Girl Interrupted…by Lack of Confidence

Women are more likely to suffer from a lack of confidence and negative self-belief. We would never say to another person the things we say to ourselves in our worst moments. Well some of us might, but generally, people are not monsters. So where do these doubts come from?

Nothing Worth Saying?

Do you ever find yourself thinking you’ve got nothing to say or that nobody else would be interested?

Ask any actor, humans are fascinating. That’s why we attempt to make a living pretending to be one. Every word, every gesture, every thought that flashes across a face is inherently interesting. It’s why people stare on the tube. We can’t help watching people just to see what they’re going to do next. Yet when it comes to self-belief we think no one is interested in us at all.

No one would want or need to hear what we have to say anyway.

Yes, some men suffer from this too but it’s overwhelmingly a problem for women. Why? We are educated and intelligent and beginning to see recognition of our talents and abilities. Though we are far from equal, my generation has a lot to thank the previous ones for. Except there’s a problem. There is still a stigma when women open their mouths.

Private or public speaking?

Private and public speaking have always been two different spheres, the hallowed halls of public oratory have long been reserved for men as far back as the ancient Greeks. See Mary Beard’s excellent book, Women and Power for more.

close up in front of microphone

And yes research shows that women do talk more. But these are in private spaces, in discussions of self and relationships. We’ve only recently-and by that I mean the last 100 years or so -gained access to the public spaces where our rights are defined. And even now women around the world are ridiculed for allowing their voices to be heard. Criticisms often centre around a choice of clothes and hair, dismissing and undermining real arguments and opinions. As Naomi Wolf’s now-classic The Beauty Myth says, our currency has always been in our looks and not in our words.  

Of course, it seems like we talk more. There is a subconscious rebellion in some quarters of society that gets loud and defensive when a woman speaks at all. In other quarters it’s not so subconscious.

No wonder it’s difficult for women to get beyond crippling self-doubt and to speak out loud. There is no shame in it. There is nothing wrong with you or how you express yourself to the world.

It takes time to unlearn patterns of behaviour. It takes time to silence that voice in your head that says, “I’ll say something in a minute. Or maybe I shouldn’t, they’ll of thought of it anyway.” It seems to have always been there. The same voice declares you an imposter, says you lack authority.

So many of us are afraid that someday someone will figure out the “truth” that we’re only pretending to be good at what we do. If we even credit ourselves that much.

When it’s easier not to speak

In drama school, there was a tutor who would ask questions and not move on till they’d been answered.

She would stare me down until I finished a sentence. When I asked why she said, “you never get to the end. You trail off as if you expect someone to interrupt you”.

What a sobering realisation.

Crowded lecture room with hands raised

It wasn’t so much a lack of confidence, it was just easier to let someone else pick up the thread and articulate it. But I hadn’t realised quite how much I did that.

I am not diffident or shy. I’m not even all that quiet despite perceptions. Get me on a subject that interests me and I’ll talk your ear off. You’ll wish you hadn’t brought it up. And yet. In a conversation, I’m more likely to defer.

I‘m not the only one to experience this. It happens in meetings up and down the land too. But half the problem seems to be a perceived lack of authority. We’re not always noticed when we do speak.

“The man had spoken at greater length in support of her ideas than she had in raising them…I asked each one, privately, who they thought had most influenced the group. The two other women named the woman who had come up with the ideas adopted, but all the men named the man who had spoken in favor [sic] of those ideas — except that man himself. He named the woman.”

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics, Georgetown University Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work

There is an expectation that men should have the ideas. They should be speaking.  

And yet, female participation is more likely to be overestimated when talking in groups, regardless of how much we speak.

Self-belief and the power of your voice

I also didn’t know how much self-belief is tied to the power of your voice. Speaking your goals out loud gives you the power to believe that you can achieve them.

Woman silhouette punching the air erasing self-doubt

Whether we achieve our dreams or not, it’s important to articulate what we want. It makes it real.

Learning beats lack of confidence

Ever felt discouraged from applying for a job by one or two requirements or some experience you didn’t have?

Studies have shown that women are far more likely to feel this way. We also know that intelligent girls and women are more likely to suffer from a lack of confidence. We are quicker to feel self-doubt and give up. And it’s not because we are not equal in gifts or talents to our male counterparts.

Research has revealed the interpretation of difficulty as the main culprit for low self-belief. Bright girls believed their abilities were set and unchangeable. Bright boys believed in an ability to grow and change through practice.

Or rather, this is what we’ve been taught. 

As a woman, if you do well in a subject or follow the rules you’re a good student or clever.  Boys get the opposite. If they would only pay attention they’d learn. So when something is difficult for a girl it must follow that they’re not clever or can’t learn.

Now we may know that these things are not true. But it doesn’t stop self-doubt. It lurks somewhere beneath the surface, ready to jump out at you when you least expect it. But just like boys, we grow in confidence as our abilities grow.

Have a little compassion for yourself

Many different influences go into the forming of a character. But whatever way you look at it, boys and girls are not brought up to believe the same things about their power, abilities and talents.

This is not to say that every girl has a childhood of oppression and lack of confidence. But limiting self-belief comes from somewhere and it can affect your whole life.

We need to have compassion for ourselves and recognise that learning takes time. It’s worth taking a few minutes to examine your thoughts whenever you are harsh with yourself and ask why.

Why do you think you should know this right away?

Who are you comparing yourself to and what’s their real situation?

Why is it OK to speak to yourself that way?

Low self-belief is not all our fault, it’s embedded into every layer of our society. Even algorithms are sexist.

The world often needs reminding of our self-worth. Churchill stomped on the Equal Pay Act, it didn’t become law until 1963. We’re still fighting the classification of unskilled labour in the healthcare sector. The medical profession didn’t remove hysteria as a condition in itself from textbooks until 1980.

Confident women protesting and a Women's Equality Party sign

There have been generations of women who thought they were volatile and weak with low self-belief. In need of guarding, watching, protecting. It’s hardly a wonder that many women still feel a lack of confidence. We live with the lingering effects.

Finally

The next time you’re procrastinating on a job application, telling yourself you don’t have all the requirements, think about the men who will apply. They know with full confidence they can learn what they need to know.

So can you.

When you doubt the value of your words, speak them anyway. You never know what might happen. Probably someone else will think it’s a good idea though.

You got this written in chalk on pavement

There’s no magical advice that can get us over self-doubt. It has to come from inside. The only thing we can do is act confident until we can feel it. Practice means progress.

Or if I may quote West Wing for a minute:

Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be given to you. Put it another way: fake it ’til you make it.

Leo Mcgarry in The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin

What do you do to boost your confidence?

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