"You're a stupid f---ing idiot!" The words hurled at me like a torch. I could almost see flames rising from the stranger's mouth as I turned around to see a driver passing, his middle finger extended from an otherwise clenched fist. I had just come from the intersection in front of my house. With my blinker on, I had turned left. From there, as I have done so many times it is now automatic to me, I again clicked on the left turn signal. Our driveway is fifteen yards or so down the block, so it is always a left, then another quick left, to park the car. It was just as I was cresting past our fence that I heard the explosive words.
The indictment was so unexpected that I almost gasped, quickly running through the moves I just made in my head and coming up with nothing unusual, nothing illegal, and certainly nothing idiotic. And yet, instead of defending myself, and feeling emboldened with self-righteousness over this unjust accusation, I felt as crumpled as the napkin next to me smeared with remnants of my toddler's pb&j.
"He's right," an internal voice said, "I am a f---ing idiot." I had had a rough day at work. My self-esteem was frayed. I'd been trying to slog through a chapter that was taking much longer than I felt it should, and I'd been feeling the reclusiveness of the life of a writer coming at me like a curse.
I'd worn my nice heels to the office, but spent the day with my door closed. No one saw my coolly-crafted outfit, no one chatted about what happened on "Mad Men" on Sunday. Even though I work in a building with three floors of offices, I didn't catch more than a glimpse of anyone all day. But that wasn't the point. The point was I was feeling down, and I didn't have anyone to nudge me out of it. There comes a point in writing, as in any task that must be repeated ad infinitum to be done well, when you wonder, why the heck am I bothering? If I didn't feel this already about dressing nicely (I might as well have worn sweat pants and Uggs), I certainly was feeling this about my writing.
It didn't help that at the end of the day, I went to cheer on one of my favorite colleagues as she was invested to a named professorship. I couldn't have been happier for her, but it was the investors -- the donors who created the fund to support her professorship -- that made me feel slouchy. A vibrant couple around my age with four young children, and here they were, already endowing professorships! Wow, I thought, I am really slow.
You may recognize the spiral-downward logic when your internal barometer registers that someone is seemingly much more accomplished -- not to mention much more glamorous -- than you are: What decisions have I made that brought me to this place? Have they been the right ones? What have I been doing with my time? How quickly my self-doubt surfaces.
The point is not that I find myself repeatedly green with envy over other people's well-deserved accomplishments, but rather how rapidly I go to that place where my envy of others is really self-doubt in devilish clothing, where I join the crowd of nay-sayers: You're right, I am a f---ing idiot. How did you know?
I often wonder if it is culture that lures women there, to the precipice of self-doubt, so that all it takes is the smallest nudge and splat for us to fall on our faces. Or did I miss some genetic handout in the "confidence" department (probably too busy cruising the aisles of "shy" and "reserved")? With all the alpha ladies out there, I don't think we can just lay the blame at culture's doorstep. But I also don't think that women have a biological tendency towards self-disavowal.
This is the dilemma that I struggle with frequently, especially on days when I just do not want to drag my lazy ass out of bed in the morning. Because I dread that look in the mirror, that inner refrain: I can hear his words now.
You would think that after decades of school and higher degrees and a plum position at a top university that I would have quashed these tendencies once and for all. But when I walk into my 10-year-old daughter's room to wake her, sometimes, I worry: How will my tattered sense of self give her substance to lean on, learn from and feed from? Will she hear that negative voice? How can I shield her? God forbid she emulates me.)
I wonder if in this twenty-first century world of women CEOs and CFOs, MBAs, MDs and PhDs if there isn't still some strain of deeply-rooted anger, bitterness and dare I say hatred which can rapidly make women their own worst enemies. A hatred repeated in the dart-like words of strangers, and taken too closely like a bulls eye to the heart.