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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Confidentially


Self-confidence, self-esteem, self-regard, self-image are all important in underpinning a sense of well-being and happiness. Meaningful work and loving relationships are also part of the equation for a successful life. Very few people ‘have it all’. The rest of us blunder along from one day to the next, through life’s ups and downs, trying to muster the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can’t change to improve ourselves and our situation. In this struggle we look to other people – family and friends, colleagues and mentors, counsellors, priests, coaches, authors of memoirs and self-help books – for guidance and advice. We have much to learn and teach each other. But sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes what seems like the deepest of insights is simply bullshit.

The most harmful self-improvement truisms that I have learned to ignore are the career and relationship twins ‘you need more confidence’ and ‘you need to love yourself first’. Young women hear this A LOT. We ask our confidants ‘why is it so hard?’. We have done everything right – we are well qualified, we work hard, we keep in shape, we network, we date, we are friendly and funny, we read the right books and see the right films. Why are we still single? Why haven’t we been promoted? When there is no obvious answer, ‘confidence’ seems to be the only thing missing, and so we are told that we should learn to love ourselves, learn to believe in our own abilities. This is not only wrong, it is pernicious.

Both love and confidence are fundamentally relational experiences. An imaginary baby locked in a cupboard and fed protein pills from birth is not going to develop a positive self-regard by looking in the mirror and chanting affirmations. The idea that we must regard ourselves highly and then go out and succeed in life is completely arse-about. Love and confidence come from positive experience of other people, not the other way around. Of course there is a virtuous circle of positive self-regard and success in career and relationships, but the idea that you must, or even that you can, love yourself and be confident before anything good can happen in your life is absurd.
    
Life is not fair, especially for women, most especially for women who think they may have more to contribute to society than looking pretty and breeding. If women lack confidence at work compared to their male counterparts, then it may be because they are being more harshly judged by others because of their gender. There are many, many studies that confirm this. I have written before about my own experience of ‘little sexism’. As women we put up with it and get on with our work, while our male counterparts are boosted by ‘little affirmations’ (if you think I am making this up I can send you the reading list). Then we hit the next milestone in our careers and are told that it is our fault we aren’t succeeding at the same rate as the men because we lack their confidence. Seriously.

Relationships fail and careers stall for lots of reasons, some of them structural. The spinster aunts left behind by the world wars weren’t single because they didn’t love themselves enough. They were single because thousands of men of their generation were killed in their prime. There hasn’t been a world war for a while now, but there have been some pretty serious changes to the structure of society and gender relationships in recent decades, which might have something to do with why I am not alone in being single for no apparent reason. Partners in most marriages these days claim equality, but heterosexual marriages also reflect wider social norms. In some cases the woman is better qualified and earns more than her male partner, but these are rare. In the incomplete revolution in gender equality, life has changed faster in public than in private. Women have moved up in the world of work, and yet still largely expect to marry a man who is their equal or older, taller and wealthier, and most men expect to marry equal or down in height, age, qualifications and income. This leaves a generation of unemployed and working class single men at the ‘bottom’ of the socio-economic ladder, and me and my single friends struggling within sight of the top. I have met many of these men over the years and we have lots in common. Though I am unlikely to marry an unemployed truck driver it would be nice to live in a world where being tall, good at my job and earning a decent salary made me attractive as a partner, regardless of the other person’s statistics.  We are not there yet.

It’s just a theory. I am sure there are demographers out there who could disprove my hypothesis. My point is that sometimes when there aren’t any obvious personal reasons why someone is single or struggling with their career, it might be that there are actually bigger forces at play than just their own self-esteem. Expecting someone to overcome persistent social structures and cultural norms with their own self-regard is like hiding their keys and expecting them to open the front door using positive visualisation.

Worst of all, the surest way to destroy someone’s confidence is to tell them that they need more, and the fastest way to make someone feel unlovable is to tell them they need to love themselves. As a graduate engineer in the pub one Friday afternoon a colleague recounted her appraisal where she was told she just needed more confidence. Her response was ‘not only do I feel completely unqualified for this role and the operators don’t take me seriously, but now my boss thinks I don’t even have any confidence’. I lost nearly a decade of my life listening to people who told me I just needed to learn to love myself. It had never occurred to me that I didn’t love myself, and taking this advice led down a horrible spiral that concludes with ‘if I can’t even love myself then why would anyone else?’ I spent many years and thousands of pounds in therapy deconstructing my childhood and thought patterns to find out why I didn’t love myself, when the truth was that I didn’t love myself because I had started listening to people who couldn’t come up with a better reason for why I didn’t have a boyfriend.

Confidence and love are not things we should be expected to take individual responsibility for. We can’t do it on our own. Trying to do so becomes its own negative, self-fulfilling prophesy. Pulling together a positive self-image for a date who walks away because I am an inch taller than him doesn’t help me to feel the love. Doing my best to present myself as a serious professional and then being introduced to a meeting as ‘young lady’ doesn’t fill me with the sense that I really belong at the tables of power. If we are trying our hardest to take personal responsibility for our own self-esteem and the world doesn’t seem to agree with us then we risk undermining whatever shred of positive self-regard we started with.

Now whenever I hear people tell me I need to love myself and have more confidence, I know it is short hand for ‘you are OK, I have no idea why you are on your own or struggling with your career, the world is unfair’. Confidence and love are outcomes, not prerequisites, of positive experiences of the world. We can give and receive both, but we can’t make it up all on our own, and it is dangerous to try.

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