Only recently was I made aware that people's perceptions of me are about as opposite of what I am as is humanly possible. Maybe I'm naive (I am) but I thought people could see past the chaotic exterior and just understand that I talk myself down at any opportunity. Either that or I'm fishing for compliments to try and cover up that I'm talking myself down - it's a duplicitous double bluff.
I used to think I was a confident, empowered woman. I used to also think a fish tank was speaking to me, along the lines of some sort of aquatic radio station. Neither were true. Well, at least nobody else said they heard the fish. Could be an aquatic easy listening format for the future of course. As it turned out, wearing PVC hotpants, a spiky goth dog collar, knee-high boots and styling myself as a Manga cartoon were all more about other people than about me. Just about everything in my life, aside from my beautiful little family (although there are questionable elements there too), is about control of some form or another, and I blissfully (ahem) thought I was immune from. Of course tied in along the way was the realisation that as a woman, even in the supposedly civilised and 'United' Kingdom, my popularity, talent, life opportunities, career and influence were directly and negatively affected by my gender.
I find the very idea of gender thoroughly confusing - and by that I definitely don't mean that I don't understand what gender is - mind you I can only guess at imagining what being male feels like. What I don't understand is why so much appears to hang on it (yes, I too now have a mental image of a penis-shaped coat hook). I think this is something that is SO ingrained in the world that many women don't actually recognise it until later in life, maybe upon entering the world of work, you know, the bit when you get a real job and start trying to smash through that pesky glass ceiling. Suddenly you're managed and micro-managed by men. And Jesus H. Christ if you dare to point out that your work is as valuable as the man next to you (who incidentally gets paid over a third more than you) then you're being one of those godawful 'radical feminists'. How very dare you love, mouthy bitch. By now you're used to me saying 'I'll come back to this later'.
Somewhere in the mire of my late teens I got on stage (in the rock 'n' roll sense, no longer disguised as a choral singer) and as a result I began to define myself by how I looked. After a few years of bullying based on various apparently unlovable parts of my face, I was fairly easily led when it came to what people should aim to look like - that, plus I genuinely didn't have a clue about fashion - I'd bought myself a green corduroy jacket in my last year of school and wore it unashamedly. 'Buying things from charity shops' was a thing we did because we thought it was cool. It was, but not really until relatively recently. I imagine now teenaged girls go to shops like 'Forever 21' or some such, don't they?
Anyway, I allowed my very lovely and probably well meaning, but equally very young and quite stupid and superficial (at the time) male band mates to mould me into Saffron-from-Republica-lite. I only knew one of their songs, and this level of un-coolness remained with me well into my twenties, much to the songwriter of the band's dismay. I was informed I couldn't name any of my real musical influences if asked, and instead I had to say Bjork, or some other anti-mainstream artist, rather than saying I listened to Vaughan Williams and liked a bit of Metallica.
I'm still very affected by what I wear - shoes that make me taller, and coats I can swish dramatically as I stomp along are both things that I use to bolster my ego, mostly to complete strangers who are making their way around London as anonymously as I am. I want to be a ninja, a model, an 'artiste', a lesbian, an actor, a bitch, powerful, or just something - ANYTHING - other than I am. I have an ego just like anyone else, only mine is simultaneously huge and fragile. Not a good combination. I'm like an ostrich egg in a nursery school. I'm fine with admitting it too. The thing that bothers me most is that when 'it matters', i.e. when I'm playing the more professional and competent version of myself, I want people to believe (itself a questionable concept) that I am just that - professional and competent. Until recently I had no idea that wasn't the case. As most work places do, we have a laborious system for reviewing our performance that kicks in twice a year, and which is seemingly invented just to leave us all with even less time to actually DO the work we're writing about doing. I've tried to think that it matters, but I just don't. I went into the performance review period with virutally no concerns - I'd worked my arse off and achieved every objective I'd set out to achieve, plus more, but the feedback I got really pulled the rug out from under me.
"She should focus on trying to do the things she has already started, and not take on too much"
I read this and felt the familiar heat flushing my face as anger (virtually the only emotion I don't struggle to recognise) began to rise. That anyone would deem me incompetent hurts me deeply. In childhood, before puberty ruined everything, I judged my worth on how clever I was. I sat Mensa tests and entered poetry reading and acting competitions, I wanted to be the best at anything I did. I hate being out of control, and other people's perceptions are something frighteningly kamikaze to me.
Today I went to a conference, one specially tailored to those with disabilities. The idea was that we get coaching to give us confidence in our abilities, rather than focusing on our disability. Now, I wear my 'disabled' status with pride and I don't give a shiny shit if someone judges me for that. Why would I choose to label myself as something EVEN MORE STIGMATISED than 'disabled'? I need to be coached just to operate in the same dimension as everyone else. When one of your brain functions is 'disabled', everything is harder to do. I came away from the day feeling trapped in a job where I only get to use the things I'm good at for about 1% of the time. Such a fucking waste. I'm 35 and this is my third career. There was a lot of talk about perception; building your personal brand, influence, impact. All seemingly built around balancing emotional reactions to get good outcomes, and giving others the bits of you that makes their perception positive. Right, ok - so you're saying the one bit of my brain that's broken is the key to my success? Fuckanory. There are so many versions of me that I lose track of which one is coming next. I'm like my own personal covers band.
Don't panic - there is a point to this post - the question is how does one reconcile the belief that others' perceptions shouldn't define us, whilst making them believe in us enough to respect and allow us to progress? I want to 'bring my whole self to work' but when I do that the whole perceptions thing kicks in.
I want to change perceptions. Your perception is just that - yours. If you want me to prove myself just ask me. Look behind the scenes where the good stuff happens. You may hear me speak but you'll never know what happens in my head.