We are born sharp-eyed, confident and sassy. We are not scared of anything. Not of touching hot plates or putting cooking utensils into our mouths. Most importantly, we are not afraid to be who we are.
I was no exception. As a five-year-old, I was the kid who cried whenever I would win a board game because it meant that someone else had to lose. At age seven, I demanded that my parents change my last name because I thought it was unfair that I only had my father’s last name. In my eyes, I was equally my mother’s and father’s daughter! But by 11, I was so self-conscious about who I was that I had developed a need to appear perfect to the outside world.
I wish I could say that my fear of failure, constant self-doubt and need to be perfect was abnormal. But I am no exception. Some people may say that ‘imposter syndrome’ is something that all ANU millennials face. But imposter syndrome doesn’t explain the social phenomenon whereby women* won’t apply for a job, internship or opportunity unless they believe that they satisfy 90 per cent of the job requirements. Men, on the other hand, will apply even if they are 30 per cent qualified.
I, too, find I am often asking myself: “Am I good enough to be doing this?”
You always remember the first time. (No, not that first time!) I’m talking about the first time that you started doubting yourself. For me, it was in fourth grade, when the boy sitting next to me said, with genuine shock: “I didn’t realise girls could be so funny!” I couldn’t stop thinking: “Why does it matter that I am a girl?” Can’t I just be funny?”
This was my first exposure to the backhanded compliment.
Backhanded compliment /bakˈhandɪd ˈkɒmplɪm(ə)nt/ noun
- An insult ‘disguised’ as a compliment (to make the giver of the compliment feel better about themselves).
- A compliment that makes the receiver of the ‘compliment’ feel worse about themselves.
I thought this would be a one-off. However, as we grow up, these comments become more prevalent. This is disappointing but unsurprising given that we have somehow ended up in an era where #banter is a social currency. It’s shocking that people can get away with saying almost anything if it is qualified with the phrase: “Stop being so sensitive, we are just having a bit of fun!”
Examples of this phenomenon could include, but are certainly not limited to:
“It’s so refreshing to meet a woman who is not afraid to be authoritative.”
“You have like, really amazing grades for someone who lives at college.”
“I’m not usually into Asians but you’re hot.”
“You’re so down to earth for someone who went to a private school.”
“I didn’t expect someone so young to be so competent.”
“You’re not like most other girls.”
Putting others down isn’t going to make you feel better about yourself. We all wonder why so many of us are so scared to step out of our comfort zone. But how can we not be reluctant when the only assurance or positive feedback many of us receive has been qualified by something about ourselves we cannot change?
I can just envisage the comments now from all those who took first-year psychology and think that excludes you from the dialogue. Knowing what a ‘mental schema’ is does not make you superior. Nor does it excuse you. Knowing that our brains use mental shortcuts to help us process information does not let you off the hook for being tactless and insensitive. I can see the angry reacts of people demanding that we “learn to take a compliment”. I would take them to be complimentary if not for the fact that they are not intended to be as such. These are comments people make in an attempt to measure their self-worth against another person.
Yes, there is no doubt that there will always be someone smarter, more accomplished and more talented than you, but that doesn’t mean that you are any less remarkable.
We are all insecure. Even the people you look up to. Most of us are a hot mess most of the time. Learn to embrace it. Learn to back yourself. Back yourself in everything that you do. Apply for that prestigious APS internship, that casual vacancy you saw on ethicaljobs.com, or that scholarship that you discounted because your GPA isn’t high enough. Cover your walls with inspirational quotes or make vision and goals boards if that is what it takes. You’re incredibly talented in your own right. No one is better at being you than you.
Help your friends realise how amazing they are. Tell them how important they are to you. Congratulate, praise and compliment them out of the blue. You never know the impact that one comment or word of encouragement can have on someone – it could make the difference! Behind every person there are 10 people who push them until they do that really scary thing that they claim they can’t do. Ten people that give them pep talks and advice over the phone when they lack confidence on the way to a meeting, and who quickly proof-read their applications and assessments 10 minutes before the deadline. These are the people you can look to and admire!
We are all kind, ambitious and talented because of who we are, not regardless of who we are. To even insinuate otherwise is to suggest that what is on the outside is far more important that what is on the inside. What makes us unique does not make us a liability.
There is one piece of advice that we are constantly given throughout university. We’re told that the most important thing we can do is to make the most of every opportunity that is given to us. I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement. The most important thing to do at university is to take every opportunity that isn’t given to you. You take the opportunities that you have to fight for and the ones you were not meant to get but got anyway. It is in these situations – when we try something new and step out of comfort zone – that we learn and grow. Everyone talks about the times when we took a risk and it paid off. But none of us admit the number of times we were rejected, and the number of risks we took that didn’t pay off.
Every failure teaches us how to better next time. So, go big or go home! Find your 20 seconds of insane courage and embrace every cliché teen-movie quote, because maybe Peter Pan was onto something when he said that we should never grow up. We could all benefit from channelling the confidence we had as children. We don’t need to learn how to be perfect, we need to be ourselves – and everyone need let us be who we are without a side of shame or a backhanded compliment.
*I used the word “women” for the sake of being succinct to refer to women-identifying and women-presenting people. I would like to acknowledge that those with intersecting identities or who identify as non-binary are disproportionally impacted by imposter syndrome, and that they especially deserved to be supported in all that they do.