Self-doubt and receptivity to privilege-checking

Content note: this post discusses my personal experiences of mental ill-health, sexual violence and emotional abuse

I have a hypothesis. It is not necessarily a very good one, as it is built almost purely from personal experience and some conversations I have had with others.

But it’s a hypothesis, and in the spirit of Week Of Posts About Calling Out And Privilege And Stuff, I feel like it’s worth stating.

As confident as I may seem, I am riddled with self-doubt, a little voice at the back of my head perpetually squeaking “Stavvers, you’re probably wrong about this and chatting shit”. It’s been there almost as long as I remember, and I’m fairly sure it is the sound of the internalisation of all of the oppressive experiences I have had throughout my life.

I’ve been raped by a partner, I’ve been emotionally abused by another. My dyspraxia means people have treated me like I’m inept and stupid throughout most of my school years. My epilepsy led to being treated like a delicate little flower who might keel over at any point, as has the vast history of benevolent sexism I’ve experienced since I’ve sprouted tits. My school never taught me I even existed as a queer woman, thanks to Thatcher’s Section 28, and I’ve experienced all sorts of bollocks as a queer woman ever since I decided to be open about it. With all of this shit, it feels like an inevitable curse to find myself experiencing periodic spells of depression which come and suck my soul away.

Because of all of this, I find it very difficult to believe I could possibly be right about anything. I try to tell that little bit of me that actually, I’m nowhere near as crap as I feel that I am, but the nagging doubt remains. My conscious thoughts, and my network of wonderful people who for whatever reason seem to like me, are much kinder to me than my emotions.

This has a major effect in conversations about privilege, in particularly with privileged people. I’ve written before about how conversations about privilege can so often feel like gaslighting: within a system of dominance, there are two opposing perceptions of reality and the privileged cannot see the problem so denies its existence, denies a reality experienced by someone else.

Because of my self-doubt, and my experience of emotional abuse, I am pretty fucking sensitive to gaslighting. When I call someone out and they deny there is a problem, just for a fleeting second my self-doubt gets the better of me. For a fleeting second, that person is my rapist, my abuser, every man who has ever patronised me, every cop who has held me against my will, every homophobe, every creep, every bastard who has ever fucked with me and I’ve kicked myself for not fighting back. Often, this passes quickly. Sometimes, it does not, and I will get angry and try to avenge myself for everything that my self-doubt has told me was my fault; or I will get sad and simply listen to the self-doubt and self-blame.

But in its own way, the self-doubt is also a gift. It makes me more receptive to criticism, and more willing to change. It means that when someone calls me out, my first instinct is not that they are wrong, but rather, that am probably wrong. And often, as it happens, I am wrong.

I have noticed a certain self-assuredness in those with more privilege than me which makes it very difficult to challenge them when they need challenging. They genuinely don’t appear to even entertain the possibility that they could be wrong, and that that’s not a big deal.

So this is my hypothesis, that the self-doubt which comes with being fucked over by society makes us more willing to be challenged and listen, and more receptive to being called out and asked to check our privilege.

It means that getting those who actually need to try harder not to oppress others will be a far, far harder struggle if I’m right about this. If there’s not even any room for doubt and self-reflection in their thoughts, how can we possibly persuade them to change? I suppose backing each other up might go some way to help, presenting a view that this isn’t some sort of minority opinion.

I don’t really have any answers, all I have is questions. I don’t even know if I’m onto something here. So I suppose I’ll start with a pertinent question: does anyone else feel this way, too?

Call-out week: a semi-coherent series of things on my mind

  1. When silencing isn’t silencing and sisterhood isn’t sisterhood
  2. Your prejudice is unconscious, but it’s still there
  3. “Call-out culture” isn’t a thing (but it should be)
  4. Self-doubt and receptivity to privilege-checking
  5. Confessions of a former arsehole

25 thoughts on “Self-doubt and receptivity to privilege-checking”

  1. This has definitely been my experience as well. There has also been a flip side to it on some occasions, where I get really upset when someone points out I’ve done something messed up, and I go into Super Defense Mode as if one of my abusers is right there in front of me. After I step away and calm down, though, I usually realize what happened and then apologize. It just takes awhile to bring myself back down.

    But I guess, either way, there’s some degree of self-questioning and introspection going on that doesn’t always happen in this conversations.

    1. I can understand the defensiveness, too, though that’s never really happened to me. I think it’s a very personal thing indeed. I suppose I shifted from pure self-flagellation to trying to turn those feelings into something positive.

    2. I’m with Amy; I can become really defensive when called out on something, for the same reasons. It’s a mental health related…well, defence mechanism, I think.

      But also like Amy, when I’ve removed myself from the situation and thought about it, I’ll realise my mistake. It doesn’t always happen either; I suffer from exactly the same kinds of self-doubt you’ve discussed here, and whilst that often to leads to negative things such as self-hatred and the aforementioned defence patterns, in many ways it is a good thing. Being totally self-assured can (not necessarily ‘does’) lead to an unwillingness or inability to listen, and that’s far worse than a faltering in one’s self-confidence from time to time.

      1. Absolutely. I remember once shutting myself down entirely to any questioning or reflection (this will probably feature in tomorrow’s blog) as a coping mechanism. It didn’t work.

  2. Anecdote time: I was trying to explain to my then-boyfriend why I am a feminist. I brought up the gender and race pay gap as an example. His immediate reply was that it doesn’t exist, because ‘we have an equality act’. I was really angry with him for casually dismissing me like that. No request for clarification; just a ‘no it’s not’.

    I think this sort of thinking is common to privileged people (i.e. all of us in different ways) until they make the journey of self-discovery from ‘no it’s not’ to ‘oh shit, I never thought of it that way’. (I guess for some people that never happens.) It’s that confident dismissal that makes me/you self-doubt.

    1. Ugh yes. It does become a sort of vicious circle, getting ever worse, and I hope we can find a way of breaking it!

  3. As soneone who has plenty of privilege but also has experienced plenty of oppressions (in oppression bingo I certainly lose though) that have led to me also being frequently crippled with self doubt and self loathing I feel I can maybe contribute something to this.

    First up I’d like to mention that our impressions of another’s motivation or feelings are not necessarily always accurate. As you hint at a few times it may surprise people to learn that you have self doubt. Many people may see you as being self assured and strident on your views. Just as you see then the same way. I would question whether you read the reactions of those you disagree with as more certain partly because of triggers from when people have silenced or oppressed you. I know I can be guilty of this.

    I find that often with self doubt comes a side effect of being diffensive. I certainly recognise this in myself. I also know people with a wide variety of different reactions to both traumatic experiences, systamatic prejudice and even to privilege. I think that making a generalisation about what qualities these things give us, and making assumptions about where people are coming from is simplistic and doesn’t represent the experiences of the people I know.

    Also in relation to privilege checking, something I fully support and try to do in my own life, I often see on twitter two people who could both be described as oppressed (often in different ways) and both be described as privileged (again in different ways) locked into arguments that are clearly (well it feels clear to me but I ackowledge that I am making assumptions here) that are triggering both sides. Not only that but often both sides are refusing to check their privilege partly because they don’t see it but partly because they feel under attack.

    Whn I am taken back to the emotional and physical abuse I experiences as a child, or the brutal scapegoated bullying I experienced as a teenager, when I feel trapped and like my experiences and lesser, invalid and unheard, when I feel the spit on my face fresh, the fists on my chest, the water torture of being othered by a group, when these things come back to me I may react by lashing out, by being unreasonable and illogical. This leads me to being afraid of engaging. I try and follow a strict policy of being polite. Of disengaging when things start triggering.

    I don’t think those of us who have experienced the sharp end of the ooppressions of capitalism and patriarchy are free from behaving to others in the way we have been treated. I don’t think we are always fully aware of the lines we cross and the triggers we pull.

    I don’t write any of us off for this. I hope through anger and confusion we can also find new awareness. I don’t think we should be afraid of conflict and challenge. I think we should be prepared to check ourselves and apologise but also be prepared to understand that others also come from complex places and their anger, their diffensiveness, their own intersections are things we don’t understand.

    I also don’t have answers. I believe in calling people out. But I also believe in empathy and listening to each others perspective. I watch people I respect hurt each other and fail to listen to each other. I don’t engage because these things trigger me and I know that I can’t take the fall out, especially because as a cis, white, middle class, heterosexual any engagement comes from a position of privilege. I don’t fully understand the matrix that these arguments are formed in. I don’t want to mansplain. But I feel for both sides and hope both sides can come through conflicts into a place where they listen constructively to each other. I think movements are stronger when they encompass multiple voices but that forming a space where both debate and solidarity feel safe within the system we are all trapped inside is one of the hardest nuts to crack.

    I have changed many of my beliefs as a result of being called out for unconscious privilege. I have changed the language I use and my approaches to things and I am greatful for these engagements. Sometimes I have called people out and they have changed their views. But all these examples have not come during angry and bitter exchanges. Although some have come as a result of reflecting on such exchanges and seeing my own emotional responses as coming from a different place either a triggered place or a place of unconscious priviledge.

    Anyway those are my thoughts. I am open to all of them being wrong and apologise if any of them have triggered people, misrepresented people or have been based on false conclusions.

    Thanks for exploring these issues this week.

  4. Short answer yes! That little voice comes from my past, from the denial of my reality and experiences, and like you I know I can use this to be aware of my privileges and try to accept being called out.

    My biggest problem comes with anger, others and my own

    1. I get angry sometimes, too. I try not to be angry at those who I don’t think can take it, but fuck it, it’s hard!

  5. Yes, definitely. Excellent post.

    Very interesting question about how we can challenge people who don’t experience the doubt. I feel this way about science vs dogma and liberalism vs conservatism too. People who have been taught to believe something “because I said so” or “because that’s the way it’s done” – rather than to question and doubt and err on the side of caution – have an intimidating sense of riteousness and self-worth that I think is hugely problematic.

    I think there are enough instances of personal experience changing someone’s views (e.g. the recent u-turn from a US Republican Senator(?) on equal marriage upon his son coming out as gay) to make that seem the obvious route in. If you can find a hook to speak from, I think that works for an individual. Everyone knows someone who struggles due to race, ability, gender etc., and it’s easier to get someone to imagine themselves as another specific person, rather than the generic ‘opressed’. How to make this work for a whole population of the privileged is another matter, of course.

  6. I don’t know. Maybe things like ‘men’s rights’ are products of self-doubt too. After all, it must be a pretty attractive idea to surround yourself with people who tell you you’re right if you want to quiet that voice of doubt in your head.

    Maybe self doubt is a lot more prevalent than people like to let on and receptivity to privilege checking is not down to having self doubt but with how you are choosing to deal with it (or use it). Will you try to hide your self doubt under faux confidence, try to assuage your self doubt by seeking out others who agree with you or will you let your self doubt continue even though it may mean constantly reassessing and re-examining your views? Is self doubt a double edged sword?

    I have no idea.

  7. Hi there, I couldn’t read the post fully through the sexual abuse bit, so had to sort of skim read, but yeah I do doubt myself and what i’ve said a lot and become paranoid maybe i’ve hurt someone unintentionally, and that i’m a really bad person. I tend to get really irritable as well, I tried to confine it to those who do really deserve it to focus the anger on those who really deserve it, but it is very hard at times.

  8. Another great blog.

    Privilege is an interesting one, as a previous commenter has noted. I am a white, cis, heterosexual man so should be in clover, but also the son of Irish, working class migrants and a physically abusive father, and was diagnosed with moderately severe depression toward the end of last year, so I win some and lose some, as most of us do on some level. The old adage about there always being someone worse off than you is worth remembering.

    The self-doubt thing is almost certainly a side effect of depression but as you rightly say can also be useful when checking one’s own privilege. It annoys me when people are asked, no matter how politely, to check their privilege and their first reaction is to go on the attack as we see so often. Personally I welcome it. If I say or do something from a privileged perspective, I want someone to point this out, none of us are perfect after all.

    I am more concerned about those who don’t seem to have any self doubt and refuse even to acknowledge their own privileged status.

  9. Absolutely! I’ve not experienced half the stuff you have (apart from the rape, and I was bullied constantly as a child), but even from a hetero, White, cis, *technically* privileged viewpoint, I quite often link to something, or post an opinion, on twitter or facebook, then I am surprised when people I consider to be friends with similar views to me challenge it, or completely 100% disagree. I do think, ‘did I misread that article?’, ‘have I got it wrong?’, and doubt myself first of all, rather than defending my stance straight away. I often have to leave it a while before responding, as I assure myself that no, I *am* right, at which point I come out fighting.

    I have been called aggressive, been told to ‘get off my high horse’, ‘take a joke’, ‘take a chill pill’, that words like retard and spastic, or gay, are perfectly fine descriptors, that lesbian, dyke, homo and even feminist are also perfectly acceptable as insults. I’ve had friends of many years unfriend me on facebook because of my challenges of sexist, violent and misogynistic imagery or wording. I have hesitated on several occasions to post a link to an article because I know it will descend into a fight on my news feed. Yet I still do it, eventually, because the ‘calling out’ needs to be done, despite the insidious voice in the back of my brain telling me I am stupid and I will lose friends if I continue.

  10. Interesting post. I am inclined to agree with you based on my own experience and for me it relates to empathy. If you haven’t been at the tough end of life, then you cannot imagine what it is like for other people in certain situations. This is certainly true of rich politicians, for example. Obviously this is a sweeping generalisation, but from what I have witnessed, those who simply cannot put themselves in another person’s shoes, are those who have never had the need to try different pair on.

  11. I agree wildly.

    The following is also all entirely speculative, possibly bullcrap. You know when you’re trying to talk about oppression with someone you care about a whole lot but who is super privileged and you can see them starting to flail about and get frustrated..? I think there’s a lot of self-doubt in that, but I don’t think there’s a lot of self-awareness.

    Knowing how other people affect our lives in a broad sense, a structural sense — because we FEEL that impact and have therefore had to invest a considerable amount of energy on understanding how the world REALLY works and where we fit into it, in order to escape the alternative cognitive dissonance — I think helps cultivate the kind of self-awareness that can be really hard to achieve the more privileged you are. (And also if you are an asshole, there seems to be a great deal of overlap ymmv)

    Self-doubt is also one of the awesome optional starting skills for people suffering oppression! “Dear Myself, if you are wrong about everything then there is no war to be fought! JOB DONE, NO WORRIES YOU ARE MERELY STUPID, NAP TIME FOREVER.” So it is one that is already in the toolkit to be repurposed? I’ve personally had a far harder time with anger because it’s one of those pesky emotions that other people would prefer one repress, thank you very much, and my family prefer to pretend emotions don’t exist at any rate. I’m currently entertaining the idea that once I’ve wallowed around in my anger for a bit I might get to understand it as well as I do my self-doubt — unfortunately it’s a lot easier to wound others with anger than with self-doubt which.. is why we have Twitter? (disclaimer: fake conclusion for the purposes of rounding off this gabble).

  12. I cried reading parts of this. They are so close to how I feel about myself it’s scary. I had this whole big post inside my head that has just disappeared. I can say that I admire you strength and courage so very much.

  13. Yeah, I think self-doubt is vital for developing your ideas. I think I can often relate more strongly to something that’s expressing a slightly dodgy perspective, but is written by someone who’s aware that it’s just their opinion and not any kind of objective truth, than to something where I entirely agree with the content, but is obviously written by someone who thinks they are Objectively Correct and can Prove it with Science. I think this is one of the reasons why, although many of Marx’s ideas were brilliant, mainstream Marxism has limited contributions to make to any kind of liberatory politics, because it has a really strong tendency to make these claims to grand scientific truth that make it hard to talk about things like personal experience and self-doubt. I think this kind of gendered dynamic is really apparent in a lot of arguments between feminists and Marxists – I’m not saying you can’t be both, but some Marxists certainly think you can’t.

    P.S. Just noticed that I start literally every single sentence of that comment with “I think…” As I say, the urge to put a disclaimer on everything saying “this isn’t definitely true, it’s just my opinion” is something I really relate to.

  14. Cripes, yes, this struck a chord.

    I wonder how it relates to specific oppressions? For example, the chronic self-doubt is a symptom of depression, as you say; while the tendency to agree/pretend you agree/stop arguing/convince yourself you agree with other people is often a major part of female socialisation. These are the oppressions I’m most familiar with, so I’d be fascinated to know how it plays out in combination with others.

  15. I think you’re right and I do feel the same way. I recently had a really disturbing conversation about feminism with someone else’s (white, cis, straight, male) friend on Facebook, which brought a lot of what you describe roaring to life. So yes, I do think that self-doubt, although no fun to live with day to day, can help people question their assumptions and check privilege.

    In my experience, self-doubt and experience of oppression may also have the unfortunate side effect of closing people down to the idea that they can behave oppressively too.

    Perhaps it is the specific relationship people are able to build with their self-doubt that contributes to this ability? For me, it was necessary for me to tussle with the self doubt, live alongside it, acknowledge it and then look critically at how it affects my inner conversations and the lens through which I see the world. Really I would say that my own capacity for that level of introspection has only really developed in the last two years or so and it’s still a work in progress.

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