Every morning, somewhere between the hours of 5 and 6 a.m., my melatonin levels have decreased enough to alert my body to wake up. I open a cautious eye and recall the day of the week. If it’s the weekend, I feel a sense of peace, tinged with an impulse to get up and seize the day with dog walks, books, documentaries, and boxing. It’s almost a feeling of excitement, which sounds weird because I tend to do the same things every weekend, I just really enjoy doing them.
Things are different if it’s a weekday. I open a cautious eye, recall the day of the week, and am disappointed to learn that an 8-hour workday is ahead in which I have to produce thousands of well-researched, well-written, and somewhat entertaining words for my employer. This isn’t a strong feeling. I don’t wrench myself out of bed, hug my schnauzer a little too tight and then weep uncontrollably in the shower. I’m just slightly ruffled by the magnitude of my responsibilities as an employee, which creates a vivid contrast with my weekend mood and nags at me like a hellish mother-in-law.
The problem is confidence, which is weird because I’m good at my job. I know it’s arrogant to say so, but there’s no denying the consistent nods of approval from my boss, which I bathe in like an unapologetic wage whore. But deep in my soul a battle is being fought—an eternal tug-of-war where confidence is pitted against doubt, with my consciousness somewhere in the middle. Troves of spoken or unspoken compliments cannot energise my confidence enough to tug the rope to a decisive and permanent win. My doubt always has just enough energy to stay in the game, and when I’m faced with a challenging piece of work, it looms before me like a fire-breathing Titan, threatening to scorch me with trepidation. So despite proving my abilities before every setting sun, a torrent of verbs, nouns, and adjectives in my wake, I’m doomed to feel slightly apprehensive the next work day, like a perpetual slave to my personality or brain chemistry or whatever the hell it is that constitutes me.
This battle between confidence and doubt appears to be an eternal face-off between two very different portions of my brain: the prefrontal cortex—which makes rational arguments and is about the size of a tennis ball—and the amygdala—which makes me fearful and anxious, and is about 200 times smaller. The prefrontal cortex is like a wise and rickety anthropologist who likes to watch what’s happening and then describe it in the most accurate and rational way possible. It witnesses my achievements and calmly tells me about them, which gives me confidence. The amygdala is like Joseph Stalin on a bad day. It sees danger everywhere, and so when I’m faced with a project that stretches my abilities, accompanied by the scant possibility that I might balls it up beyond reckoning, it releases such a torrent of neurochemicals that my confidence is temporarily battered, and I find myself gnawing at my nails like a troubled beaver. I try to tell myself that I’ve accomplished similar jobs in the past, but there’s no longer any place for rationality; no voice for my prefrontal cortex. It’s been silenced by its nemesis the amygdala, which heaves it into a gulag and spends the next fifteen minutes admiring its moustache.
This cerebrum war has been going on since I was about ten years old, and I assume it won’t cease until I croak, or find some hairbrained solution to the problem. Maybe Buddhist enlightenment is the answer—how do the saffron-clad Tibetan baldies earn their keep? It’s clear how I’m creating value for my employer, but I struggle to understand how a hall filled with silent monks results in vegetables, meats, and repaired roof tiles. I doubt they’re vexed by the idea of fucking up so badly that they’re defrocked and tipped over the mountain. Or maybe they’re just like the rest of us? This trifling anxiety is probably more normal than I realise, and most people are a bit worried they’ll arrive at the office to find their abilities stolen overnight, damned to a month of calamitous cockups that lead to the dole queue—a place where you’re forever tarnished, like you’ve been dipped in the Bog of Eternal Stench.
My fragile confidence could also be a light case of imposter syndrome, where I tell myself that I’m competent but don’t really believe it, and even single-handedly reaching the moon wouldn’t wrench me out of the illusion. But I don’t feel like an intellectual phony, and am well aware that my achievements are a result of hard work, until my erratic amygdala gets going, when every confidence-boosting belief goes up in smoke. Once that happens, no amount of logic can set my head straight, and there’s only one thing for it: put my head down and tackle the challenge head on, in spite of my dismay.
I’ve slowly learned how to handle my nervous side, but it doesn’t stop me from envying carefree people who seem unburdened from worry and charge about like fearless heroes. Then I consider the other end of the scale—the people who need trained animals to stop them bashing their own heads—and realise that being somewhere in the middle isn’t so bad. Perspective has a way of washing the shit out of your eyes. At least I have a functioning amygdala, even if it’s slightly overzealous. My shaky confidence is a quirk of my personality—a neurotic kink that I’ll likely never iron out, which like every other negative thing in my life, would have a lot less sting if it was embraced with open arms (even reluctant ones). Striving for the “perfect” emotional life is starting to feel awfully dull, like scrolling through Netflix for half an hour and still not being able to find anything to watch. The dents and scrapes and kinks are here to stay, snagging my confidence from time to time, but never enough to prevent a quick recovery. I say yes to the whole lot.