Read Shannon's fascinating story of a life voyage to find her true self and overcome a loss of self-confidence.
I am on the edge of 40. I sit teetering on the brink of this milestone and wish I didn’t care so much. But 40 is a pretty big milestone in a woman’s life. How can you not “take stock?” Have I done enough, do I have enough and – that old chestnut – am I enough?
And the thing is, I can check plenty of boxes. I have an amazing husband, a little boy who makes every day feel like Christmas morning and I am lucky enough to be a Portrait Photographer in Melbourne. And yet, sometimes I can’t help comparing myself to other people. Still. Even now that I’m a “grown-up”.
I do know why this is. I haven’t spent years in counselling without gaining a pretty good understanding of my motivations!
I was born in Perth in the 70s and for the first four years of my life I had a Mum, a Dad, a sister and a station wagon. Then Mum and Dad split up. Actually I should say the family split up. Actually, I should say the family was cleaved in two. My sister and the station wagon went to live with my Dad and I stayed with Mum.
As we went our separate ways I’m sure we passed a roadside sign warning “Hard Times Ahead”.
My mum went into a tailspin when she divorced my Dad. She met a man who was caught in his own emotional whirlpool and they spun out together for the next 20 years. They did the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time. (When they knew better, they did better.) But back then – night after night – they looked for answers in the bottom of a bottle and blamed each other when none were found.
That’s when the comparisons started. Why wasn’t my family normal? Why did we live in a dump? Why was there so much fighting? Why didn’t we have a car half the time? It’s pretty much impossible to be confident when you feel that you’re so much lower than everyone else on the social totem pole.
Although I was a star pupil in primary school – popular, a prefect, a trumpet player – by the time I quit high school in the middle of Year 12 all of my confidence was gone. I was empty. Squeezed dry by years of academic and (perceived) personal failure.
My self-confidence was dreadfully low in my 20s. I battled depression, anxiety and panic attacks that depleted me so badly that there were days when I couldn’t even leave the house. I really did my best and had some solid jobs during this time but I simply could have been doing so much more if only I’d had a bit more self-confidence and fewer demons.
I had some counselling and got my stuff together enough to leave Perth on a working holiday to London. London was fun. I had lots of friends and drank lots of cocktails and even did a spot of travel.
But even in the middle of a crowded British dance floor, I was lonely. Most of my friends were gay so we always ended up at gay clubs which left little opportunity to meet anyone special. As my first European winter descended I felt my superficial existence closing in on me as quickly as the freezing, dark days.
Then my future husband, Christopher, moved into my share house.
Just like that.
Oh. My. Stars.
I fell in love and I fell hard. He was gorgeous, well-travelled, well-read and he was planning to write a novel.
This was different. Because of a lack of confidence I’d either had relationships where the guy cared more about me (no risk there you see) or I experienced the pain of unrequited love.
Yep, this was definitely different and it was wonderful.
Exquisite love affair aside, I also observed Chris’s commitment to his craft and started to feel the faintest pinpricks of my own artistry coming to life. I didn’t know where to begin but just being with an artist suddenly made the world seem full of possibility that didn’t exist before.
But I was wracked with self-doubt. No-one in my family was an artist. Who did I think I was? I was just a government housing kid who’d dropped out of school.
Not long after Chris and I got together we moved to Melbourne where this high school dropout finally went to Uni, majored in radio and even topped her class. Who’d have thought? I then ended up working in radio on and off for about 8 years, including ABC Radio which I loved. But all the while I was still searching for my true artistic form.
For a long time I thought singing was my path. If anything tests your self-confidence more I am yet to find it.
Week after week I attended singing lessons with my wonderful teacher Zerafina Zara, but I should have been paying her a counsellor’s fee alongside my tuition fees. At least half of the lesson would be spent talking about my insecurities as a singer (and a person) and she would patiently give me a few techniques to help.
One thing that sticks in my mind to this day is, “don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides”.
What this means is, we’re all insecure. We all feel like we don’t measure up at times. And then we go and compare how we feel on the inside to the way someone else presents themselves, i.e. their outsides. It’s not a fair or realistic comparison because you’re not seeing all of their insecurities and self-doubt. But they are there. You can count on it.
But even though Zerafina gave me lots of pearls of wisdom, the singing was wearing me out. I had some brief success with an acoustic trio but my nerves and self-doubt finally wore me down and I had to take a break.
It was while I was in a complete artistic funk that I dug out Chris’s old point and shoot camera. I had a tonne of feelings I needed to express and I was sick of talking.
Oh. My. Cigarillos.
When you connect with something meaningful in your life, whether it be a person, a career or an art form, the stars feel like they’re truly aligning for the first time.
My relationship with photography started out very tentatively at first.
I produced a lot of “photographic art” mainly because I hadn’t learned how to take portraits yet. They’re a helluva lot harder than they look.
Then when my son was born in 2008 I discovered a wonderful relationship between children and cameras. So I took lots of photos of my friends’ kids and they said they were great, and then one day while I was scoffing carrot cake in a cafe with my Mother’s Group it hit me that I could do this as a career.
Of course I had NO idea how much work lay before me – that’s another article entirely – but it felt like a possibility at least.
I finally launched my business ‘Shannon McDonald Photography’ in 2009 and specialise in family and children’s photography, weddings and general portraiture. And I love it. I think having had a somewhat tough time myself makes me a very empathic photographer.
I like people. I care about people. And I care about telling their stories as much as I care about telling my own. And looking back, I now realise that I was always a people watcher. When I was little I would apparently tug on my Mum’s sleeve and say, “look at the pretty giiiiiiiirl”.
But as wonderful as my current situation is, I would never assume to write this article and say that I am living happily ever after.
I have to work on my self-confidence every day. Every morning I could think of a million reasons to hate myself. Maybe it’s habit. Maybe a ghost from the past. But it’s definitely my “default”.
One way I have of dealing with this is by setting time limits. Sometimes life gets on top of all of us. Go with it. Throw your hands in the air and say,
Today I have no confidence! Tomorrow I’m getting back on the horse but today I’m allowing myself to feel like crap”.
By doing this you actually allow yourself to feel your feelings without letting them move in and get comfortable. Because they’re just guests, remember. Tomorrow they have to move on.
When I blow out those (gulp) 40 candles in January I will save a piece of cake for that little government housing girl who took a few courageous steps towards making a better life for herself.
And I’ll make a wish for another little person. My son. I will wish that when and if his self-confidence falters through life, that he will at least have the tools to pick himself back up again and keep going when it does.
I’ve finally accepted that I’m an OK gal. I’m not rich, I’m certainly not thin and I didn’t come from money or prestige, but I have a rocking family, great friends and a job that I adore. That’s not too bad for 40, is it?
Visit Shannon's website: Shannon McDonald Photography
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