Riding the confidence wave (still)

This is a post I wrote and published in September 2015, just before I turned 40. I’ve often thought about it since – and especially now, as I prepare to take part in a session on blogging for the upcoming CIEP conference (#CIEP2021). I planned to update it for this blog (it originally appeared on my old blog, Eat Sleep Edit Repeat), but when I read it again I decided to republish it more or less in its original form. I mentioned my age when I wrote it because I think that has something to do with the subject matter. I’m now about to turn 46, and the confidence thing is still relevant. I feel more secure in my business in some ways, less so in others. Not because I am doing anything wrong, just because the more you know about running a business, the more you understand what can go pear-shaped. In the past six years the world and I have been through quite a lot, but – almost miraculously – the editing goes on. Oh, and you’ll be pleased to hear that my slug problem has been alleviated by a new floor

Loss of confidence, even if short-lived, can be upsetting, isolating, difficult for loved ones to live with and professionally paralysing. And I guess that this debilitating condition is also common. If you ever suffer from it, I want you to know that you’re not alone!

Like many other editors and business owners, I spend a fair amount of time on social media. It helps me feel part of the wider editing community, and it’s also a great way to find out about stuff. Blog posts, news articles, random nuggets of information … For instance, I recently discovered on Twitter that for every person on the planet, there are – apparently – 230 slugs. Most of these prolific invertebrates seem to congregate in my kitchen at night, but I try not to dwell on that. I was briefly so much happier for encountering this fact.

Also in common with these other editors and business owners, when I share things online, I try to present the best version of myself, ever conscious that a prospective client might be watching. So the online me is a heavily edited version of the real me: she’s a little bit sharper and drier, perhaps a tad wittier; definitely better at thinking of swift one-liners. She is also extremely careful about revealing gaps in her knowledge, rarely admits to having a headache or feeling grumpy, and doesn’t mention it when tumbleweed is blowing through her inbox (though she does let slip when she has so much work that she feels like the proverbial headless chicken, while trying to avoid actually using the words ‘headless chicken’) … Most of all, she doesn’t let on that occasionally she feels like going and hiding in bed until all the editing and the tax returns and the emails have somehow magically evaporated and she can have a moment’s peace.

I would hereby like to confess that despite my quietly confident and upbeat online persona, and my ability thus far to run a successful freelance editorial business, I don’t actually feel like my invincible online alter ego all the time. I have some bad days, and when they hit, I can end up feeling a bit like one of those 230 slugs. Only there are many, many more slugs, and I am a really, really small slug, and a big hand is hovering over me with the salt. I find that confidence really does come in waves. Most of the time, I can surf along on top of the wave, not looking down. Sometimes, though, I slip off the crest of the wave and find I’m floundering around in the trough.

However, it would be a bit of a downer to leave it there. Of course I am not going to make an admission like that without trying to put some kind of positive spin on it. So here is a short list of ways in which crises of confidence can be coped with and channelled to result in positive outcomes.

Learn from the wobbles. Loss of confidence may naturally follow on from criticism of your work, or another kind of professional rejection such as failing an editorial test. I have found, on the occasions when I have received negative feedback, that initially I get angry and go into denial. It has only been some time later that I’ve taken the criticism on board, and at that point my confidence has really suffered. However, looking back on situations like this, I realise that they have forced me to confront my weaknesses, and they have made me learn, and understand that I will always need to learn. Ultimately, they have made me a better, more accurate and more careful editor.

Reach out to colleagues for support by offering your own. When feelings of inadequacy hit, it can be tempting to hide away. It can easily seem as if everyone else is doing much better than you. However, getting involved in the wider editorial community can help. I’m not suggesting you use this as an opportunity to pour out your troubles, but rather that it can be a positive diversionary activity, and you may end up making new friends. For every editor you encounter who is booked up until the next decade (good for them – but it can be hard to read about when you are in a confidence trough), there will be another who is struggling with some aspect of the work they are doing right now. Perhaps you’ll find you are in a position to advise them.

Feel the fear and use it for good. It took me many years to get to the point where I didn’t wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night [45-year-old me looks back with some fondness on the concept of waking up in a cold sweat], worrying about whether the work was going to dry up. However, I am now grateful for those night panics. I took a big risk when I quit full-time employment, with a need to keep money coming in regularly pretty much from day one, and it paid off for me. The basic need to keep finding more and better work has kept me going through all the tough times, when I might otherwise have given up.

Share more with the right people. This is very simple. Although I wouldn’t suggest that you spend all your time sounding off about your problems to fellow freelancers, they can be a great source of support (and if you have been supporting them too, see above, they’ll be happy to help). Talk to them when you’re feeling shaky, rather than opening up to a client. By all means ask your client questions that are pertinent to the job – but they don’t need to know if you’re struggling because you’re having a nightmarish day, have no one to help you with the kids, have a slight cold, or whatever. It’s not their problem (though do of course tell them if something so bad has happened that you really can’t meet their deadline).

Don’t equate a temporary confidence blip with the need to take on poorly paid work. I try always to dissociate any wavering feelings of self-worth from a sense of my financial worth. My time is always my time, and I will not give it away to the lowest bidder. Ultimately, taking on work at a rate that you’re not happy with will sap your confidence even further.

Work through it. Take some comfort in the thought that all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. Each time you have a confidence crisis and emerge on the other side, you get stronger. The crises will get more infrequent, and you will be better equipped to cope with them when they come.

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