Helen Walmsley-Johnson had plenty of confidence as a child but where did it go when she grew up? And how did it come back? She shares her thoughts with The Age of No Retirement.

We all know what a crippling lack of confidence feels like: dry mouth, trembling hands, heart galloping fit to bust and the absolute certainty that if walking is involved then our knees won’t work and we’ll fall over… but here’s the thing, I don’t remember feeling that way as a child. I do remember winking at my little brother as I processed down the aisle in my pyjamas for the Sunday school nativity play – no embarrassment there, although I did get ticked off for not taking things seriously. I don’t remember feeling awkward in my white tutu and red satin waistcoat in the ballet school concert – I do remember feeling proud as I hop-step-ball-changed my way around the stage. I don’t remember feeling unduly worried about playing centre half in the school hockey team – I remember feeling excited. So what happened between Helen as a child and Helen as a grown-up to change things?

I think for older women in particular the difference between being a bright and amusing little girl and a modest biddable young woman is perhaps more marked than in subsequent generations. Even now I hear my mother whispering, ‘don’t show off, darling’ whenever I do any personal trumpet-blowing and she’s been dead 40 years. At the same time I know both she and my father would have been boring everybody rigid with what I’ve achieved as a grown-up if they were alive today. Last week I placed the smartest of smart invitations on my mantelpiece and I propped it up next to their photographs as though I was saying, “Look, mum and dad. Look at this. Aren’t you proud of me?” In fact I think I did say that, which makes me wonder if I haven’t hit on something.

Isn’t it the weight of others expectations that has us praying for a non-fatal heart attack, please, in the next two minutes before I have to stand at that lectern in front of 400 people and deliver a presentation? We all want to measure up, to be the best version of ourselves, to be admired for doing something superbly well. The only thing is that inside most of us there is an averagely competent person screaming to get out and go home to grow tomatoes. We push ourselves because we feel we must, because if you’re not on Instagram and posting 50 selfies a day about your enviable lifestyle then you’re no-one, apparently. In the light of so much illusory success it’s hardly surprising that a sense of entitlement has come to replace ability in the aspirant young. And it is the younger generation that we see all around us – on billboards, on television, in newspapers and magazines, in films... Life, it seems, has become a young person’s game.

The problem with that is that most of us aren’t young. And the young will eventually become us. What sort of a world are they creating for themselves? Those of us who are here already can tell them that it is a world in which personal confidence is eroded by the cumulative effects of pervasive ageism, not seeing ourselves adequately represented in the public eye or in the media, not being able to find employment or by having what we do demeaned or regarded as worthless. Even our pensions come under fire. If we don’t have a private pension then we’re a drain on the economy. So many magazines and newspapers use a stock photograph to illustrate a piece about the older generation they’ve almost got me believing that’s what I look like. The government TV ad for the pensions advice service made me want to smash things. None of these images are representative of any real-life older person and none inspire confidence in us as individuals capable of holding down a full-time job or being a useful member of society.

However, a funny thing happened to me a few years ago, at a time when everything seemed to be falling apart. As a result of writing about older women for the Guardian newspaper, I was asked if I would host the premiere of Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style documentary in London. My first thought was sheer terror. My second thought was, “I can’t do that.” And my third thought was, “Why ever not?” So I said yes and stopped worrying about it, just like that. As I went up on stage I noticed something was missing: my absolute certainty that I would be rubbish at this. There was a similar moment last year when I sat down to write my first book and thought, “I can’t do this” but then I thought, “Why can’t you?” and just got on with it. Since then I seem (touch wood) to have been fine. I haven’t set the world on fire (yet) but then neither have I crashed and burned (yet). If something doesn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped I ask myself why and learn from it. I don’t care what anyone else thinks anymore and I’m sure as hell not going to be side-lined because of the date on my birth certificate. The only way I know how to change things is to shout about it and age, it seems, has given me the confidence to do that.

Follow Helen on Twitter @TheVintageYear
Helen’s book – The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years – is out now in paperback.

"..personal confidence is eroded by the cumulative effects of pervasive ageism."

think for older women in particular the difference between being a bright and amusing little girl and a modest biddable young woman is perhaps more marked than in subsequent generations.

Helen's bestselling first book.

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