Mar­ian Keyes on the fear of mea­sur­ing up

Try as she might, Mar­ian Keyes can’t help com­par­ing her­self to her peers — and find­ing she doesn’t mea­sure up.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

“Ev­ery day, do one thing that scares you!” shouts a big neon sign near my home. And in an odd, life-eat­ing-it­self way, the one thing that’s in­creas­ingly scar­ing me ev­ery day is walk­ing past the sign. The sign isn’t ad­vo­cat­ing late-night strolls in a dodgy neigh­bour­hood, or that I line up all my lip­sticks and med­i­tate upon their hor­ri­fy­ingly large num­ber; in­stead, it’s urg­ing me to break free of some self-im­posed personal lim­i­ta­tion and thereby get more from my life. (You knew that, I know.)

The thing is that, most days, I’m scared from the word go. I awake to dread – I have the feel­ing before I have the facts and the facts can vary: be­ing way be­hind with the book I’m writ­ing; hav­ing to en­gage with a plumber (must they be so ex­plainy?); or a rash prom­ise to do Zumba with my sis­ter-in-law (these fool­ish pur­suits are so much harder to aban­don qui­etly if you’re en­meshed with a co­hort). Be­ing per­fectly frank with you, get­ting up and fac­ing the world ev­ery day feels – in a small but real way – like I am go­ing to war.

Never mind FOMO, I have FONMU (fear of not mea­sur­ing up); FOBUTC (fear of be­ing un­able to cope); FONHEF (fear of not hav­ing enough friends); FBIJEAT (fear be­cause I’ve just eaten a Twirl); FTMHSLSDC (fear that my hol­i­days seem like safe, dull choices); and FTINHTCAOS (fear that I’m not hav­ing the cor­rect amount of sex).

So many fears – and they could all come un­der one um­brella: fear of fail­ure. Its ten­ta­cles are deep into ev­ery area of my life. It’s so con­fi­dent, so sure of its place, that I can’t imag­ine be­ing with­out it. And I’m also guiltily aware that my set-up is shame­fully cushy. (I work from home and I’m my own boss, so in the­ory I can knock off any time I like, slump in front of Jeremy Kyle on the telly and get my hus­band to pelt me with Mal­te­sers.) Things are far, far more gru­elling for those who grap­ple with com­mutes, pe­cu­liar co-work­ers and scary su­pe­ri­ors.

Yet I’m con­stantly dogged by the nag­ging knowl­edge that my life is one long bodge job. Noth­ing is ever per­fect, noth­ing is quite fin­ished; no mat­ter what I do, big or small, there’s al­ways a flaw.

I look at the flat stom­achs of yoga girls on In­sta­gram and I de­spair – even though most of them have fid­dled with light­ing and fil­ters, even the odd bit of Pho­to­shop. Other peo­ple’s hol­i­days make me feel in­ad­e­quate. Pho­tos from above of their tanned sandy feet in pretty flip-flops do some­thing ter­ri­ble to me (a mix of long­ing/envy/ha­tred of my own feet). Hear­ing about the pro­duc­tiv­ity of other writ­ers makes me whim­per; and vis­it­ing other peo­ple’s homes makes me want to de­stroy my own in an arson at­tack.

Most of us are al­ready run­ning on peak fear, and yet the pres­sure to strive and push and be bet­ter never stops. Re­cently I came across an in­spi­ra­tional quote (I’ve no idea how it hap­pened; I re­sist in­spi­ra­tional quotes like the plague) that said: “A com­fort zone is like a desert. Noth­ing ever grows there.” And, like, what does that even mean? To be face­tious, things do grow in the desert (cacti, yes?). So what it’s im­ply­ing is this: say you’re good enough at hard sums to have made a ca­reer from it? You’d think that you could feel pretty happy with your lot. But no!

You must sign up for a screen­writ­ing course. Or car­pen­try. Or any­thing at all, so long as you have no ap­ti­tude for it.

Or say you’d met a lovely man who’s nice to you, and you’re think­ing: “Well, this makes a pleas­ant change. I could get to like this.” No, good sis­ter. You need to feel ‘chal­lenged’ by your life partner. (Again, what does this even mean?)

Or say you’ve had a pro­duc­tive day at work and you think: “I’d like to go home, get into bed, watch five episodes of Scan­dal and eat cus­tard.” I don’t think so. Loads of movies are re­leased ev­ery week and it’s five months since you’ve been to the cin­ema – you’ve a lot of catch­ing up to do.

Last Fri­day, round at my mammy’s, a 14-yearold fam­ily friend (he’s a boy) was rav­ing about

So many fears – and they could all come un­der one um­brella: fear of fail­ure.

some YouTu­ber who swims three miles ev­ery morn­ing, works a 12-hour day (soft­ware, code, the de­tails were sketchy), runs five miles in the evening, cooks a pa­leo feast from scratch, spends 75 top-qual­ity min­utes with his fam­ily, fol­lowed by ‘playtime’. He sleeps a mere four hours a night. The 14-year-old re­lated this in tones of awe. “Not one mo­ment of his life is wasted and I want to be ex­actly like him.”

“A cou­ple of things you should know,” I said. “a) That YouTube lad, he’s a liar. And – this is even more im­por­tant – b)…”


“…he’s a liar. Stand by for a story. In 1935 there was a Rus­sian man called Alexey

Stakhanov. One day he mined 102 tons of coal in six hours, and that was a lot of coal, 14 times his quota. Mr Stalin was very pleased and told the Rus­sian peo­ple, ‘See what’s possible if you work hard.’ So the work­ers started near-killing them­selves try­ing to match Alexey’s coal yield, but most of them couldn’t and who did they blame? Them­selves, of course, for be­ing a piti­ful lazy-arse.” (My use of ‘lazy-arse’ was a ploy to sus­tain my young friend’s flag­ging at­ten­tion. They perk up when they hear adults swear­ing. A lit­tle tip. You’re wel­come.) “But it was a big fat lie. Mr Stakhanov had had a gang of helpers, but all the coal got cred­ited to him. The peo­ple were work­ing them­selves into the ground try­ing to achieve the un­achiev­able.

“You, my im­pres­sion­able lit­tle friend, are the Rus­sian peo­ple, and that lad on YouTube you’re so fond of, he’s Alexey Stakhanov. Or maybe he’s Stalin.”

“You’d have made more of an im­pact if you had dis­cussed Essena O’Neill,” my mammy mur­mured, and even while I was won­der­ing how the hell she knew about Essena O’Neill, the In­sta­gram star who quit so­cial me­dia, my self-righteous glow was evap­o­rat­ing. Be­cause, of course, I’m a fine one to talk, with my re­lent­less com­par­ing of my in­sides with ev­ery­one else’s out­sides and find­ing my­self al­ways com­ing up short.

So is there any chance of an amnesty on fear-filled liv­ing? Could we dial down our ex­pec­ta­tions of our­selves? Could we find our com­fort zone and bar­ri­cade our­selves in? (We can nip out oc­ca­sion­ally for more cus­tard.) And could we con­grat­u­late our­selves for all our small acts of courage?

Be­cause I’d like to stand in front of the neon sign and say: “I got out of bed. I put both of my feet on the floor. That’s to­day’s scary thing. Now, please leave me in peace, be­cause life is hard and I’m try­ing my best.”

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