“You have to stop thinking you’re not worthy or qualified. You already have what you need.” – My Granny, Annie Lee McKinney
“God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.” – Somebody’s saved, sanctified, and fire-baptized grandmomma somewhere
As a little girl, I wanted to be a writer. I would sit on my porch and read books. Or, I’d write poetry in those little black and white composition notebooks – books I still have. I wanted to be a poet like Phillis Wheatley, an African woman who had been enslaved in Boston, and who published her first book of poetry as a teenager. In junior high school, I worked in the library and was in the drama club (although I never appeared in a play; that’s a different story for a different day). My drama coach, Mr. Murray, encouraged me to write and let me type all my poems up on his office computer. That was my first attempt to write a book – before self-publishing became popular.
“Think about how amazing it would be for you to write a book as a kid,” he said to me as I beamed up at him with a sparkle of excitement in my eyes. Who knows where that computer file is now?
In high school, I continued to write and my teachers continued to encourage my writing. One English teacher sent me to a poetry workshop on Saturdays in the city. Another constantly complimented why writing and commented on my papers that I should consider publishing my work. I think my previous teachers would be quite surprised that I did not become the writer I had planned. I wanted to be the next Susan Taylor, the regal and beautiful former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine.
In college, I resurrected a defunct student literary magazine for Black women called Soul Sisters. I didn’t know anything about running a magazine and had never done so before. I simply solicited writers from across campus. The previous summer, I had worked with a woman whose son was my age and a really good artist. He provided most of the artwork for the magazine. I wanted to write and run a magazine, and I did it. I didn’t stop to think about whether I could do it, knew how to do it, or would do it correctly. And I even met my publication deadline. And then something happened over the years.
I was overtaken by more practical goals, like becoming an attorney – although I have never practiced law a day in my life. I stopped writing and didn’t begin writing again until I started this blog as a way to cope with Granny’s Alzheimer’s. But, I didn’t blog regularly and my writing goals were still put on hold or I simply procrastinated or got distracted by life. Not only had I abandoned my childhood dreams of becoming a writer, a dream that still lingers, but I lost the fearless confidence of my youth. The “I can do anything and be anything I want” attitude. My fearless inner child gave way to the grown-up world of self-doubt and procrastination.
That self-doubt and procrastination have stymied some of my dreams and affect me daily. In The Now Habit: a Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play, author Neil A. Fiore, Ph.D. talks about the habit of procrastination and its underlying causes. One definition of procrastination is that it is “a neurotic form of self-defensive behavior aimed at protecting one’s self worth. That is, we procrastinate when we fear a threat to our sense of worth and independence.” He goes on to write that we procrastinate to “temporarily relieve deep inner fear” – that is, the fear of failure, the fear of being imperfect, and the fear of impossible expectations. He then posits that rooted in such a defense mechanism is the belief that we ourselves, and not just our work, will be judged as unworthy if we don’t feel we can do something perfectly. Dr. Fiore recalled a client who was a chronic procrastinator and suffered work performance issues as a result. She procrastinated because she was paralyzed by the fear of being “just average.” For her, to be average was to be bad or unworthy. She also saw her work performance as a reflection of her self-worth. Dr. Fiore asked this client, “Where did you learn to talk to yourself that way?”
I then asked myself, where did I learn that I was unworthy if I didn’t know it all and have all the answers and do everything perfectly? I thought of the stories I’ve been told and stories I repeated to myself over and over again. And how that doubt crept into other parts of my life, such as my career and fear of taking on new responsibilities. How was it that, despite having some measure of professional success, I still questioned my abilities and had succumbed to “the imposter syndrome” that businesswoman Joyce M. Roché talks about in her memoir/self-help book The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success?
It’s interesting how stories creep into our consciousness, replaying over and over in our heads: Like the story Granny often told with pride about how my White kindergarten teacher told Granny I was “borderline retarded” and should be left back and placed in a special education class. Reportedly, this teacher had told Granny that a certain number of first-grade seats had been reserved for children of other races – non-Black children. Granny threatened to call the NAACP and sue my school, thus ensuring that I wouldn’t languish in an educational system that failed to adequately address my needs. Instead, I subsequently received speech therapy and other supportive services. I remembered a White college advisor and psychology professor who once told me, “I know you got an A on this exam. But, we have to see how you do on the next exam to see whether it’s a true indication of your ability.” At a college luncheon for parents, I remember talking to a White classmate’s father and mentioning to him that I had wanted to attend my college so badly that I applied through the early decision process and only applied to one other college. “You must have gotten in when the SAT scores required for admission were lower,” he told me with a smile on his face, as if successfully masking his insult and conclusion that I didn’t really deserve to be at this predominantly-White Ivy-league school. While in law school, I tried out for moot court (a school club in which you compete by arguing mock court cases before a panel of judges). One of the judges, a White upperclassman and moot court member, told me, “You bordered between arrogance and confidence.” Arrogance. That word caused me to question myself; it reminded me of the stereotype of the loud, angry, aggressive, “ghetto” Black woman that I am always trying to escape. The idea that in order to make others feel comfortable, I couldn’t appear too sure of myself. I wondered whether he would have made the same comment to a White or male student. And then there’s the old adage Granny and Black parents everywhere tell their children: “If you’re Black, you have to be twice as good to get half as far;” or “If you’re Black, you have to do everything better than Whites; you can’t do what they do; you can’t afford to mess up.” Along the way, I had internalized messages that I wasn’t enough – not good enough or smart enough or qualified enough. I didn’t feel like I had the luxury of just being or existing in all of my youthful, indecisive, inconsistent, still-trying-to-figure-things-out, I’m-just-human glory. I developed this idea that my performance at any given moment is not only a reflection of my worth as a person, but a reflection of my race. Whether real or imagined, that’s a lot of pressure to live up to.
I thought about how this fear shows up in my life today. It shows up as procrastination and feeling overwhelmed with responsibilities. I feel as if I am on a never-ending merry-go-round to prove myself. The fear that I must do everything perfectly and that I won’t measure up often leads to delays in my starting things – both big projects and the more mundane, such as responding to emails. If I can’t be superwoman and solve the melodrama of the day in one fell swoop, then I often marinate in my self-doubt or procrastinate by analyzing and researching the matter until I feel adequately secure in my superwoman-ness.
Ain’t nobody got time for that. Things must get done. The Now Habit reminds me to return to the confident fearless child within me – the little girl who knows she can be a writer or magazine editor or anything else she wants to be. The fearless being who doesn’t suffer from “analysis paralysis” or question whether she is qualified or how she will get the job done. The child who just does it and enjoys the journey. While reading segments of Oprah Winfrey’s journals online today, I came across this entry:
“Right now I’m wrestling with the notion of how, when, where to teach . . . under a structured setting. Stedman says just do it – and you’ll learn how to do it. Too many people wait for things to be ideal before trying . . . Me waiting to get thin before living my life.”
How profound. “Just do it – and you’ll learn how to do it.” Make the road by walking. You don’t have to have all the answers today, or know exactly what the end product will look like. You don’t have to be perfect or do it perfectly. Despite the façades others show the world, no one is perfect or knows it all. Everyone’s got their “stuff” to deal with. Everyone has had to try new things and embrace new challenges. No matter what the source of your fear may be, just start now, right where you are. Be that fearless confident kid who just goes for it. You’ll be one step closer to doing the things that need doing.
How will you return to the fearless child within?