Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Web Event #1: Fear and Self-Representation

EP's picture

“I guess I think that maybe perhaps if you want to hear to my opinion, but I’m no expert, so I’ll make it brief…” is not an uncommon way for me to preface what I have to say. I am a strong believer that a five-minute-long disclaimer is enough to protect me from any criticism whatsoever. I believe strongly in a lot of other things, too (for one, I consider myself a feminist), but you wouldn’t know it from the way I talk. I sit there biting my fingernails, taking in what others have to say, feeling that their thoughts are much more intelligent and valid than my own. I dread being called on and sharing what I have to say, the best case being that I just said something painfully obvious and the worst case being that I said something completely wrong. I fear judgment. I fear criticism. I fear being wrong. Luckily, I’m not alone in my fears. My fear of speaking out is shared not only by other women, but many people who are marginalized by society. Fear limits self-representation to a self-preserving performance, making us unable to represent ourselves as we wish to be represented.

            This fine little piece of artwork is my anti-self-portrait, a portrait drawn to represent what I see in myself and how I want to be represented, not necessarily how I am seen. Through the simplistic crayon doodle shines the stoic face of a warrior, unafraid to slay whatever beasts she may face and to fly to wherever she may be needed (even in a thunderstorm). This idea of power and bravery is considered something (at least in the society in which I was raised) traditionally masculine, not in agreement with the gender roles that I have been assigned. The picture represents me with a sense of power and freedom from fear that I want, but I do not feel that I have.

            Where might this sense of fear come from? Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D. suggests in her paper “Feeling Like a Fraud” that this type of uncertainty stems from a feeling of illegitimacy. She says that many people with this uncertainty get “the feeling that in taking part in the public life one has pulled the wool over others’ eyes; that one is in the wrong place, and about to be found out,” (McIntosh, 1). Mainly, the fear that keeps someone from speaking out is brought on by the idea that they do not belong. McIntosh later says “Many women and men I know seem to share these feelings. But some research and much observation suggests they are especially severe in women, both in chronic life-long forms and in acute forms in particular situations,” (McIntosh, 1). This suggests the idea that women do not feel they have a place in the “public life.” This could possibly be due to the social roles prescribed to women in society. The need to apologize is brought on by the ideas that one is incompetent or in the wrong place, ideas that could be in a woman’s head due to these social roles.

However, this does not just apply to women, as McIntosh says “I think that most feelings of personal fraudulence need to be analyzed and politically deplored, especially feelings of fraudulence in lower caste people,” (McIntosh, 2). Social roles and stereotypes that society gives to people because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, culture, etc. (particularly people of groups that McIntosh describes as the “lower caste”) can create a sense that they do not belong, automatically putting them in a defensive mode in case they are “found out.” This is the self-preserving performance starts that to come in. The person does not want to take the risk of being “found out” of their “fraudulence,” so instead of representing themselves as they wish to be represented and stating what they truly think and feel, they shield themselves with apologies. They feel “apologetic, undeserving, anxious, tenuous, out-of-place, misread, phony, uncomfortable, incompetent, dishonest, guilty,” (McIntosh, 1). This majorly affects how one represents oneself.

One of the most common places for this feeling of illegitimacy to rise up is in the classroom. The academic environment can be a powerful reminder of power structures at play; it can act as a smaller version of the society in which one lives. Jane Tompkins says in the chapter “Talking in Class” in her book A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned, “Talking in class involves a kind of formal exhibition of the self different from what takes place in ordinary conversation. You’re putting on a performance in front of a large group of people, and the performance is being judged,” (Tompkins, 63). Speaking in class involves creating a new characterization of yourself, knowing the lines (both dialogue and monologue), and having the confidence to present your performance in front of judging eyes. The performance can be difficult enough, but when you factor in the amount of judgment you face, it’s another show entirely. When it comes to the judgment involved, one can easily translate the judgment one faces in everyday life to the classroom. For example, a woman may feel more judged than a man for her opinions in the classroom because she may be judged for them more in everyday life. This affects the performance being put on tremendously.

Tompkins also touches on the idea of power with respect to talking in class. She writes that there is a “dark side of this power” and that it can “enslave another in the flow of language—always a person subordinate to me,” (Tompkins, 63). This shows that the fear is not only initiated by society’s prescribed roles (if those roles devalue the person and their opinion) of a person, but also continued when the fearful person has power carried over them in the classroom environment. Tompkins describes the overwhelming power of not taking part in conversation when she says, “Not to be part of that conversation seemed shameful, an admission of weakness, a sign that perhaps one did not really have the right to exist after all,” (Tompkins, 64). This goes back to McIntosh’s idea of fraudulence and how it affects the one’s value of one’s own opinions and work. The fearful ones feel that they do not belong, so they do not speak (or apologize when they do). Tompkins also describes why keeping silent may be appealing. “To perform in order to survive existentially is backbreaking work; to give up the burden of performance, an inexpressible relief,” (Tompkins, 65). The work that women and minorities must do in order to be heard is sometimes so much that the relief of remaining silent is appealing.

Fear causing a shift in how we represent ourselves can have much more dramatic consequences than a non-committal statement in class. In Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel The Complete Persepolis, she finds herself in a fearful situation that causes her to act against what she stands for to survive. Throughout the book, Marjane generally characterizes herself as someone who is against the injustices of a government that arrests and punishes people for unfair reasons. In the section “The Makeup,” however, Marjane accuses a man of saying indecent things to her so that the Guardians of the Revolution did not notice her wearing makeup (something that would get in her in trouble). When she tells her boyfriend, Reza, about the incident, he comments, “What an instinct for survival!” (Satrapi, 287). Marjane’s “instinct” was brought on by the view of women in the society she was in. The concern for her safety was, at the time, greater in her than the need to express the strength of her beliefs. This incident shows the power of fear and how much the self-preserving performance can transform a person, hiding what they truly stand for.

How can the fearful defeat the fear that traps them in a self-preserving performance to represent themselves as they truly believe they are? In order to defeat the fear, one must first defeat the source, that which keeps one silent. Feminism works to defy the gender roles that undermine the confidence of women and groups that are marginalized by society. It works to establish an equality between those who traditionally benefit from social roles and those who oppressed by those roles. It is a movement to defeat fear and empower those once silenced by fear.

The interactions between fear and self-representation are more affecting for some than others. Women and minorities often need to represent themselves in the way that society best sees fit, which can cause them to clash with how they themselves wish to be represented as individuals, as well as cause them to remain silent. I often find myself facing fear. I often find myself losing. I often find myself silent, apologizing, or acting in a way that conflicts with what I believe in order to get by. Fear is a powerful poison that can transform or silence us. It is up to us to take the risk to defeat it.



Works Cited

McIntosh, Peggy, Ph.D. "Feeling Like a Fraud." Paper. Stone Center Colloquium. Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. Apr. 1985. Web. 6 Oct. 2013. <>.

Satrapi, Marjane. "The Makeup." The Complete Persepolis. New York: Pantheon, 2003. 285-91. Print.

Tompkins, Jane P. "Talking in Class." A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1996. 62-65. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

fear of freedom?

I’m very glad that you decided to think and write about fear (and to begin to think about its relationship to feminism), and am very moved, in this context, to re-see your self-portrait, representing you ”with a sense of power and freedom from fear that you want, but do not feel that you have.”

Of course fear can be a useful emotion: its uneasiness and hypervigilance can shield us from potential danger; it keeps us on alert, watchful for possible threats. The kind of fear that you, Peggy McIntosh and Jane Tompkins talk about is not physical, but psychological and social: the “self-preserving performance” that “shields itself with apologies,” the fear of feeling like a fraud, in the classroom.

Reading what you have written, I was put in mind of the classic book on Fear of Freedom, by the German psychologist Erich Fromm, which argues that the sort of fear you describe is a form of existential angst that emerges once you realize that you cannot rely on authoritarian systems to give meaning to your life, but must instead face the responsibility of choosing for yourself, coming to terms with all the doubts, sense of aloneness and lack of assigned purpose that entails.

Amoylan mentions, in her comment, how important it is “that you discussed how to overcome the fear.” That’s actually the spot where I think you stop short. To say that “It is up to us to take the risk to defeat it” isn’t exactly a game plan…

What might the beginning of one….?

EP's picture

To answer your question of

To answer your question of what might be the beginning of a strategy to overcome fear, I believe that it starts with ideas that empower those who are fearful. Through empowerment, those who are fearful become more confident in their abilities and opinions, and are more able to abandon the self-preserving performance in order to represent themselves as they truly want to. Empowerment can be achieved in many ways. For example, women (as well as many other people who are marginalized by society) can be empowered through feminist ideology, which asserts that they should be equal to those with more privilege in society, thus helping them to abandon their fear that their opinions are unimportant or that they do not belong in a certain space because of who they are.

Amoylan's picture

You and I both discussed our

You and I both discussed our fears of speaking up and the potential "illegitimacy" of what we have to say. We tend to be scared to say what we want to, whatever the reason may be. We don't want to feel like what we say is unsupported or inaccurate to the discussion. Our fear overrides our need and want to speak up in the classroom and in other social situations. I think it's so important that you discussed how to overcome the fear and the steps of that process, in my paper I just discussed the fear and where it may come from, it's important to also look at how to maybe get away from it as well. 

ccassidy's picture

hesitation and performance

I think one of the most important things that our paper's share dealing with the fear of peer validation.  There were a few paragraphs in my essay that were in italics and were meant to give a glimpse into my thought process during a classroom discussion.  Quite a bit of my paper dealt with this inherent hesitation when it comes to speaking that has just always been present.  I do think that a difference between our papers is the way in which we discussed performance.  My paper referenced performance as a means of facilitating discussion for someone who does not feel comfortable speaking up in class.  Your paper seemed to be discussing a performance that already exists in a classroom environment versus an individual employing a performance to feel freer and not constricted.