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.
“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.”