Earlier this week, I found myself in a room filled with some of my childhood idols. Women whose books and words helped shape my consciousness and informed my writing. I had the opportunity to walk up to them and let them know how much their work meant to me – to converse and engage them on questions that had haunted me all my life. Yet I couldn't.
I found myself overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy – I was not successful enough, not published enough, not accomplished enough, not worthy of being in the same room with them. Instead, I sat in a corner and bowed my head, and tried to make myself as small as possible. I tried to disappear. I had a unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I could not take advantage of it because my sense of inferiority held me back.
I know to some this might seem like a product of distorted thinking. But it’s not. This is a powerful, tangible thing. It informs all my decisions – from what I choose to spend my money on, to whom I choose to date and, most importantly, whether I write or not.
You may have noticed that this blog has been silent for the last few months. I am truly sorry for that. You see, writing is not something you can do unless you have an unshakeable belief in yourself – in the primacy of your words. You need it if you are going to withstand the criticism and rejection that is part of a writer’s life. You need it if you are going to stand on the stage of the world and bare your heart to it.
But for a long time, I’ve been crippled by a sense of inadequacy. I linger on the edges of things because I don’t feel I have what it takes to be at the centre. When I write I agonise over every word, writing and rewriting, but never submitting, or alternatively, I dash it off and refuse to look at it again for fear that I will tinker it to death. In other aspects of my life, I don’t try because I don’t believe that I can succeed. And when I do succeed, in whatever small measure, I do not believe that I am worthy of that success and I work, sometimes unconsciously, to undermine it.
What makes it worse is that I am at my core an ambitious person. I can’t sit in one place. I don’t feel satisfied if I don’t feel that I am progressing, improving and – most importantly – winning. So I end up stuck in bog of fear and self-loathing. And I watch with quiet envy as others do while I only try, write while I dither, publish while I pine. In a roomful of doers, movers and shakers – whose brilliance dazzles and whose confidence and charisma seem to radiate like light – I am the one in the corner with the fixed, staring eyes and plastic grin, hoping no one will notice.
This last week I have been attending the Yari Yari Ntoaso International Conference on Literature by Women of African Ancestry in Accra, Ghana. It was an amazing event and I met so many women who are doing extraordinary things. But it made me realise that I am simply not living up to my potential – and the only thing holding me back is my sense of inadequacy. The idea that I am not smart enough, or strong enough, or disciplined enough, or good enough – not “enough” enough. That has to stop. I cannot continue to live in the shadow of my fear. Already, I can see the ghost of the bitter, angry old woman I will become if I do and I refuse to let it happen. Enough is enough.
I’ll be honest, I have no idea how I will do it. I know that simply racking up advanced degrees won’t be enough. I also suspect that being published might not necessarily do it either. In “Bird by Bird” her book on writing, Anne Lamott once pointed out that getting published won’t fix you, it will just mean that you’ll be a published author with all the same issues. I think the only way is to work in spite of my sense of inadequacy. Perhaps I will never feel worthy and can only hope to manage it somehow so that it doesn't grind my productivity to nothing. Or perhaps as time goes on, I will continue to get incrementally better, making progress in steps so small and tiny that I barely notice. Until one day I look in the mirror and finally see someone I can be proud of.