The Head of the Girls’ Day School Trust, Helen Fraser, recently raised concerns about how girls are being affected by their ‘Inner Critic’, which is stopping them transferring their educational success into workplace success. Not long after that article, BBC News featured a piece offering advice on silencing your inner critic, from high-profile women including J K Rowling and Dame Kelly Holmes.
I’ve thought a lot about this since I read it. It feels very much like the things that have been worrying many of us for some time, but we couldn’t put our finger on how to describe them, finally have a name. With the new wave of feminism we are in at the moment, we are hearing a lot about this inner critic, about ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and the need for women to ‘lean in’. I don’t think I’m alone in worrying about the lack of progress in achieving equality for girls and women, but I find some comfort that the recognition is starting to happen. Perhaps this is a start for our girls for the future, but it doesn’t answer how we silence the inner critic now and indeed how we silence the inner critic for women who have listened to it for years. How do we change a whole way of thinking for an entire gender? One thing is certain and that is the enormity of that task.
I met my inner critic when I hit puberty. Until about 12 years old, I had been very confident, chatty, outgoing and self-assured. I had never had a boyfriend but I didn’t care too much; I had lots of friends. My school went away for a week on an adventure week. Before we went, I had my hair cut off. Regrettably, I let the hairdresser experiment with my hair and cut it very short. Far from looking like the fourth member of Bananarama as I’d hoped, I looked a bit too much like Wendolene Ramsbottom from Wallace and Gromit. It wasn’t good. Whilst I was away, though I had an amazing week, I had to at some point wash my hair. And I didn’t have the first clue what to do with it to get it to how the hairdresser had styled it. Of course, now I know I shouldn’t have been worrying about it to the level that I did. But we put a lot of store by how we look when we are younger. Hell, we do even as now as grown-ups. We worry as kids that we look different to our peers. If we look at it on a basic level, our bodies and faces and our hair are all going through such an awkward phase as we grow through our teens, and it is in direct conflict with this that we want so much to look good so that we can feel good. So, like my friends, I just wanted to look good. I was in love with a boy who I thought might love me back. I wanted him to think I looked good. And the last thing I needed was a major hair set back.
When I arrived back at school after the week away, the first thing my friends did (my actual friends mind you – not just kids in my class) was laugh at me. When it’s your friends laughing at you, even though as a grown-up you might question whether that meant they were probably not friends, you feel the pain much more than if it is people you don’t like. And I felt the pain. And I felt the shyness. And I felt myself withdraw. Over the next year or so, I came to really dislike my appearance. My hair grew back of course but I felt like I lost my sense of self-assurance in how I looked and how I communicated to others. Self-doubt took over, self-assurance lost.
Looking back, I realise now that it was never about the hair. It was about a significant time in my youth – puberty – triggering the onset of a shyer period for me, where my inner critic became known and I began to really listen to her.
I know I’m not alone in this. I know it is a problem the world over for young people and in particular young women who believe they are not quite good enough, and who believe that the person next to them is better. The problem isn’t necessarily that this happens, the problem is that it isn’t always recognised and young women and girls are not always encouraged to stick two fingers up at their inner critic.
And perhaps it isn’t even about silencing the critic. Critics after all are not always bad. A useful and insightful inner critic may be helpful and healthy for us all. Somebody to help us reflect on how we’re doing things is no bad thing. But when that voice is always doubting and negative, it is bad.
Helen Fraser’s comments about girls not mirroring their educational achievements in the workplace really resonated with me. I think it will be the case with a lot of young women and girls, that they don’t feel they can put themselves forward in the workplace for opportunities and leadership roles in the same way boys and men might. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In initiative in America is a wonderful way to try to combat this. I wish we had something similar in the UK – perhaps it will take off. I know a lot of people around me now are becoming more and more aware of Imposter Syndrome – where women feel that they are imposing on a role that isn’t really theirs. They may be doing something very important at work, they may be experiencing a new success at home. On the outside, people can see their achievement. Inside however, the women are waiting to be unveiled as a fraud, because they feel that they don’t deserve it, that they can’t really do it, and somebody will soon find out. I feel this too. Again, I know I’m not alone.
Imposter Syndrome. The Inner Critic. Do these all come in some way from the role women and girls are expected to play in life? Centuries of telling us we are the ‘second sex’? When education used to be the preserve of boys and men, when women’s roles were only in the home and not in the workplace. Is this the hangover from so many years of backward, unequal thinking? I think so. But I know that these things don’t change overnight. Indeed, great change often takes so many years.
I’m greatly encouraged by the initiatives, the recognition, the names being given now to the feelings and limitations we have experienced over the years. I hope that these spread far and wide and that our girls (and our boys) grow up with a sense of equality that wasn’t there before. Here’s hoping.