I used to live with a constant inner mean girl. I named her Susan (Self Doubt Susan to be exact). This is the story of our break-up.
The story starts when I was around nine years old and wore a tartan skirt to school. I loved that tartan skirt. A girl in Year 6 made fun of the skirt though, telling me it was too short. I went home and put the skirt at the back of my wardrobe. That was my first experience of someone else knocking the wind out of my sails. And it was around the point my inner mean girl, “Susan”, first moved in.
She made regular appearances ever since, up to fairly recently. Susan was an amalgamation of all the negative things anyone had ever said to me, but exaggerated. It was Susan who made me believe I’d messed up my A’Levels and it was Susan who told me I “just got lucky” when I opened the results envelope telling me I got straight A’s.
Over the years Susan’s persuaded me not to apply for jobs, not to pitch for work projects and not to attend networking events. If I’ve ever felt like I was doing a bad job as a mum you can bet those thoughts were down to Susan, regularly pointing out all the other mums who were super at crafting and staying patient all the time and keeping an immaculate house.
Susan was all my self-doubt and none of my confidence. There was no criticism that could be levelled at me that Susan hadn’t already thought of. It was exhausting and, ultimately, self-sabotaging.
At the time, I told myself my self-doubt Susan kept me in line, made me a decent person and stopped me getting arrogant or vain. But, looking back, I can see that the self-doubt was crippling and probably held me back from lots of opportunities and experiences that may have enriched my life.
It’s not that I was hiding in my room, alone. I wasn’t. On the outside I was a confident, bubbly person. I travelled to far off places solo, did a pretty cool job on the radio and, later, threw myself into motherhood as a fairly young mum with a relatively non-existent local support network. So I lived my life big. But Susan was always there, ready to jump in and tell me what I was doing wrong, or how I could do better or generally just bring me down on days where I was already feeling a bit vulnerable.
And it was confusing. Because, rationally, I WAS a confident person. I didn’t get nervous about the things that lots of people got nervous about. I did put myself out there. But the difference was, afterwards I’d often over-analyse situations, worry I said the wrong thing, or beat myself up for completely irrelevant reasons. I was constantly conflicted.
The things that would make Susan disappear for short periods were a) doing well at work or getting new work opportunities / b) jumping into new life situations or projects / or c) external validation (being complimented in whatever way by other people). But after those little bursts, Susan would always be back.
Until the past nine months.
I started the year with Susan as my regular housemate. She’d not only moved in, she’d redecorated and put her name on the front door too. Work was quiet, I was a bit bored in my general life as a mum, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and generally a bit lost. I’d look in the mirror and see a washed-up failure, not the vibrant, funny, clever, loving mum looking back at me.
And then something changed. I’m not sure why, exactly, but I decided 2018 was going to be the year I broke up with Susan for good. I just knew I couldn’t carry on living with those stomach churning feelings of self-doubt and anxiety any longer. It’s exhausting being unkind to yourself and I’d had enough. It sounds simplistic but I really just could not be arsed to live like that any more.
So I started to do a few simple things. Before I went to bed (and I still do this now) I’d remember something I’d done well that day. Even if I had to dig deep to find it, there was ALWAYS something. It might have been cooking a nice tea or giving a stranger a compliment or taking my kids to the park. Sometimes it was big and sometimes it was small, but there was always something.
Gradually I started to actually look at myself in the mirror. Like, properly look. I’d force myself to pick out things I liked about my appearance and I’d turn my head away when I started to focus on the things I wanted to change. I started to carve out space for myself to run again and do yoga. Not because I wanted to alter my body shape but because I wanted to give myself a little bit of head-space and love.
And it worked. It really worked. By March I was feeling like me again. I made a video about being bikini ready and I started to talk more about body image and confidence on here and on Instagram, putting myself out there in a way I hadn’t done in a long time.
Of course, since the break-up Susan’s tried to get back in touch. She’s like the annoying ex who won’t go away and I’ve come to accept that she’ll always be there in the background, trying to slide back into my DM’s when I’m least expecting it. But I’ve changed the locks and changed my number (is this metaphor wearing thin yet?!) I’m so determined not to let her back in.
The irony is, that since I chucked Susan and really started to like myself again I’ve probably had more criticism aimed at me than ever before – at least in such a short space of time. Since April I’ve been told I’m too thin to talk about body image, I’m too fat to share photos of myself in a bikini online, I’m too selfish to be a mum (and leave my kids to work abroad for a few weeks) and I’m too full of myself.
But now, instead of listening to that minority of negativity, I choose to focus on the far bigger picture and the positivity instead. I look at the 99.9% of positive messages and comments over the 0.1% of negative ones. And I no longer wait for those snippets of external validation to tell me I’m doing a good job. I already know I am – however many likes I might get on an Instagram photo.
Ultimately I know I’m a good person, mum and friend. THESE are the things that matter. And when I see others trying to pull people down I feel bad for them, because I figure they are probably still living with their own Susans.
I’m no longer willing to accept what others say about me as truth. I’m no longer willing to let the negative little comments outweigh the good ones. I’m no longer willing to live by a code of self-doubt.
It’s liberating. This is what confidence feels like.
(P.S. Apologies to all the Susans out there. No offence was intended in the naming of my inner mean girl. I have no idea why she was always a Susan. I’m sure Susans are very nice IRL.)