On Confidence

I  have very uneven “self esteem” or as I call it, confidence. In high school, I didn’t think the local dime store would hire me. By the end of college, I knew I could work in a dime store or a factory or as a substitute teacher. But I did not think I could be hired as a receptionist, so I applied to a prestigious graduate program. TAships were lucrative then and this was the only thing to do, that I could think of, that would guarantee I would not have to do something like … move in with my parents and work retail.

I liked graduate school. The family was doubtful about my becoming a professor because of the snow at places I might work — Madison, Lawrence, Bloomington, and Ann Arbor were places with universities I might like, and they are all snowy — and because of research, which it was assumed I would not want to do or would not do well enough to publish enough. But I like to write, and I do not mind sending pieces off four and five times, and I thought research and snow in a lively town with travel funding to large Latin American cities sounded fine.


Still I always had the idea that I should want something else, largely because so many people groaned about academia; they must know something I did not. I did well in graduate school, but not as well as I might have, because one was supposed to not like it and also because our professors kept telling us we would never get jobs. So I saw the PhD program as an interesting first job out of college and hoped to work for some organization like SSRC or UNESCO later. My dissertation was not nearly as strong intellectually as my PhD examination had been, but (or because) it was finished on time. Graduate school gave me the confidence to plan to apply for the receptionist jobs I had been wary of after the B.A.

And when I became a professor, it became immediately clear to me that in fact graduate school had prepared me for much higher level, much faster paced, much more challenging work.

And in graduate school I did not realize that I was a star of sorts. I finished my courses with good grades, I passed all examinations on the first attempt, they kept renewing my TAships, and professors told me to publish some of my papers. Some students were more aggressive and self promoting than I but as has been pointed out to me much more recently, those of us who graduated were stars in the sense that we finished our degrees at all when most who started, did not or could not.


So I found myself suddenly on a job market I had not realized would be open to me, and looking at jobs that were not at Madison, Lawrence, Bloomington, or Ann Arbor — well, actually I interviewed once at Bloomington, wasn’t hired, and was glad because I was, in fact, horrified at the type of snow they had (gray slush), and because of what seemed to be passing for Asian food there at the time. But I turned out, because of my very broad education and my palpable tentativeness, to get tracked more toward teaching schools. And some people move up, but not all, and I haven’t, because I don’t have enough of what I need, or the means to get it, so I do not get enough done.

I do not know whether I would have become an academic had I had more confidence, or had I realized other options were open to me. I would certainly have become a higher level academic and a happier one, had I had more confidence. But I have stayed partly out of guilt: (a) I did a PhD against the family’s wishes, so now I have to pay for it by being a professor whether I like it or not; (b) I can write brilliant books and I owe it to the profession to do so; (c) I got not one but several tenure track job offers and I owe it to those who got none to honor one and be grateful.


I also stayed out of serious interest in my research fields, and enjoyment of teaching in them. I stayed because I was never able to save the kind of money one needs to make a career change. And I stayed because of residue my primordial fear from high school, when I did not believe I would even be employable as a greeter at Wal*Mart. But unlike many others, I do not think I am “arrogant” to find rural life at a teaching school so dissimilar to what I would have liked to do in academia, nor do I think I am … mean somehow, I guess people seem to think … to want to live in town and to do something that does not involve teaching freshmen. I mean, I totally respect other peoples’ happiness accommodating to that; it is hardly out of a sense of superiority — remember, I have no confidence, I consider myself inferior — that I consider doing something else. It is merely a question of interests, appetites, tastes.

(I do not mean anything I say or do to be a statement on the validity of what anyone else feels or does, I really don’t. And part of the reason I haven’t followed my own desires more in life is precisely because my not wanting certain things others did seemed to hurt their feelings. And hurting peoples’ feelings by being who I am is my greatest fear.)


But, I think my idea in graduate school, that the PhD would lead to a job at an agency like UNESCO, was a good one. I also think I was right when, at my first job in a large, industrial city, I thought I should take the opportunity of my location to move into business or into a professional degree program. I have also just realized that, in my second job, the one where I got stuck on a book manuscript and spent a lot of time in angst about it, I could have used the time to get the other professional degree I still want at night school, without quitting the job I had until I graduated and was turned down for tenure.

(As we know, I was turned down anyway because I did not agree with my book manuscript. I had learned I should sign articles I did not agree with just for the sake of publishing them but I found I  could not face signing a whole book I couldn’t support. So I was stuck without enough information on how to handle such situations, and a lot of exhortations about “time management” which still stick in my craw since that was not the problem.)


The other thing was that during the time I had that job, I could have investigated the UNESCO / SSRC possibilities; I did not because I was trying to handle the question of that book manuscript and also, of course, Reeducation, which was enough. I could also have done those things since, and I did not because I took this job out of guilt and I feel guilty about that. Firstly, I had sworn under some pressure that I would now, at last, commit to the profession in the name of the important contribution I could make to it. I had been allowed to complete a PhD and also to get on the tenure track so I owed it to everyone to stay and give something back. Secondly, I had also made the decision not to upset the family, who appeared to be even more anxious about my changing careers than they had been about my having one in the first place.

Having made these commitments I keep trying to make a serious go of it but I was not realistic about how much certain kinds of teaching get me down. I also did not expect the type of toxicity we had for a long time, from very unlikely sources, and I did not realize that these things would activate my PTSD triggers as they do. All of this is why I am usually too exhausted and depressed to get a move on for — well, almost anything; people do not know it but it takes a great deal of energy for me to even get out of the house.


These are the results of not having enough confidence. I am worried about the future not only because I do not want to continue living in this way with which I am unable to make peace even though I “should” because it would be “mature” (I disagree with that; maturity is individuation), but because it is not viable. It is very hard to tell: given slightly different circumstances, I could have been a very good academic and been happy as one, it is true. It is also true that when I was younger than I am now and felt I should leave academia, I felt that only because it seemed to be one of our duties, to feel disaffected and to want to leave. Yet now, in fact for many years now, it is at the thought of leaving that my heart leaps.

What do I want to leave, though? Not research. I do not do enough research but I have fantastic projects and it is the possibility of developing them more that tantalizes me into staying. But I want to leave abusive people for whom I must also care, as they are impaired and less privileged than myself; I want to leave my loneliness in Maringouin; I want to leave my guilt about not having made more of a go of it and also not being grateful enough for having been allowed to do as much as I have been allowed to do. I can hear someone jeering, still: See? I told you, you would not be able to work. I told you, women who have careers, suffer. I told you so, told you so. What makes you think you are so smart? Who said you can be anything? That is why I lack confidence and why I want to run far and fast, anywhere at all, to leave that voice behind.

Perhaps self sabotage does not exist, but I believe actual sabotage does. I also think many like me are taught to collude in our own oppression. I am convinced that this is a political (objective, collective, social) and not a psychological (internal, merely neurotic) problem.


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