Secret Knowledge

One of the things that make my life difficult and me unhappy is that I don’t trust myself. I have no confidence in my abilities and skills. It seems to me that everyone around me is more competent, more confident, more “put together” and in charge of their lives. That is probably partly an illusion, but it doesn’t change the fact that lack of confidence is a real problem for me. I’m a veteran of “Boost your confidence” and “Overcoming anxiety” self-help books, none of which have had any effect, mostly because I found myself unable to do the exercises that these books want you to do. So how exactly is my lack of confidence defined, and where does it come from?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I don’t enjoy my job anymore. There are several reasons, but one of them is a fear of getting it wrong. I work in a museum. I have a Master’s Degree in the subject and 15 years of experience in the profession. I have never been fired or even disciplined for incompetence, on the contrary, my work has been praised and appreciated. I don’t say this to show off, just to make clear the very real qualifications I have for doing the work I do. And yet, every time I begin a new task I get nervous, because I might get it wrong. My colleague, whose museum expertise lies in a slightly different area, might ask me “how should we do this? what do you recommend for that? what is the best way of dealing with that?”. They are asking me because they think these things fall into the area of my expertise. And they are right, they do. But somehow inwardly I assume that I could get it all wrong, that my knowledge is defective, that my advice will be bad. I am afraid of acting in front of other museum professionals because I think they will observe me and shout “are you mad? That’s not the way to do it!” How likely is that? Not very, and thinking about it rationally I can see that. And yet I can’t shake the feeling.

I have tried to analyse my problem, and I found that at the root of it is the assumption that everybody else has (or could have) some secret knowledge that I’m unaware of. With all my knowledge and experience, I should be able to trust myself to do things correctly. But still, I can’t stop feeling that others have some secret knowledge that I don’t have, that in reality things should be done differently and that I’m the only one who doesn’t know. This then of course will make me look incompetent and stupid. And that is causing me anxiety and stress.

So, if the supposed secret knowledge of others is the obstacle to carrying out my job confidently, where does this suspicion come from? I have noticed it in my professional life as a result of my recent anaylsis, but I think the same suspicion has been there for a long time in my social life, and it had spread and coloured everything else.

Many years ago, before autism was even on my radar – or maybe it had just come on my radar but I never thought it could apply to me – I talked with my sister about the pitfalls of social situations. I remember complaining to her: “It’s like acting in a play where everybody else has been given a script, except me, and I have to improvise.” That’s the secret knowledge right there, the script that you are missing out on. In every situation, other people seem to know how and where to stand, how to move, which words to use etc. But you are not in on the secret, you have to gather as much evidence as you can on the spot, and act on that, and that can of course go wrong. This is what can make the simplest situation a lot more frightening. Take something as simple as phoning up the hairdresser and making an appointment. What could possibly go wrong? Well, says my brain, there are probably particular words, exact phrases you are supposed to use when asking for an appointment, and if you don’t use them, you will look stupid. And this happens every time I have to ask for something, return something in a shop, hire a car or buy a bus ticket. There is always a suspicion that there is some code, a precise vocabulary that you have to use, and if you get it slightly wrong, that marks you out as an outsider and an inferior person. If you don’t approach a person in exactly the right way, with exactly the right smile and gestures, with the correct words and the right timing, you risk at least a misunderstanding and possibly contempt on their part. Because you don’t know the code. You haven’t got the secret. You’re not in the know.

I have never felt like an alien, or like being on the wrong planet, but looking at what I‘ve just written, it actually describes just that. This is your situation when you find yourself in a culture that is different from yours. If I travelled to China, this is exactly where I would find myself: not knowing how to approach a person, how to stand, move, smile correctly. Because the culture is different, and the expectations for smiles etc. are different. But in China at least, everybody would spot me for a foreigner straight away, and (hopefully) forgive me when I get it wrong, because obviously I can’t know. But here I am supposed to know. I am supposed to know how my own culture works. But do I?

I am aware that a lot of this is my imagination, and in fact most of the time interactions don’t go wrong. But over the course of my lifetime enough of them have gone wrong, and the memories of these mistakes accumulate – of course you remember the mistakes much more vividly than the occasions where things went right – and the result is that I now suspect secret, inaccessible knowledge everywhere.

Is it any wonder then that I always think other people know better? That I trust others more that I trust myself? That I can’t rely on my own knowledge and expertise? That no matter how competent I should be, there could always be something lacking? I have never analysed it before like this, but the feeling is now so ingrained that no matter how much I learn, how well I train, there is always a little voice at the back of my mind, whispering:

“You could be wrong.”

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7 thoughts on “Secret Knowledge

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  1. I hear you, my lovely; you’re not alone 💞. Always doubting, second-guessing myself. Never mind the credentials and experience–there’s always something that could be wrong, or that could be improved upon, etc. People’s praise is good, but I know that people can say things they don’t mean; and sometimes they mean the exact opposite of what they’re saying, rendering words almost useless. When do we believe them? It’s hard to tell when they’re being insincere. It’s hard to know when what they’re saying is for show or because it’s the “polite” thing to say. We could be the best in our fields, and sometimes it’s never quite good enough. The inner critic is alive and well, isn’t s/he? Never rests, never sleeps, never takes a holiday lol. I’m with you, my friend 😘💖💖

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, yes, the inner critic. Very vocal these days. If I think about it rationally, I know I’m good – not perfect but good – but then the inner critic comes along and spoils it all. 😡
      I know I’m not alone but it’s always good to hear it! 💖

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Self-doubt can be an asset at work, because it can make us more cautious and help us avoid screwing up. In social situations, though, it’s a real burden. For a man, it’s like having an enormous pimple or something. Other men don’t care, or maybe they like it because it makes them feel better about themselves, but most women seem to prefer to be around men who exude confidence. (At least, that’s my assumption, but I could always be wrong!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I understand these anxieties and I used to be exactly the same but in the last decade or so some of this anxiety has slipped away. These days I think “everyone, absolutely everyone has anxieties, worries, feelings of flaws and feelings of failure – however confident they look or behave” and that saves me a hell of a lot of these worries in myself. We’re all flawed. I think the major problem is that many are much better at hiding it than others so they appear to be more confident and together than they really are.

    I’ve been reading through a lot of your posts recently (I surfed over on a comment you posted on Brad’s ‘Tokens of Companionship’ blog but have seen your comments elsewhere, too) and quite a lot of it rings bells for me, too. I’m not autistic but do have a lot of problems in and with the ‘real world’.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think you are right, and that a lot of the time people who appear super confident have their insecurities. Maybe with time I can convince myself of the truth of that 😄
      I surfed over to Tokens of Companionship via Brad’s comments on someone else’s blog. You start seeing the same people popping up and realise that you have become part of a community. The positive side of the Internet, I think. Nice to see you here! 🌸

      Liked by 2 people

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