Don’t Be Caged by Your Past

Sometimes the past holds you back in obvious ways: you convince yourself there is no point in trying something, whether that’s a dance class or an university course, because you have failed in the past. Or you convince yourself that you can’t achieve a “big” goal because you have never achieved a big goal before — regardless of whether you have attempted to achieve one. However, sometimes you can find yourself held back by tiny instances from your past: comments you have all but forgotten, experiences which you have never questioned because they seem inconsequential, labels given to you by people who didn’t know you well enough to make those judgments.

I have been thinking about this more as I develop my embryonic freelance career. When I was at school, I did 3 days of work experience at a local newspaper’s offices. In the feedback given by the editor, he said “Hayley doesn’t have enough confidence to be a journalist.” I took this to heart and never considered journalism — or any kind of nonfiction writing — as a career for over a decade.

I had very little self-esteem as a teenager, so I readily believed any criticism I received — regardless of its accuracy — but now I value myself more, I can look back and reassess. The first thing that stands out is that the editor’s comment seems to view confidence in black and white terms: it is something you have or you don’t have. There is no suggestion that I could gain more confidence. The implication is that confidence is innate and if you don’t have it, you will never have it. This is obviously bullshit.

Confidence is not discrete. It is fluid and ever-changing. You can have utmost confidence in some areas of your life and none in other areas. You can develop confidence as a skill. You can also learn how to fake confidence, which is just as effective as being confident. Your confidence fluctuates throughout your life and teenagers are notoriously insecure and neurotic. None of us deserves to be judged on our confidence levels during such a turbulent time.

Another thing which stands out is how little attention was paid to my other skills by the newspaper editor. Part of the reason for this is that I didn’t see a lot of the editor; he was absent on the third day of my work experience and I spent most of my time with a reporter. I was also bound to be more nervous on the first couple of days, since I was a 14 year old girl thrust into an unfamiliar environment full of strangers. Neither did I have much opportunity to show off my skills, particularly the ones which were more accomplished, like writing, proofreading and photography.

I am horrified by how much weight I put on a comment made by someone who didn’t know me and only saw a tiny fraction of my skillset. Note that “I” because it’s what I find most painful: I was the one who placed undue importance on a single comment. I was the one who accepted the editor’s opinion as fact. I was the one who decided to quit, instead of proving that I could become more confident.

When you start to reassess your past, you will find many paths that you have cut off for various, unimportant, reasons. It can be painful to face the decisions you have made, but it is vital to accept them. Be kind to yourself — you did the best you could in your situation. Yes, you have made plenty of mistakes, but that doesn’t make you an inferior person. It makes you human.

Reassessing the past allows you to move on. You need to realise that you are not bound by your past decisions. You are influenced by the past, for sure, but you don’t need to be restricted by your past. You are not the same person who made those past decisions. I am no longer a scared 14 year old girl who believes she is inferior to everyone else and incapable of gaining confidence. However, I have learnt from that girl’s experiences and I no longer allow people to label me.

To break free of your past, you need to accept responsibility for it. You also need to accept responsibility for your present and future. This doesn’t mean that all your problems are your fault: it means that you acknowedge the power you have to respond to your problems in any way you choose. After all, every cage has a door.