Friday, 28 October 2016

Don't Hide Your Light

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 clich├ęd 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.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A Bad Week To Be A Woman

My anger has been steadily brewing all week and now it’s at boiling point. It’s not been a good week for women and, regardless of your gender, you should be steaming mad too. The week started with Donald Trump justifying groping women as basically a bit of fun and ended with a professional footballer having his conviction for rape overturned.

Now before I continue let me confess I know nothing about the said footballer. I wasn’t there on the night of the alleged incident nor was I privy to the evidence that was revealed in court. What has pushed me over into full-blown Hulk mode however is the rhetoric surrounding the case and the way in which his legal team were allowed to use the victim’s sexual history as evidence against her and potentially undo any progress that has been made in prosecuting sex crimes.

Despite having zero interest in the game I remember clearly when the rape allegation was first levelled at the footballer and he was suspended from his club, which happened to be in my home town. It’s seared in my memory as I was working in a school and shocked to the core by the attitudes of many boys and some girls towards the allegation. Words like ‘bitch’ and ‘slag’ were bandied about with venom and the general consensus seemed to be that football was more important than an intoxicated, vulnerable young woman who may or may not have been raped.

On Saturday night, twenty four hours after he had been exonerated by an appeals court, I foolishly clicked on the footballer’s name as he trended on Twitter. The level of abuse aimed at women made me feel physically sick. Anyone who questioned the legalities of what had taken place was called (and you can take your pick here) – feminist lesbian/ ugly cunt/ slag/ bitch/ whore. Given that the defence team used not only the woman’s sexual history but the idea that the footballer was so in demand by women that he didn’t have to rape one seems to suggest that rape is only a crime when committed against particularly attractive virgins.

The damage this has done to women I believe is inestimable. Already many rape victims don’t come forward for fear of being blamed, not believed or being put on trial themselves. What kind of message then do these legal proceedings send? I read an article this week about a man who was running an assertiveness course for women and how shocked he had been to learn that every woman in the class had suffered some degree of sexual abuse. He may have been shocked but I’m not.

I don’t know any woman in my own circle of friends who hasn’t been touched in some way by sexual abuse. My sister and I were always urged to be wary of men by our mother who at the age of fourteen had been groped by her much older brother-in-law. She told her mother who didn’t believe her and warned her not to make trouble. My mother’s solution was to never be alone with him again and to make sure neither my sister nor I ever were either. That early awareness that people weren’t always what they appear to be didn’t always keep us safe though.

My first encounter with the thorny issue of tell/don’t tell came in primary school aged about eight. I was chosen along with two other girls to be a biscuit monitor at play time and as we were getting the biscuits from the stockroom one of the girls revealed that her grandfather was abusing her. Conscious only of the gravity of the situation we all went hand in hand to tell the teacher who listened carefully and sent us on our way. Before the day was up we were all called into the headmaster’s office and given the scolding of our lives for telling ‘nasty lies’. I for one never spoke of it again and I have no idea what became of the other two girls.

Later on in my teens we all knew who the ‘pervy’ dads were, the ones you had to avoid being left on your own with. A couple of friends who weren’t quick enough on their feet found themselves fending off unwanted touches but despite it being openly discussed none of us did anything about it. Likewise with ‘handjob gennel’ so named because of the local boy who would trap lone girls in the gennel and only let them pass once they’d performed a handjob.

The astonishing fact that the boy got away with this for years can only be explained in the context of the level of fear he struck into every teenager’s heart. He was a vicious thug, eventually expelled from school and dispatched to a ‘special’ school for almost beating a boy to death. Trapped in that gennel I and I’m sure every other girl on my estate, felt in genuine fear for our lives.

Once you mature into adulthood it becomes easier to avoid unwanted attention but even then I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been grabbed, slapped and slobbered on all in the name of friendly fun. Your intellect screams that you should be speaking out but some ingrained fear of causing a scene or rocking the boat makes you keep quiet and simply warn your friends to avoid the ‘lech’.

I had hoped that for young women the sexual minefield had perhaps become easier to navigate but it appears not. There are always going to be men who take advantage and now it seems the legal system is collaborating in making sure that women still won’t feel able to speak out.