I’m sixteen and I go to my favorite bookstore. At the ice cream parlor next door, the counter dude always looks as if he has a part-time job dropping dead bodies into the sea. But now I want to purchase a new book written by a well-known writer of German thrillers, Sebastian Fritzek, or something like that. So I go to the crime section of the store and look under “FR”, but there is nothing there. After only a few seconds, my normal feelings of insecurity and stupidity become overwhelming. Between pathetic and panic.
Then a nice book seller smiles at me and comes over, “May I help you? What is it that you are looking for?”
Everything around me begins to spin and I blush and begin to sweat. Words seem to evaporate in my throat. “Nothing,” I finally squeak out, feeling as if I want to die. I run out, realizing as I do that the author’s name was FITZEK. That’s why I didn’t find him under “FR”.
Worthless. For many years, I felt as if my life was totally worthless. Many people today find that difficult to believe. Today I run my own company; I speak to 100 people in a museum in a foreign language; I make strangers laugh with small jokes that I make up on the spot. What happened to cause this transformation?
In this article I will take a very personal look at topics that concern many, but only a few are able to speak about openly: bullying, self-doubt, lack of self-confidence. How you get out of this shit and finally realize: I can do it. And I am great!
Let’s put it this way: I was always the weird kid. I never thought of myself as a child, and in kindergarten, I thought the other children were infantile. To me they were always too loud, too vulgar, and too mean. It got worse when I got to school. One slip of the tongue and they would make nasty comments about me. They always acted superior, as if they were fashion models and I was nothing but a sack of garbage. They made me feel like this with the words they spoke and the looks they gave me. This made me even more insecure, and I messed up more often. The laughter grew. Apparently, there were even bets on when Sarah would say something totally stupid again. Eventually I just stopped saying things. In class, I would know the answers, but when I opened my mouth, it was like my bookstore incident.
The words could not come out. Sometimes I even blushed when I was only thinking of saying something.
Then the teacher’s words would slam into my ears, “Sarah, D minus.”
It was official. I was a total failure. Nothing but a sack of shit.
People who do not feel this way, who do not feel the fear and rejection, also do not seem to notice how their actions cause the vulnerable to spiral further downward. Down into a vortex of little self-confidence, increasing uncertainty, more mistakes, less laughter, and less self-confidence. These feelings can ruin a person for years. Some even for a lifetime.
Things did not improve when I got home. D-minus? Certainly, I had done something to deserve that. I would be far too stupid for a university-entrance diploma anyway. Although it may be difficult to believe, my family did not model themselves after the perfect family in “Little House on the Prarie.”
I went to school most mornings with a stomachache. In the afternoon, the stomachache returned as soon as I saw the entrance to the courtyard around my flat. Who did I tell about this? No one. Because when you feel worthless, you feel as if no one wants to listen to you or to help you. Eventually I believed I deserved all of this. It was an absolute low point of my life. There was only nothingness.
Until one day I was on a train. Five hundred miles from home. I ran away. Just because. I looked out the window into the frenzied landscape and suddenly thought: Either I am slowly going to die, or I do something.
It was a moment where a huge switch just went CLICK. What was that shit that was shattering my life? I kept hearing what others were saying about me. And I always believed what they said: Sarah can’t do anything; she’s ugly, she’s stupid, and she’s a loser.
But what did I actually say about myself if I didn’t listen to what the haters and bullies were saying? Was I really ugly, stupid and worthless? Or were those thoughts just what had been battered into my mind by a constant barrage of permanent psychic artillery fire? Was I crazy that I listened to such crap for years without ever doubting it?
Suddenly it was if I were struck by lightning. “I’ll show them,” I said quietly to myself. And that was the first time I can remember ever feeling good. After so many years! Suddenly I knew that if nothing good comes from without, it would have to come from within my own mind. It’s either that or life was over.
Of course, this sudden revelation was followed by setbacks as big as volleyballs, like when I fell on my face during sports lessons or poured orange juice over my jacket. It seems that our society will always judge and treat you badly whenever you do or say something that doesn’t seem to fit into someone else’s framework of perfection. So, on the outside, nothing changed. But on the inside, I secretly changed.
“I’m going to be the best student ever,” I told myself. “Because you are all wrong and I will prove it to you.”
Suddenly my apathy for life turned to anger. The next time I was at the black board in chemistry class, people began to laugh as usual. But this time I knew what was going on as I rapidly scrawled the correct formulas. First my teacher just stared in amazement, then he was joined by the rest of them.
“Sarah got an “A” in the last chemistry test,“ whispered one of the supermodels, as if someone had dropped phenolphthalein on her face. When the exam scores were posted and there was only one “A,” I heard a sigh from the “cool row” behind me, “That’s Sarah. Again.”
No, there was no real happy ending at this point in my life. After graduating from high school, I shut the door to this phase of my life. I had to go. And I mean I had to be gone completely.
About the time I decided to actually study, I moved out. Way out. Away from the small town where I preferred to walk through the woods rather than in town where people would notice how I stumbled over the curb or totally embarrassed myself in a bookstore. Away from the family. Away from the past. When I entered the university, no one stared and said, “Dude, that’s Sarah, the total idiot.”
Nobody knew me. Tabula rasa.
When I had to give my first presentation for my favorite course, I had to throw myself into Valium. Because the feeling was back. Me standing in front of people who laughed. Me who turned bright red and began to sweat. Me who suddenly stammered. So much had my life improved. But old traumas are like mosquitos. You shoo them away and yet they keep coming back.
I managed somehow to get through my talk. Afterward, several students came and asked me for more information because they found the talk so interesting. My professor confessed that he could only give me an A-minus for my presentation rather than an A because I was talking like “a machine gun.” Otherwise he felt the discussion was really good. Moments like this were repeated. And then one day my design professor said to me, “I would like to recommend you for a scholarship.”
I turned around slowly. But there was nobody behind me. He laughed. “I mean you.” He said emphatically as he pointed towards me. I felt a bit silly. “Don’t you know you are a top performer?” he asked seriously. No, I didn’t know. I just felt like studying journalism and I just tried to do my best. “Don’t always say just,” my prof said sternly.
Years later I look back and I think he saw the deep hole of insecurity that I was still wallowing in. Thank you, Professor Dr. Liebig that you always believed in me, even if I probably drove you crazy with my self-doubt concerning my bachelor thesis.
It was actually crazy for me to study journalism anyway. I had to make appointments to talk to strangers. Every single time when I went to cover an assignment, I began to sweat. This was four years after I thought I had left everything behind that caused my anxieties. But I knew the Fear Monkey had to be fought. By looking him in the eye. Over and over again. Even if it was difficult and even if it would take a long time.
Later, when I was working as a social media manager in an art museum, I was asked suddenly to represent the director at the opening of an exhibition. “The talk is tomorrow at the bank. We only expect 100 people for the event,” she said somewhat casually.
She gave me a Wikipedia entry. “I haven’t written the speech yet. You can do that as well.” Strangely my first thought was not about something going wrong, but she believes in me!
Towards the end of my career at the museum, I had coffee with the famous German cartoonist, Ralph Ruthe, organized a press conference in English, which was not my first language, and took on half of the marketing.
After I left my position at the museum, I drove on a four-month solo trip through the USA, where I had to do battle with even more Fear Monkeys: fear of flying, fear of the dark, and fear of flat tires.
To top it off, on my return I gave up on working a 9-to-5 job and went freelance. As a freelance copywriter and photographer. Now I can work from anywhere and the concept of sitting full-time in an office can go get stuffed. I have been in my own company now for over two years and it is well up and running.
Will my neuroses and anxieties ever go away completely? No. Will I ever stop making mistakes and stop feeling secure? No. Will anyone ever again be able to hurt me by calling me stupid, ugly, or worthless? NO! Definitely not. Because the spiral also works the other way around. Good self-confidence leads to more security, few mistakes, more recognition, and more self-confidence.
Now if I find myself face-down on the sidewalk in the middle of the city, I get up again, laugh, come up with a joke that puts a smile on the bystanders, and just move along.
The key for me is self-confidence. It is the immune system that fights off the external attacks. How do you get this point when you are lying face down on the sidewalk? There are certainly many ways to do this. From things such as my eye-opening moment on the train all the way to professional counseling. (Which is not the “mad doctor” of folklore. “Mad” people are those people who treat you like shit).
The most important thing is that you break the downward spiral. My tips and thoughts:
If you think you are ugly, worthless, stupid, or flawed, realize that those traits have no explicit definition. For example: my aunt finds a yellow living room wall to be wonderfully friendly, yet it makes my uncle think of the pissed-on station toilet of his youth, and it makes my cousin thinks it looks pretty good in general, but it clashes horribly with the red couch. So, whether something is ugly or worthless or stupid is a concept that exists only in the mind of the viewer. So, what other people say and think about you is only their personal - and frequently misguided - opinion. It has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with who you really are. Do you really think that just because some bastard says yellow is a shitty color that everyone in the world thinks it is a shitty color? That is ridiculous. What difference does it make what he says. More importantly, who the fuck cares?
Remember this the next time someone says something derogatory about you: What does he know about yellow, and who the fuck cares?
The most important thing I learned after years of doubting myself is: I’m GREAT! And do you know why? Because I am me. Because I exist and I only exist once. I do not have to do anything, prove anything, or be anything in order to be great. Being great is something that you are born with. And being great is something that includes making mistakes, creating piles of shit, saying stupid things, and sometimes even finding yourself lying with your face on the sidewalk. Because if I am face down on the sidewalk, maybe three or four people will think I am stupid, I have no eyes, or I have the feet of a baby elephant. But that is just their personal opinion. So… who the fuck cares? I know I stumbled on a rock. And even in this shitty world, you are still allowed to do that!
I realize that external circumstances often play a major role when we feel insecure, rotten, and worthless. And it is sometimes impossible to change things over which you have no control. The bully will be back in class or at work tomorrow. Your own memories weigh heavily on your mind, and your own fears can overwhelm you. But there are things you can do for yourself. Right now. Because you are great! There are two basic directions.
1. Leaving: Say goodbye to everything that hurts you. Bit by bit. Break off contact with people who hurt or belittle you. Yes, that includes “friends” and family. If you get a stomachache when you go work every day, start applying for a new job. Take a course to change your job. Move out. Move away. Go where no one knows the old you and your past. Press “Reset.”
2. Facing: Leaving cannot cure all things. And sometimes you may not want to leave. I didn’t want to throw away my dream job as a journalist just because I was afraid to talk to strangers. In this case, you may need to face the fear and do exactly what causes the sweat stains in your clothing. Start small. If you are afraid of driving, don’t start by driving I-70 from Maryland through the Rocky Mountains, but first drive through empty parking lots on a Sunday morning. Be aware that you won’t lose your fear the first time. You will have setbacks. Do not give up. I don’t think I lost my apprehension about upcoming interviews until my 50th or so appointment. Remain persistent and do not back away from the evil Fear Monkey. Just because you don’t score a touchdown in the first minute of the game, you don’t have to go hide in an attic.
I could not have written this article 10 years ago. Confidence is a strange thing. It doesn’t come overnight, but then it is suddenly there. Today I can look back at all the shit I have endured in my life and say: It’s okay. Because the shit helped make me the person I am today. Because conquering my Fear Monkeys made me strong. And because I know today: I am great!