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On self-confidence and productivity

The following is taken out of an email exchange. The identity of my correspondent is obfuscated and some parts of the message are removed.


I procrastinate without wanting to. It is a coping mechanism. […] Every time I try to do anything productive, I feel like there are 100 voices in my head telling me how I am incompetent and giving me conflicting advice. […] I read this message maybe 10 times before sending it out. I was afraid not to make any mistakes.

To solve a problem, we must first recognise that it exists. You have successfully identified patterns in your behaviour which you consider problematic. You also have an idea of what their likely cause is. Couched in those terms, you have the basic requirements to overcome the challenges you are facing.

Let us analyse the case to make better sense of it:

  • There are hundreds of voices who are doubting or otherwise belittling you.

  • These voices have no interest in getting the best out of you. They are naysayers.

  • You want to do something that you would count as “productive” only to be stalked by them.

  • You are a victim of bullying.

  • What tools or means do you have at your disposal for dealing with this kind of hostility?

It seldom is possible to outright fight bullies. It is fine to admit as much. There is this false sense of pride or duty in showing the world how tough we are or how we are weathering the storm just fine. Depending on one’s cultural background, men have to be “manly” and near sociopathic in their lack of emotion, while women are supposed to persevere in silence as the “weaker sex” or to accept other such notions of induced inferiority and/or outright subjugation.

Yet this projection of unflinching endurance is only harming us, because we are not being ourselves: there is conflict between how we feel and how we behave. Such contradiction erodes our ability to act because it limits our options: we do not want to reveal our little secret and expose our presumed weak spot. Moreover, we are reluctant to be the one who defies social norms as we are scared of potential retribution.

To recognise the truth is no weakness though. It is how we align our presence with the actuality of the world that environs us. And therein lies the solution to our woes: of recognising what the problem is. If the prevailing normativity of our social milieu does not accept the truth, then it is the one that needs to change, not the underlying reality. In other words, norms are instituted as such and can be re-instituted: their particularities are not an irreducible factor of our existence.

Defy the norms and break the mould. Do not pretend that bullying does not disturb you. Instead, show that you suffer and you may discover that others feel the same and will support you. We have to have the courage to dispel the myth that we are this pernicious stereotype of the “badass”, the “manly man”, the “womanly woman”, the “elder sibling”, or whatnot. There is no such thing as a socially defined personality type that governs our behaviour: everyone knows fear even when their role demands that they must not, everyone has a weakness despite hypocrisy to the contrary (including the mighty Achilles), and everyone is subject to being unsettled. We are at our best when we accept diversity for what it is without trying to reclassify it into yet more little boxes to put everyone in and renew our stereotypes accordingly.

Why admit our frailty? Because it allows us to escape from the untenable role-playing we are in: the act of being a persona that has no correspondence with our condition. More practically, it lets us see bullying in clear terms as an act of aggression that unsettles us. It is not okay to tolerate it indefinitely.

It is not feasible to engage bullies in an even fight: they don’t play fair. Instead, they gang up on you. Their strength in numbers overwhelms you. If sheer power is not an option and since chivalrous ideals of just combat do not apply, you must resort to wits and cunning. You have to outsmart them, outmanoeuvre them.

This is easier than it sounds. Once you focus your thinking on the task of dealing with bullies and once you let go of the role-playing I alluded to, you will find that the best solution is flight. Get away from them. There is no shame in that. It is not cowardice, but reasonableness. (Cowards and non-cowards—such a pretentious construct, by the way.) Keep your distance at all costs: change job, relocate, call the police. Whatever it takes to physically remove yourself from the source of the trouble.

There is this tendency of trying to justify the bully as a misunderstood figure. Oftentimes a person is not inherently evil as they may attack you without realising it: they may be temperamental or cyclothemic and generally bad at dealing with people. It ultimately does not matter. Your life is not a drama whose plot is supposed to have some didactic value for the audience. We are only human and this means we do not have to play god in seeking some absolute objectivity to judge someone fairly. For our purposes, a bully is a bully, abuse is abuse, and there is no grey area between the extremes: we simply have to put an end to our agony. Again, be determined to escape and stop caring about labels or personas. There is a place for art and a place for the objective arbiter: it is not here.

We now have one crucial complication to consider. The voices are in your head: they are not physically harassing you. Though it is likely that you are dealing with a mental extension of past or even current experiences. You need to be honest with yourself in identifying the people in your life who continue to abuse you. Cut all ties with them, even if they are your relatives—especially if they relatives as they tend to think they have some special privilege to control you.

I must emphasise “current experiences”. The past should be recognised for what it is: a state of affairs that does not unfold in present time. If, in other words, someone abused you years ago, that person—that person qua abuser—is no longer in your life and you can finally turn your attention to the specifics of the moment. This is all part of identifying the problem, of discerning the factors of the case. If you insist on the relevance of the past, you are effectively misreading the data: you are assigning relevance to a factor that is no longer in effect.

[ You may also want to check a recent publication of mine about nullifying inapplicable thoughts: https://protesilaos.com/books/2021-11-12-why-not-your-fault/. ]

At any rate, the point is to remove bullying from your life. Then you have to turn your attention to your mental state. The voices are in your head. How do you silence them? By telling them that they have no power over you. Is it that simple? No. You don’t just proclaim it and things magically improve. You show them what you mean with deeds, by means of changing your attitude.

Consider the case you mentioned of reading the email many times out of fear that there may be mistakes. You are concerned that if you let the slightest of errors slip by, it will be used as a vector of attack against you. In other words, you believe that the person will ridicule you for your faulty spelling or whatnot. How about you try to stop caring what others may think, what scenaria can unfold, how the future might develop, and so on? Just as the past is irrelevant, so is the future. What takes precedence is the here-and-now: the case as it stands. If it helps, change your email’s signature to include a proviso such as: “I wrote this in one go and did not check for spelling or consistency. Please note that I am trying to overcome trauma, as I need to stop worrying so much. Thank you for your understanding!”.

Do not hesitate to take such a step. It may seem drastic but it really is a clever hack that will help you change your disposition. Remember: you have to let go of the role-playing and you have to be honest about your condition. People will show understanding when they know what they are dealing with. But if you act all secretive, then how is anyone supposed to know what your sensitivities are and how your insecurities may be triggered? So forget about acting tough and stop thinking about the views of others: you are not doing anything bad and you do not have to apologise about it. Furthermore, you are not competing with anyone and thus your “performance” in the public eye is meaningless. What if there are spelling mistakes? Such a trivial and inconsequential issue! If someone insists on it, then they likely are too shallow to deserve your attention. Tell them to sod off or simply leave them behind. Whatever works.

Do not grant anyone power over you by seeking their approval on how you should feel: it is none of their business and you are not their pawn.

Then we have to consider this much-touted notion of “productivity”. Everyone wants to be productive and everyone is in a state of unrest trying to find the best setup for getting things done. Why is it so important to actually be productive? Who is keeping track of this presumed scoreboard in the sky? And why should we even care about it?

We must draw a distinction between accomplishing what we want and conforming with yet another social-cultural role. For example, if I write an essay and post it on my website, I am expressing myself in a way that fulfils me. It is not “productivity” as it does not contribute to some ulterior motive nor is its worth measured by its returns. The act of expressing myself is inherently valuable to me: I do it for its own sake, not to gain something out of it. Hence the irrelevance of considerations about the effect of my act.

There is immense pressure to be seen as successful and competent using criteria such as income, wealth, the number of degrees and certificates you have on your wall, and so on. We live in a political order that commodifies everything including our attention span. In this era it is an act of defiance to just be yourself, to simply not care about how your conduct will improve your material condition, or how it translates into social status.

To re-use my example of publishing an essay: I have zero interest in what my neighbour thinks about it, what my relatives have to say on the matter, whether my friends are interested, what strangers on the Internet might conceive of it. None of that is relevant: I fulfilled my inner need to express myself in honesty and I feel good about it. There is no one who has power over me with regard to how I should feel about myself in that moment and there is no chance that I will ever ask anyone for validation: that gives them control over me and thus alienates me from myself (by gradually losing control and becoming someone whom you are not). There are no hundred voices echoing in my head because I learnt not to listen to what they have to say.

Defiance then. Do not tolerate bullies. Do not conform with a role that does not fit you. Do not worry about your ostensible value in a society that misunderstands worthiness as creditworthiness. Do not be an instrument in some moneyman’s maniacal agenda and do not become anyone’s toy. Be yourself and be unapologetic about it. And if the world disagrees, then the world can fuck off.