Four years ago, I made a significant change in my career to focus on non-fiction narrative writing. Since then, I have also been dabbling with journalism - my opinion pieces have been published in six countries, and my writing has been quoted in another 70. This is a very big deal for me. I am determined to leave a positive mark on the world, using my writing to give voice to the voiceless.
As my writing started to gain traction, I felt elated. I (naturally) began sharing links to my articles and events with my friends and extended family, expecting their response to be one of excitement and support. I was seeking their validation, praise, encouragement. The epiphany experienced by the main protagonist in Into the Wild at the end of his solitary life - “Happiness is only real when shared” - are words that resonate with me as strongly today as they did 15 years ago.
But I was shocked to find that my happiness wasn’t shared beyond a core handful of my closest family and friends. Links to my articles went ignored in unliked posts on social media. Enthusiastic WhatsApp messages to book club chums asking for their thoughts remained unanswered. I built an impressive collection of unresponded-to emails and text messages to relatives and friends, who were too busy to engage with my writing. Silence from the familiar world around me became the norm. I was the hand that reaches out for a handshake, left hanging in mid-air. The fun, well-intentioned, all-dressed-up, vivacious woman at a party, bewildered to be left standing alone in the corner, amidst all her many friends. The girl in the class in an all-girls school frozen out of friendship groups for being different, not fitting in.
I could neither believe nor make sense of what was happening. Why did I feel lonelier now in my joy than I had in my previous sadness? Why were so many of those around me not rejoicing with me? This soul-piercing question would preoccupy me for many months to come. On a positive note, I soon figured out how to deal with the problem, which I recognised as two-fold, originating firstly from my too high expectations of the people around me and, secondly, from my distinct need to be validated by others. As a woman, I only knew who I was (and continue to know who I am) through the eyes of those around me. Their approval or disapproval typically makes or breaks me. So I lowered my expectations to no longer expect to hear anything about my writing from anybody close to me. It’s liberating. I am also learning to gain the validation I crave from myself. This is the toughest gig ever, but one I want to give my all to, because succeeding at it is my road to freedom.
It has taken me a long time to understand why there is so little camaraderie when it comes to celebrating success. Some believe that a person doesn’t need support in their success, only in their unhappiness. Others may not feel comfortable commenting and sharing their own opinions because they don’t think their opinions matter. For many, the success of someone who is ‘just like them’ is a mirror that they are not prepared to see themselves reflected in. I recently stumbled on a powerful quote from the chapter on friendship in Carol Dweck’s Mindset, which put into words what I had been sensing. “…sometimes an even tougher question is: Who can you turn to when good things happen? When you find a wonderful partner. When you get a great job offer or promotion. When your child does well. Who would be glad to hear it? Your failures and misfortunes don’t threaten other people’s self-esteem. Ego-wise, it’s easy to be sympathetic to someone in need. It’s your assets and your successes that are problems for people who derive their self-esteem from being superior.” Perhaps Dweck’s assessment is overly harsh but it is mostly true. I also wonder whether it is easier to empathise with pain than with public success because we all know pain. Pain is universal. Success often is unique.
I have decided that catering for my ego’s need for validation is a road to misery as my ego clashes with those of others as they struggle for their own validation. I was recently struck by how confident and purposeful Stormzy’s mindset was in Louis Theroux Interviews… on BBC iPlayer. Theroux asks him whether he is worried about the audience’s acceptance of his latest soulful, more tender album, which is a significant departure from his previous “smash-your-face” type rap albums. “If I had a list of worries, that wouldn’t even be on there,” Stormzy - the greatest rap artist that Britain has ever produced - responds. “All this music is nothing to do with the listener…All I can do is feel what I feel and document that.”
If truth be told, I am grateful for my handful of family and very close friends who jump up and down with me when my writing gets published and strikes a chord. It is noteworthy that they are the same people who have been there for me when I have been at rock bottom. I also have a few new readers on social media who support my writing and whose interactions I have come to cherish. That notwithstanding, I know that the biggest test of my commitment to my purpose is to feel what I feel and keep writing, even if it feels as if I’m speaking from a podium in a darkened auditorium. Writing, and trusting that those who need to read my writing will, and that the lives that it is destined to change, will change. The auditorium may be dark, but it is not empty.