I left university in 2010, probably the very worst time to be fresh out of education with zero experience. Every day brought more gloomy news: that graduate employment was at an all time low, that the vast majority of internships now didn’t even cover expenses, that Vodafone had received 3500 applications for every place on their grad scheme. To us and – apparently – our potential employers, graduate was a dirty word.
To make matters worse, the vast majority of my friends at university were on four year courses. Not only was I jobless and broke, but I was also at home on my todd while all my mates continued to party on at university. It was, I imagine, how ghosts feel watching their surviving friends and relatives from the netherworld. The friends who had graduated alongside me were among the lucky few who had managed to scramble themselves onto the first rung of their chosen career ladders. A couple had surveyed the barren job market and hightailed it back to university to do Masters degrees. Whatever everyone was doing with themselves, their good fortune was smeared all over Facebook for me to see. And because I was so jealous and bitter and miserable, I couldn’t tear myself away.
It was torture.
Eighteen months on and I’d found a job I liked very much. Then, one grey Monday lunchtime, my boyfriend broke up with me. By text. Two days before our second anniversary. I was sent home early from work and spent the afternoon sitting on a bench in the rain. The next day, Valentine’s Day, I drove seventy miles to his house to pick up my stuff. I remember wondering when things had started to go wrong. Things hadn’t been working for awhile, but what I didn’t know was that he was seeing somebody else. A girl five years younger than me, who he then went on to start a relationship with three days later.
Aside from anything else, nobody expects to be dumped for someone half a decade younger than them aged 22.
Six months later, I made a mistake at work that snowballed into one of the biggest clusterfucks I’ve ever known. The problem was with a girl on the client’s side who was trying to make a scapegoat of me, and although my own company was very supportive, I was a nervous wreck. I cried in the toilets every day for a week. I wanted to resign in disgrace. I felt it would be better to quit than continue with something I was so blatantly not able to do. Confidence was at an all-time low.
I pick out these three examples because they are the worst things that have happened to me in the last few years. Nothing very dramatic or unusual; these are things that will also have happened to everyone who reads this. And I know that I am very lucky that this is as bad as it’s been. I know people who have lost parents and brothers to disease and disaster, people who have been robbed blind in the night. There are those whose marriages have fallen apart and whose homes have been flooded beyond repair. Across the world, there are people held against their will, raped, mutilated and murdered. I know I am fortunate.
That said, this post is about self-doubt, and how our own fears – some rational, some not – paralyse us. The three things I’ve described had a profound effect on me. Waking up every morning in the summer of 2010 with literally nothing to do, I’d experience an overwhelming sense of worthlessness and hopelessness. I remember wondering who would come to my funeral if I died. I’d apply for some jobs, then lie brooding why none of the previous hundred or so employers had even acknowledged my email. I’d go over and over my CV, swapping out buzzwords for other buzzwords, trying to explain to someone so far removed from my own personal reality why they should take a punt on me over the hundreds of others desperately vying for their attention.
I imagine it’s quite stressful, processing job applications in a recession.
I got my present job in the end by sending an application to a recruitment agency with a cover letter promising not to “give them any bullshit I heard last night on The Apprentice“, which was written late one night in a violent rage at the injustice of it all. (It’s a better story before you know the letter didn’t actually make it to my employer, but at least it got me an interview.) Once I got the job, of course, I felt vindicated. All the self-doubt that had built up with every rejection – or rather, every application I’d thrown into the void with no response – burst into a great wave of relief. It washed over my self-esteem, by then sore and red-raw, like a balm.
Although the job hunt was depressing, I knew it wasn’t just me. The unemployment pandemic affected millions of people, of which I was but one. It was hard not to take the other two things personally. Of course, almost any break-up is devastating; I bet you’ve got some horror stories too. It is never nice to be rejected. To be dumped is to be told you’re not enough. Not good enough, not pretty enough, not clever enough. In my case of my ex-boyfriend, I felt I wasn’t as good as the new girl. In the case of work, I felt I wasn’t good enough for the job. Whether it’s personal or professional, anything that slams into your confidence that hard will start to affect your overall self-perception. You begin to question your worth. A creeping malaise steals into your life and everything you do disgusts you with its pathetic inadequacy. This feels like an identity crisis; everything good you thought you knew about yourself is called into question, and all the bad things you always secretly suspected are amplified until everything positive is drowned out.
A couple of years on and I know the girl at work only tried to dob me in to save her own skin, and the reason why my ex and I grew apart wasn’t because of shortcomings of mine, but shortcomings of his.
This is what I try to remember now whenever I am stricken with fear and doubt. We place greater emphasis on our failures – and yes, everyone fails spectacularly sometimes – than our successes. Why was I in pieces over one incident in the office when I brush off everyday good works like they’re nothing? And why did I allow a rejection from one person to so deeply affect my self-worth? It makes no sense.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t learn from things that didn’t work out, even if the experience was harrowing and painful. After all, life’s most valuable lessons often come from the most colossal of cock-ups. But perhaps we should cut ourselves some slack and give equal weight to both our triumphs and disasters.
When was the last time your confidence was in crisis mode? And what do you do to keep going?
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