Why is it so much easier to believe in other people than it is in ourselves? I can’t be the only person who is able to see the merits in other people’s achievements but crippled with doubt about my own?
This was really brought home to me this week when I was involved in a literary festival, both as a writer and a punter. A wonderful writing group invited me and a poet to be their guest speakers. Delighted as I was, I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d got me muddled up with someone else. In fact I checked but no, the invitation was most definitely for me.
I spent the weeks building up to the event fully expecting to be exposed as an imposter. When the day finally arrived, despite being surrounded by lovely, supportive people, I felt totally ridiculous speaking about my writing journey and reading an extract from one of my books. So much so the whole event passed in a blurry out of body experience.
Sharing a post event latte with the very talented and articulate poet, I swore off public engagements for life. However, I was somewhat reassured the following evening as I sat in an audience listening to The Undertones bassist, Michael Bradley, talk about his book. He was witty, engaging and the book sounded great but he was also self effacing, constantly apologising for “going on” or “being boring” despite the fact that he was categorically not guilty of either of those things.
It got me thinking about whether my own lack of confidence is in fact representative of how most people feel. Are some people simply better at hiding their insecurities than others or are there actually people out there chomping at the bit to share and basking in the glow of their accomplishments? I’ve no idea, having only my own crippling self-doubt reference point to go by.
It’s not hard to see why so many of us might be wary of self- promotion, particularly in the UK where being confident goes hand in hand with arrogance and big headedness. I think as Brits we are hardwired to cringe in discomfort the second anyone starts to talk about themselves in a positive way. It’s much easier to deal with people who laugh off their achievements as nothing special.
I was brought up to the refrain, “Nobody likes a big head.” In keeping with this philosophy my mother was happy to extol the virtues of other people’s children whilst focusing on the ordinariness of her own. Any flashes of grandeur in my family were met with ridicule and mirth. I was the kid at school who never put their hand up and dreaded the thought of being called upon to “share”. Looking back there were always kids desperate to read out their work and ironically they were usually the ones who would have perhaps been wiser to keep quiet. They no doubt grew up into people happy to audition for shows like the X factor, despite being tone deaf with two left feet.
Interestingly the poet and I discussed this and he relayed how he finds British publications to be the most cruel and dismissive of anywhere in the world. He has been published worldwide and noted that only Brits find it necessary to reject work in a savagely critical rather than supportive style. Is self-doubt a cultural thing then, a natural result of our so called wit that sees us happy to pull others to shreds? Who knows?
I studied at university in Texas and one of the biggest culture shocks for me was how much value was placed on the ability to speak engagingly. In the UK it would have been possible for me to survive my entire educational life without once opening my mouth. Suddenly though I was thrust into a world of presentations where sharing your ideas and work was the norm. To be fair I was probably no less inarticulate when I graduated but it made me see the merit of teaching public speaking skills.
I could be generalising here but I think Americans are much better at valuing themselves and their achievements and this possibly comes from an education system where sharing ideas and work orally is respected just as much as written work. Most of my friends hate public speaking as much as I do. In fact some have even declined promotions at work as to accept would mean addressing large audiences. For me public speaking and the ability to promote yourself go hand in hand and the trouble is, while many of us shy away from the glare of attention, there’s always someone else ready to snatch the limelight. The reality is no one cares that you may be hiding your light under a bushel they just assume you have nothing to offer.
What can we do then to reverse this debilitating lack of self-confidence? I think there should be more emphasis on performing and group work in schools from a young age. Sadly as exams increasingly take precedence over everything else, schools have once again become places where written work is all that matters and this does not reflect real life. In our modern world most jobs demand the ability to be a good communicator and so our young people are going to be at as big a disadvantage as me and all the other public speaking haters out there.
It sounds clichéd and I’ll admit it makes me feel slightly nauseous but pick up any self improvement book and somewhere you’ll find the old adage that you have to love yourself. I think the real message behind this is that we need to treat ourselves with the same kindness that we treat others. As I said at the beginning, I am always happy to admire the quality of other people’s achievements so maybe it’s time to stop focussing on the shortcomings of my own.