There are days I wish self-belief came in a gift-wrapped box. And for me, by the very end of the post, where I’m going to say something that will horrify some people, maybe some self-belief has come to me in a box.
If you’ve seen two of my three comedy solo shows, Labelled and Gold Star Failure, will know my relationship with my “family of opposites” features heavily.
Some people pick up the undertone about the emotional abuse that went on in my childhood. Some people remark that these shows discuss a forgiveness of sorts. That’s true. But they also stress that just because it’s family, doesn’t mean you have to forgive or forget.
In my last show, people heard on the stage the last words my mother spoke to me and the emotion of what those words meant to me (in positive ways). It was the serious moment, followed by some laughs about a dream I had about my secretly religious mother trying to find my dad in heaven, when dad was a hardline atheist.
While I achieved some forgiveness, my body never forgot. I don’t separate mind and body, they are one. I listen to the wealth of knowledge the world has now about trauma and intergenerational trauma and co-occurring illness. So, I know a lot of what I experience physically and mentally, has roots in family trauma.
Anyway, I constantly set the emotional limbo bar for achievement for myself at ‘impossible’. I’m never satisfied with what I achieve, but I’m getting better at recognising when I’ve done that. I hope that when I graduate in 2024 sometime from my PhD, that the photos reflect that I’ve done more work on this, that it will be visible.
My offspring told me off recently for saying how I felt I had failed by not completing my Melbourne Fringe run for health reasons. How I felt I had failed in the great comedy comeback and how afterwards failed for needing some rest from the PhD (for a ‘whole’ two weeks).
“You’re smart enough to be in a PhD program and you will do it. And you can’t help what happened that ended the Melbourne Fringe run – and the feedback about that show was awesome. You’re not failing, it’s unbelievable that you think you’re failing.”
My ‘aha’ moment from this last Melbourne Fringe was, while I love making people laugh, I had turned doing solo shows into a massive chore of trying to prove myself, to myself. Until 2020, comedy had been fun for me, but my need to quash my internal ‘not good enough’ narrative meant I only saw 55 minutes of solo show as good enough and had lost interest in regular short sets.
It felt like there was no greater irony in the world than writing a show about not allowing myself to see failure as learning and not being able to complete the run. 5/8 wasn’t good enough for me. It’s 62.5% for a person who had a 91% average in all their studies, and I’ve never been able to revel in even that. While some may hate me as a ‘smart ass’, trust me when I say, my own self-loathing matched their tall poppy. The stereotype of the arrogant academic does not apply here.
The following is for any one whose constantly endured a parent or partner or even their children telling them that they are not enough.
If you experienced that person’s endless lack of faith in you, the endless nit picking, the endless ‘that was good, but…” experiences – a reminder that those experiences are not on you. While they do define how you see yourself, to a point, they are not you and definitely not how others see you.
You and I have endured it enough now. The reality is though, others may have set you up to internalize those narratives. But it’s up to us to pry out those failure narratives and hold them like a baby bird we need to help heal and to prioritise it as important work. And it’s also okay to recognise it takes as long as we need and to practice self-compassion.
Self-belief is still a moving feast for me. I feel like I’m doing less – the big comedy comeback is now put on hold. But the fact is I’m allowing myself to heal. I’m also learning to rest more.
I will get on stage next year, but not solo shows for a while. But when I get on stage now for short sets, it will be more relaxed, wanting to have fun, wanting to bring joy and ahah! moments, wanting to be there – just without the urge to prove myself (to myself) so much.
Gold Star Failure gave me that gift. The gift of just getting up on stage and enjoying it again – like I did when I first started doing comedy in Darwin in 2014 at the ‘Bowlo’.
But there is something here that has to be said. I enjoyed Gold Star Failure because it first went live five months and five days after my mother died. It was my rendition of her emotional abuse swan song.
Other people can rob you of your self-belief. No doubt about it. Sometimes it’s that one person the little you looked to for validation they never got in the crucial first 1000 days of life. The research on this is clear now.
Sometimes that validation will never come, not until that person is in a box. Yes, I said it. Not until that person is, like my mother is, in a coffin or a box of their ashes – will your self-belief feel deserved. For me, the sense of freedom of that box of ashes provided me, now sitting on a shelf at home, is tangible.
I feel like I can breathe again. I don’t feel on alert all the time for the next put down, the next back handed compliment. I’m still working on not giving those things to myself, working on quashing my own inner self-sabotaging nit-picker.
So, there are days, my own lack of self-belief still feels like their ghost picking away at my edges. But I have to chase that ghost away now. So, for all of us, who’ve internalised the failure schema, peace can feel elusive, but it’s not impossible.
I am still okay with grief. But even better, I am okay with the words a friend gave me recently, ‘ambiguous grief’.
I’m also unpacking the self-belief box I’ve built around myself in recent years. I’m trying to find a way to repackage it so it’s small enough to be put in my pocket and carried easily.
And maybe, I’ll tie a little ribbon on my own self-belief box with a little gold star on it.
*a little note: those that have seen my shows will also know I acknowledge Mum’s pain and family trauma and see it as a cycle, not as a reason to blame Mum.