Maybe the men should be less confident.
I have a problem, and it is this. On the one hand, I believe passionately in the advancement and empowerment of women. I believe passionately in the importance of us all feeling able to stand up, raise our voices loud above the din, take ownership our achievements and feel happy comfortable taking up space in the world. I think it’s vital that more and more women climb and clamber and even get airlifted to the tops of their industries, and that the little girls watching them understand they can do the same, if they want to. I crave the confidence that is sold like catnip by the Beyoncés and Sheryl Sandbergs and Mindy Kalings of the world; it looks delicious. I want it.
But on the other hand, I also believe passionately in not being a dick. And that’s where it gets difficult.
I don’t tend to think I can ride the metaphorical horse very often. In fact it’s been a trademark of mine for many years, when a cool or exciting opportunity comes along, to yelp “I don’t want to!!” and immediately disappear inside my own jumper.
And before you stroke my hair and break into Something Inside So Strong, let me tell you that it isn’t just your standard, mimsy lady-worry that I won’t be good enough; I also convince myself the opportunity will be so stressful that I won’t even enjoy myself doing it. And if I won’t enjoy myself, then… well, why bother? Life is short. That was my reasoning for not doing hockey in year 10, and it was my reasoning the time I was asked to be on Woman’s Hour, panicked and said no, because I was “too emotionally preoccupied with a friend’s wedding”. Maybe I should regret both of those things now, but I don’t.
Because while I would straight up love to be someone who didn’t feel that irrational stomach-dagger of doubt every time a new challenge came along, I also can’t quite shake the feeling that a bit of imposter syndrome — not loads, just a modest dollop of fear — might actually be quite healthy and normal. To not crash through life blithely assuming we can do things before we’ve actually done them could be helpful, for making us a) more hardworking, effective and detail-attentive and b) not a massive twat to be around. Perhaps that’s the poisonous brainwashing of The Man talking… or maybe it’s just true.
Whenever people tell me to have more confidence in my untested abilities, I can’t help hearing the voice of Pride & Prejudice’s Lady Catherine De Bourgh, looming over the pianoforte: “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.” Or as L.V. Anderson put it in this frankly game-changing Slate article, “maybe we should stop calling people who experience impostor syndrome “people who experience impostor syndrome” and start calling people who don’t experience impostor syndrome “overconfident weirdos.”
After all, if you meet someone who worries they can’t ride the horse, you want to help them into the saddle and cheer them on. Meet someone who claims they’re probably a natural-born jump jockey, however, and you really just want to see them fall off.
But then. But then. I still want the women to succeed. I want us all to succeed! And while, sure, I splutter “what happened to HUMILITY?” over my Instagram feed about once a week, I still envy everyone who can feel the fear and do it anyway. Trust me, nothing halts your productivity like having an hour-long cry about how everything you do is garbage. I had one before I wrote this, even, and as you can see it didn’t help matters at all.
So I guess the challenge is to find the sweet spot on the confidence spectrum, somewhere between crippling self-doubt and Katie Hopkins. After the panic, but before you become insufferable. What’s our RDA of anxiety, though? Is it like a vaccination — too much makes you sick, but a small quantity makes you actually invincible? And, hang on: why are we, the neurotics and not-good-enoughs, having to do all the self improvement here?
As Sarah Hagi coined in her now-famous prayer to combat imposter syndrome, ‘God, give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude’ — but isn’t there also a case for asking that the mediocre white dudes just have a bit less of it to begin with? Because a world where we all have to wave our balls around like first-round Apprentice contestants to get ahead isn’t really a world that appeals to me.
Speaking of which — we’ve all heard the stat about men applying for jobs when they meet 60% of the criteria while women only apply if they score 100%. But this closer look at the report it’s taken from shows that actually rather than lacking of confidence in their ability to DO the job, it’s more likely the women weren’t applying because they thought they just wouldn’t stand a chance of getting the job. That the system was asking for more than they could deliver. And that they bowed out where the underqualified men plugged on regardless, to happily ham things up and get paid for it. The whole scenario still makes my blood boil with injustice, but I also know which group I’d rather go down the pub with.
So no, I don’t know how to ride a horse. But I’m working on having a go, at least. And when I fall off, you’re allowed to laugh — just don’t tell anyone I was a dick about it.
This essay was originally published in the email newsletter Schmancy!, by Lauren Bravo and Daisy Buchanan. Sign up here.