When I was four-years-old, I saw a commercial for Disney World and decided I wanted to visit Cinderella Castle. I started telling my extended family that my parents were taking me to Orlando (much to my parents’ surprise). One year later, my dad took my hand and walked me through the breezeway beneath the princess’ towers.
But somewhere between five and 30, I lost that unwavering confidence. I never considered myself beautiful, smart or strong. I was quiet and invisible. I worried that if I appeared too confident, others would think I was vain and shallow. I had to be perfect, of course, but others didn’t need to know how hard I worked at that perfectionism. I never wanted them to see how inadequate I truly was.
So, even though I had built a successful life for myself on the verge of 30, I felt completely dissatisfied and unhappy. With such a skewed self-perception, it’s mind boggling that I had even accomplished that much. I pretended to fly under the radar in my career, knowing full well I was capable of more. So, with the help of a life coach and a supportive network, I re-entered the job market.
Am I Qualified?
Only this time I had a new rule: apply for jobs I didn’t think I was 100 percent qualified for. Odds were the reason I kept feeling stifled in my career was because I was applying for jobs I could already do. And the recent statistic – men apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 percent of them – made it seem like men were playing this game differently.
To promote encouragement, any time a friend and I hesitated to apply for a job because of those dreaded “qualifications,” we would raise our fist in the air and shout, “think like a man!” in a deep voice. It worked. We both ended up in jobs we were completely competent at but with ample opportunity for growth.
I may have surpassed the application barrier, but I was quick to re-apply that confidence covering inadequacy mask in the work place. While my life coach and I worked on conflict resolution techniques and leadership development, I started to notice an interesting trend. Many of the male colleagues that I worked with had what I would deem an inflated sense of ego.
Regardless of their competency levels, these colleagues appeared confident in their ability to handle something while touting their “awesomeness” on the regular. Sometimes, this was done in an intentionally joking manner, but they never questioned their abilities in front of others, however skewed their perception was. And I noticed something else, too. No one else questioned those abilities either, at least within the company of others.
Playing the Game
There’s nothing that motivates me more than competition. And while I was separately working on enhancing my leadership skills, I thought these male counterparts had an advantage over how my performance was seen in the work place, merely because of how they carried themselves. And while I’m not one for office politics and playing the game, this strategy was intriguing, so I tossed in my die and let it roll.
I spoke as if I could do anything. Whether or not I believed that hardly mattered. It was how I carried myself that I was focused on. So, in meetings when questioned whether I could handle a new role, I responded without doubt and assured the group I had it covered (even when internally I was questioning myself). It never occurred to me this might get me into trouble, especially if I took on a role or project too big for my own head and failed miserably, in front of peers and superiors, no less. Because in my mind, if my male counterparts could do it, and even when they did fail, still somehow succeed, then I was certainly capable.
This perspective easily became ingrained in everyday behaviors. My voice no longer wavered in meetings. I held my head high and stood up straight when presenting my case. I did not cower when it seemed someone disagreed with me. And I stopped taking things personal. Amidst all of this, I was still the same me. I could still have attention-to-detail while seeing the big picture. I could tap into my emotional intelligence and empathy when needed, and I was careful to consider all necessary perspectives for buy-in when making decisions.
Professional Becomes Personal
And then I noticed this seeping into my personal life, too. A friend once joked, “You think you’re amazing, don’t you?” And I said, “I am. I am amazing.” Irrefutable.
When going through a break-up recently, I was confronted with the usual doubts: what is wrong with me? what could I have done better? why am I not good enough? But as soon as I had these thoughts, I immediately countered and even said in the midst of the break-up: That’s not right. I am amazing. I am beautiful, smart and driven. My counterpart fortunately agreed. The relationship ended for different reasons.
But this went beyond just having confidence in myself – I started standing up for myself, too. On one occasion, someone asked me why I give so much in relationships, and I said (resolutely), “That’s who I am.” Without question.
I started playing this confidence game because I thought it was unfair that only my male colleagues should have this inflated sense of ego and be rewarded for it. But then I started having fun with it, and I realized appearing confident did not make me seem vain or shallow. It made me respected and valued. Because in pretending to be confident, I was really only showing the world my authentic self.
The mask came off, and I could finally just be comfortable being me. And in pretending to be confident, I actually became confident. I saw my own potential and not because I was unworthy but because I had so much to give. So that now when I say the words, “I can do it. I’ve got it,” I actually believe it.
I will always have self-doubt, but its voice is becoming harder and harder to hear these days. When I am challenged, I don’t back away or fall into a shame spiral. I may not always stand in the most confident manner and my voice may waver on occasion, but I always mean what I say. I am not fearing rejection. I am embracing it because this is who I am.