Crises of confidence are common to all of us. There is nothing like failure, or the anticipation of it, to make us question the assessments we make of ourselves, or to render us uncertain of our own worth. We live in an era whose pervasive messages alternatively chirpily declare our inherent value in a form of blind, aggressive affirmation, or drag us down like presumptuous crabs trying to escape a bucket.
Increasingly, we are told that we are perfect the way we are, or that we are irredeemably imperfect. We question the right of others to criticise us rather than questioning whether their criticisms are valid, or we believe poorly motivated criticisms unquestioningly. It can sometimes be difficult to know when criticism is valid, and should be used as fuel for improvement, and when it is corrosive and unconstructive.
We are not perfect the way we are. If we were, we could declare ourselves finished articles, cease to strive in any respect, and eat crisps in the bath for the rest of our lives. The thought of that fills me simultaneously with dread and desperate longing. None of us are perfect, or finished, or indeed without grievous and rather urgent need for improvement. It is the case, however, that while being honest with ourselves about our weaker tendencies, we should treat ourselves and others as having a sort of inherent value and as being worthy of respect.
(We) succumb to our worst fears about ourselves and simply stop working to improve.
It is easier to apply this, for some reason, to other people than to extend those good manners to our dealings with ourselves. For the most part, we see no reason to generally presume others especially bad, or undeserving, or without worth. The challenge is finding the balance when trying to evaluate our own character and behaviour. Too much harshness and judgement, and we essentially bestow upon ourselves the role of ‘best at being undeserving and useless’ (itself a form of self-indulgence), succumb to our worst fears about ourselves, and simply stop working to improve. We have all given that fruitless approach a whack at some time or other, always and necessarily to no avail. On the other hand, too much credence paid to the narrative that the way we happen to be without effort is already our best self, entitled to the unscrupulous recognition of others, and we are pitched over the edge into a form of maniacal social despotism and narcissism which renders improvement virtually impossible. We know this to be true – allow yourself too much slack to pursue whims and empty desires, and you become a person you don’t respect.
Recently , at a dinner with some academics I didn’t know well, I had one of those moments of bone-deep self-doubt, and it was educational. Someone asked me about the schedule I had worked out with care and, I hope a sense of realism, for a project I am working on. When I told her my plan, she looked at me with such abject disbelief and judgement that I became embarrassed. My cheeks went pink and I internally bowed to the intensity of this stranger’s lack of belief in my ability to meet the goal I had set for myself. Self-respect or rational self-belief are not fixed concepts, though of course they should be. They should be rock walls, impermeable and immutable. But in truth they are disconcertingly delicate; any particularly briney wave can erode them a little. An ocean of such waves can chew them back to sand underfoot.
My fork stopped on the way to my flushed face, and Marcus Aurelius floated across my mind: "It never ceases to amaze me. We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own." In striving to achieve something important to us, we are tasked with trusting our own judgment while remaining open to the constructive criticism of others. It took me a while that evening to shake off the sense of doubt that my dinner companion's reaction had slipped under my skin, and to reason away the sense of inferiority that it had flared. That sense that shimmers always under the surface like a dagger in softly moving water. I wield the dagger, and no one else.