There’s been a lot of debate about why women lose their confidence. There’s even been debate about whether we do, with many arguing that the “confidence gap” is purely a myth. However, as a women, mother of two young women, friend, coworker, and confidant to even more women, my anecdotal experience suggests feeling insecure in our professional roles is true for far too many of us.
Somewhere between graduation and the workplace, I lost my confidence. I had it in high school, where I excelled in art, music, and academics. Studies show that girls are just as likely to take high level math and science classes and we pass AP tests in nearly equal numbers. I had it in college, winning several scholarships and awards, and graduating with honors. In fact, our gender makes up 57% of secondary education graduates and we are attaining advanced degrees at higher rates than our male counterparts.
It wouldn’t be until I entered corporate America that I would start to doubt myself. Ironically, this self doubt crept in through well-intentioned advice, mostly from male colleagues who saw potential in me and wanted to help me advance. And, I opened the door to welcome it, wanting to improve and become like them. Neither of us understood what the outcome would be, and neither of us intended it to become what it did. In a short amount of time, I evolved from feeling I was good at most things to second guessing whether I could successfully do anything. I lost objectivity for evaluating my own work. I became nervous about presenting ideas to colleagues and clients. I even started to fear leaving my house and going into the office, my mind fixating on negative narratives about what others were thinking of me.
That’s when friends began telling me I really needed to work on my confidence. Again, I opened the door wide asking my colleagues, mostly male, how to do it. They replied with all the tips that work for them and I tried implementing everyone. But, the more I tried, the worse things got. If I was quiet in a meeting, I needed to be more dominant. When I tried being more dominant, it turned out that I needed to be more of a team player. When I was accommodating, I looked weak. When I was demanding, I came off as bitchy. With each new criticism, I continued to internalize that the problem must be who I am and that to solve it I would need to become something different entirely.
It was a vicious cycle that only got worse until I realized something that now seems obvious—one cannot have confidence in themselves if they are not being themselves. The thought was sparked by a new mentor who asked me why I thought I lacked confidence. I replied that it was just how I am, but after the conversation, I realized that couldn’t be true because, in fact, I hadn’t always been this way.
It would take some time, but that insight changed everything. I made a promise to quit trying to act like others and instead focus on my best qualities. I made a list of them, but to my disappointment, they didn’t include leadership, decisiveness, influence, or other characteristics of confidence. Instead, my list featured words like good listener, curious, empathetic, and nurturing. I consoled myself with the fact that it did describe a good person. So, I went to work being a good person.
Again, in a short amount of time, I evolved. I started to feel better about myself. My negative thoughts became quieter. Coworkers began confiding in me and showing more trust in my ideas, opinions, and work. The anxiety that had nearly crippled me in meetings was dissipating, now only being felt at the beginning and leaving quickly. I became more present, more aware. This new awareness lead to better solutions and better reactions to them. I had turned a vicious cycle into a positive one.
As I continue to embrace my personal strengths, the more self-assured I become. If I were to make my list today, I’m not 100% confident that confidence would make the cut, but risk-taking, poise, and self-esteem would. And, I’d probably lightly pencil confidence in at the very bottom.