, means that I should only write things I can stand by. There’s always a back up plan, like privacy settings, but in the end, it’s easier to deal and conquer those fears once they’re not unknown any more. And look! I’m writing again!
I recently Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” which purports not to be a feminist manifesto, but it rings too true for me to read it as anything but. One thing that she did say really hit home with me is that women are often plagued with guilt. Now, I’m sure men are too, but women disproportionately suffer from what’s called the Imposter syndrome, a fear that someone will come along and realize that you’re not actually qualified or not actually that smart. No matter how hard you work or how much you prove yourself, there’s this gnawing guilt that you should stop right now and give your opportunity, your place to someone more worthy than you, someone who’s not a fraud.
When she gave that monster who leered at me through all the open doors in my life a name, I had this epiphany. The more people told me that I was sharp, capable, and intelligent, the more I felt my incompetence weigh on me like a dirty little secret. My insecurity became the one thing I absolutely, positively had to hide, lest someone see it and throw me out of my academic program, my job, my identity. Yet I’m the only one who can do that. I’m the only one that can sabotage myself enough to drop out of school, misstep so badly I get fired, and throw away my identity as a smart, capable woman. Trying to get rid of this demon is like playing eternal whack-a-mole, but all I need is a big enough hammer.
The other eternal nagging guilt that I feel is guilt for not living up to expectations. I didn’t get into Harvard, I didn’t get that top level scholarship, I wasn’t that involved in my little sister’s early childhood, and I was wishy-washy and am not working towards a J.D., only two bachelor’s degrees. Now, don’t get me wrong, being able to self reflect, to look back and say I should’ve been more involved in my little sister’s childhood, my marks could’ve been better, and maybe I gave up on the J.D. too early is not a bad thing. That retrospection becomes an unproductive, guilty demon that I have to fight when I spend too long trying to atone for the past and not enough time just learning from it, and moving on. By buying my little sister little girl toys when she’s on the cusp of puberty and needs a sympathetic shoulder more, by castigating myself over bad grades in the past and not working hard in my present classes – that’s when it becomes counterproductive. And again, the easiest way to combat it is to recognize that what I’m doing is atoning, not learning, so that I shift my thinking towards the present, and the future, instead of the past.
The last demon that I’ve identified, and perhaps the most insidious one, are the excuses I find it so easy to make. Every one does it (look! I did it again!): I tell myself that I am too busy, that I’m not the only one, that I’m too tired, too whatever, and I do what’s easy instead of what’s right. I find that I did what’s easy, and tell myself another excuse so it sits better with me, until I forget it. And then when I forget it and rediscover it, I keep telling myself excuses in some kind of infinite loop that never ends up with me doing what’s right, what I should’ve done in the first place.
This is the hardest demon to recognize, because I am a notorious planner. I make plans, I start things, I come up with all kinds of castles in the air, only to have them to crumble on me. My hard drive is a graveyard of started stories and outlines, and I have about sixty million lists: To-do urgently, to-do in a month, things I want to learn, artistic bucket lists, personal bucket lists, professional bucket lists – It all comes down to the same thing: whatever I set out to do, I haven’t done. I might have a perfect plan for world domination in my simplenotes somewhere or other, but I’ll never actually conquer it. Potential is nothing without action. To find this demon of excuses, I have to channel Mad-Eye Moody: “Constant Vigilence!” I have to do when I think of planning, that “Done is better than perfect” (Sheryl Sandberg, again. That book is really good).
Now, for some people reading this, all these demon allusions seem rather heavy handed and forced. It’s just an internal struggle, after all. But you know what? If every time I catch myself feeling afraid or guilty, or making an excuse, I imagine myself dragging a pathetic, cringing little creature out of the shadows and thoroughly enjoy smashing it to pieces, if that coping mechanism helps me get past those fears, guilty feelings and excuses? It’s worth sounding like a deranged fifteenth century priest.
Project 14 is how I’m going to start my journey of self discovery, to memorialize who I am when I start chronicling my life. Each day, I’ll approach who I am through a different paradigm people use to define themselves. Read more about it at my About page.