Think Yourself Limitless

The American writer, Sally Kempston, once wrote, ‘the hardest enemy to fight is the one which has outposts in your head.’

You could argue that this enemy in your head - this limiting, demoralising voice - is a product of a systemic, patriarchal privilege designed to keep women in their place by shaping their thoughts and directing their self-talk. You could. And you’d probably be right. But that is not what I am arguing here. Here, I am arguing that for whatever reason that curtailing, derailing voice exists, we have the power, agency and freedom to compose our own narrative and control our inner voice. Only we have the power to think ourselves limitless.

I’ve always considered myself to be a confident, assertive, self-assured person (and that is certainly what I project). However, there has always been something, something holding me back. This ‘something’ is me – or my inner voice. Regardless of my achievements, that inner voice always chips away, questions everything, attributes success to luck or accident and makes me doubt myself. With my inner-voice in charge, I think myself limited.

This year I took a huge leap and left my Deputy Headship of nine years in a school that I loved. I set up my own business and embarked on a rollercoaster of a career as an educational consultant. It’s been a blast, and I’ve learned more than I can could ever have imagined. However, I yearn to be a headteacher. Being a headteacher has been my ambition from day one of teaching. It’s the ultimate goal.

That leap into the unknown took a lot of courage. My inner voice warned me of the irrevocable damage I would do to my career and my credibility, but with the help of my super-supportive husband Nathan and the unstoppable #WomenEd movement, I did it anyway.

Despite the incredible experiences I have had, the people I have met and the expertise I have gained, I have had some low moments. Moments when that inner voice has seemed very loud. One such moment was January of this year when I went to the WomenEd career development event at Coleshill Heath Primary School in Birmingham. I felt like I had never been further away from my goal of being a headteacher, plus I was grappling with the grief and uncertainty of caring for my nanna who has dementia. It was a tough time.

The day was great, superb speeches from Hannah Wilson, Annemarie Williams and Anna Ambrose all lifted me, but at the end of the day, I was still feeling fragile. That was when the wonderful Jill Berry gave her closing keynote and took us through a guided visualisation.

I confess that I was sceptical. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Jill was very kind and told the audience that a guided visualisation was not for everyone, so feel free to opt-out. I decided to opt-out. However, I didn’t want Jill to see me with my eyes open, so I closed them. Big mistake. The second my eyes closed, I was there – in a green, verdant wood, grass underfoot, light dancing through the canopy of leaves overhead. I made my way to a clearing and there was a cave, and in front of the cave was a woman. The oldest woman I had ever seen.

At first, I thought it was me and I panicked, because I never want to get that wrinkled. Then I realised it was my nanna. A beautiful, ancient version of my small, frail nanna. She looked up at me with eyes like moonlight and I was simultaneously elated and heartbroken. I felt like I had been given a gift; something I had lost had been returned to me. I could feel my tears falling but had no power to wipe them away.

Prompted by Jill’s voice, I asked my nanna my burning question: Will I be a headteacher? She paused, smiled, looked up and me and said, ‘yes, and that will be but the start of your story.’

At that moment, I opened my eyes – staggered, breathless, shaken – and saw Jill, crying too – each of us locked in our own private worlds, but at the same time sharing, along with all the other women in the room, this electrifying emotional moment of personal discovery and grief. It was a moment I will never forget.

I needed about a week to recover. As I did, I began to reflect and realise what it was that my nanna was saying to me. She had made me realise that I had limited myself by fixating on a certain goal. I had always seen headship as the zenith, the end-game, the ultimate career goal. And yet my nanna seemed to be saying that I should see it as the start of a journey. It made me realise that I had been conceptualising headship as the last job I’d ever have. I’m 41. I have more of my career ahead of me than behind me. Why was I seeing headship as the limit of my potential? An entire world of possibility had just been opened up in front of me and when I thought about it, I knew she was right. Hey, why in the hell shouldn’t I be the Secretary of State for Education?

I had been thinking myself limited. And I knew why. It was my inner voice. Always bringing me down, chipping away at my confidence, convincing me that I wasn’t cut out for the world of education. And it’s so bloody clever; it knows my fears, my history, my secrets. It talks with words that sound so much like truth that it’s impossible to ignore. But they are distorted truths, designed to derail.

Here’s a typical example of me vs my inner voice. And in this example, eventually, I win.

Are you boring everyone with your self-absorbed ramblings again Carly?

It might seem like I’m talking about myself, but in actual fact I’m using my experience to highlight an important point about how women can be derailed by their inner voice.

Yeah, right. If that’s how you want to dress up your blatantly arrogant ‘me, me, me’ talk, you go ahead. No-one’s convinced.

You don’t understand.

What? What don’t I understand? That secretly deep down you’re an egotist who is desperate for everyone to like her?

That’s not it.

What is it then? Oh, I know. It’s your working-class roots. Girls like you, from Corby – one the government’s ‘cold spots’ and the town with the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe

- that’s old data!

- are never going to amount to much, which is why you’re constantly seeking validation by giving speeches and writing blogs about yourself. How embarrassing.

You’re wrong. I’m proud of my working-class roots, I just don’t want them to limit me.

Oh? Okay, so what is it you want to achieve? Please tell me you’re not banging on about being a headteacher again?

Um, yes.

Oh, come on. You’ve not got the experience to be a headteacher. You were a deputy in a girls’ school.

Actually, I’ve worked in four schools, and this year, in my new role, I’ve worked for MATs, for TSAs, for the DfE -

- yes, yes, but as a ‘consultant’

So? That’s okay.

No-one likes a ‘consultant.’

I’ve found it to be fine.

Have you read the bashing people give ‘consultants’ on Twitter?


Yes, you have. And you know they’re right.

But the opportunities I’ve had have been amazing –

- Not the same as actually being in a school though, is it? You’ve lost any credibility you once had by doing this ridiculous thing, but to be fair, you were never really headteacher material anyway.

What? Why not?

Well, you only got a 2:1.

It’s a degree!

From an ex-polytechnic.

I don’t think that really matters these days.

And what was it in Carly? Was it… media studies?

And politics!

Oh…media studies and politics? Funny how on your CV you write it as politics and media. You’re so fake.

That’s enough. I know what you’re doing and I refuse to let you do this anymore. I am going to celebrate my achievements loudly and proudly knowing that if I do, it will inspire others to do the same. I am going to think myself limitless. And I’m going to start now. I am an educated person!

With a 2:1

I have a Masters from Cambridge!

They let anyone in these days.

I got a distinction!

Yeah, but it wasn’t the top mark in the class, was it?

I’ve taught for twenty years!

In quite easy schools, to be fair.

I can do anything!

As long as it’s not too intellectual.

I am a proud member of WomenEd!

That bunch of loony lefties?

STOP! I can take you criticising me, but I will NOT tolerate you criticising WomenEd. That’s it. I am going to give you a name and that name is Doris.


Yes, Doris. Now Doris, leave! You are banished, exiled, rejected. Leave!

I’ll be back….

That may be true. But when you are, you will find me stronger. You will find me triumphant. You will find me confident. How? Because I am supported by inspirational educators who want me to succeed. Because my success is their success. For every one of us who celebrates our achievements, we elevate others to do the same. WomenEd is a collective endeavour, a family, a tribe. We lift each other up and give each other a safe and non-judgemental space to explore, agonise, celebrate and shine.

We will no longer think ourselves limited. We will think our ourselves limitless.

Post script

This blog is a written version of a speech I gave on 28th April at The Brunts Academy at a #WomenEd Leadmeet organised by Natalie Aveyard.

Doris took on a life of her own after the event. There were various hashtags: #sodoffdoris #ditchdoris #getlostdoris etc. There was even a counter-campaign #savedoris.

During the event, I hoodwinked the audience into flapping their elbows in order to summon their inner voice. Here's the picture:


It all begins and ends in your mind. What you give power to, has power over you, if you allow it. (quote shared on Twitter by @Actionjackson)

inner voice quote

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