I am no Joan Didion, but lately I have been thinking about her 1961 essay on self-respect. I came across it while watching the recent documentary of her life: The Center Will Not Hold, shortly after arriving in Perth and finding myself awake in the early hours of the morning. I was feeling shit from screwing up an interview for a permanent job two days before I left London. I knew I wasn’t doing as well as I should have halfway through the ordeal – I had entered that purely terrifying state of anxiety wherein nothing you say makes any sense and the more you talk, the more you exit your body to look upon yourself with a sense of horror. Typically, as soon as I left the room I pored over all my omissions and realised what answers they had expected me to provide. What made things worse was that the job was at a lower banding than I had been working at for the last 4 years – I had decided to take a cut in my pay and my status because I enjoyed the job and the NHS Trust so much (I had been working in the role as a temporary staff member for a few months preceding the application). My fears were confirmed a couple of days later when I was told I hadn’t been successful at securing the position.
That’s it, I thought. Your life went off track in 2016 and it’s never coming back. You’d better look for another career because you clearly suck at this one.You think you’ve made all this personal progress over the last year but you haven’t gone anywhere. You can’t even get a job below the level that you’re apparently supposed to be. You should never have even been at that level. You don’t care enough. You’re lazy. You need to stop this now. You haven’t been suffering from Imposter Syndrome. You’re a genuine fraud.
The thought of going back to the office when I returned from Australia and having to face all the people who expected me to get the position crippled me. I sent an email to my boss apologising for letting her down. Which is pretty embarrassing. The paralysis of shame was, in a way, comforting because it felt so familiar.
And then… something changed. I think I had a moment where I looked in the mirror and thought Well, so fucking what. What is this compared to the other shit you’ve dealt with? Maybe I’m not supposed to be a Speech and Language Therapist anymore. It’s not because I’m not smart or lack the aptitude. Maybe I’m just not as interested anymore. It’s been 12 years, that would be completely understandable. Or maybe I was so consumed by anxiety in the interview because I was daring to go for a job I would actually really, really enjoy. Perhaps I am so used to applying for higher banded jobs that I wasn’t sure how to pitch myself and forgot to mention the basic things that I do on a day to day basis. Maybe it was this, maybe it was that. The point is, it can’t be anything too terrible, because I’m not terrible. It’s OK, I fucked up on the day and I forgive myself; the journey continues. It felt so good to speak to myself kindly. I had a cry to my Mum, but then I said the words I needed to hear to myself instead of turning to a partner, or over-burdening my friends. That might not sound like a big deal to most people, but it was to me.
As Joan Didion said, it is a myth that having self-respect – an intrinsic knowledge of one’s own self-worth – will keep one “out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general.” It won’t. But it will determine whether you have the resilience and responsibility to look at these situations square in the face and make, in essence, a measured appraisal of your part. Self-respect is having a strong self-image rather than desperately trying to live out the roles and expectations that other people have assigned to you. Joan thought of it as a discipline that can be trained, and though I am still a fair way off presenting myself to certain people as I truly am (a flawed, imperfect human being with my own needs), I am a hell of a lot closer than I was a year ago, when my opinions of myself were based solely on how others saw me and the first thing I said to my therapist was “I have no idea who I am.” I have walked that “devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself” and I have learnt that unlike in my youth, doors will not magically open for me without hard work, I am no more lucky in love than anyone else, and sometimes I will fuck up things that mean a lot to me. I will lose things. People will leave. I will let others cross my boundaries and I will give them too much. I may not even be a very good person sometimes. But there is now an acceptance of myself running through my very core that not many external situations could shake. I fucking respect myself.
Oh yeah and a few weeks later, my work emailed me to say they’d had a change of circumstance and offered me the job. Pffffft.