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Confidence — whether it is genetic or not, whether there is a serious nature versus nurture divide in its development, whether men really have more of it than women — it didn’t really matter to me. I was always a good girl — good grades, good at sports, didn’t cause any trouble — and I did mostly well throughout school, so I never thought I was an unconfident girl. I did have my own share of doubts and insecurities, but so did everyone else, and I just took those things that caused me such doubt and insecurities to be things that weren’t mine. So, I would take part in all sporting events, but I would convince people that I absolutely hated dancing. I would love reading all the plays, but I would never audition for the role. I would sing all the time in my room, but I seldom took it to the stage.
A decade later, when I look back at most of these actions and decisions, or lack thereof, I can tell that I never really hated dancing, and that I would have actually loved acting and performing in general. Instead, I ignored so many things that I would have liked to do as things I was just “not good at” simply because I was too scared to suck at them.
It wasn’t until I read The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman that I identified some of my deep-rooted fears of failure, my incessant perfectionism, and a zillion other feelings and traits which then suddenly became clear. There they were, systematically laid down before me. Each with an explanation. I began to meet, and challenge, my own ideas and assumptions about myself, one by one. After I started to understand my own self and my issues more closely, I started consciously trying to change the way I thought about myself and what I could do.
Here is what was wrong with me, what I learnt from that book, and how I fixed it. I hope this helps you in your journey to a more confident, fulfilled life.
Do you see someone in a suit, walking so that everyone moves aside, strongly making his point heard over everyone else’s, walking out in style? Or something of that sort?
I was always told that confidence was something similar to assertiveness, almost like aggression, something you could see when in someone who is sticking to their guns. While I admired a lot of men who exhibited these qualities, and thought they were highly driven, extremely intelligent and born leaders, following those footsteps didn’t make a lot of sense to me because I liked staying quiet and listening to everyone’s opinions on a subject before speaking up, I genuinely enjoyed collaborations and I, perhaps as a result of my lack of complete confidence, usually assumed that others could be better qualified for a certain task. However, I didn’t just stop there. I also just kept on listening to others instead of contributing, I relied entirely on collaborations instead of spearheading my own projects, and I was always unsure of what I was doing.
It took me a while to understand that perhaps confidence manifests itself in a slightly different form in women, and that I did not necessarily have to act in ways that I was not comfortable with just to make myself a more confident person. Research has shown that women who exhibit classic signs of confidence — such as being bold and assertive, the same qualities we admire in our male leaders — can actually be perceived as too bitchy, rough and lead to the woman being disliked, even by women. Basically, being “traditionally confident” as a woman can have a backlash effect, and that conundrum of trying to be confident only to cause a backlash makes the prospect of even merely emulating confidence punishing.
It took me a while to learn that perhaps that was not what true confidence was. Perhaps, being confident didn’t mean that I had to mirror my confident male role model. Perhaps, my confidence could be quiet. Perhaps, I didn’t need to speak first and loudest to make my voice heard, I could also listen to others’ opinions. Perhaps, gentle persuasion was a better way of dealing with a disagreement than direct assertiveness. Perhaps, my vulnerabilities weren’t my weaknesses that I had to hide, but strengths that could help me connect with my peers better. Perhaps, my whole understanding of confidence till now was entirely wrong.
As put by Kirsten Gillibrand,
You don’t want to turn women into men. You want to make women celebrate their own strong points. They just need to recognise they are not deficient in any way. They just need to know what it takes to be successful and define that in a way they fully understand.
To elaborate that point, let’s consider this. A Stanford Business School studyshows that women who can switch between their traditionally feminine qualities, defined as collaboration, process orientation, persuasion and humility, and their traditionally masculine qualities, defined as aggressiveness, assertiveness and confidence, perform the best at work — better than their male counterparts, and their female counterparts who only exhibit either traditionally female or male qualities. This is a nice reminder for all the women who think their approach is too soft to be confident, because we’re going to need them as well.
On a side note, the study apparently didn’t show similar benefits for men embracing more traditionally feminine strengths, which, I think, is an unfortunate result of our society’s need to view men as the tough, independent warrior.
BEING A REBEL WITH A CAUSE
I mentioned that I was a good girl, but I was such a good girl that I picked my college majors based on what my family wanted me to pick. Sure, I was the one making the decision, but it was not an independent one at all. Law school was, needless to say, difficult, but it was difficult in an entirely different way for me. I did fine academically, but it was the burden of having followed someone else’s choices at such a crucial point in life that really made it hard for me. Unsurprisingly, it also made me feel like I was not really cut out for law school myself, but I wanted to continue being the golden child so I did what I was supposed to do. Sounds familiar?
Being a good girl and always staying in line has its own set of benefits and rewards, and research has shown that girls tends to pick up on these cues pretty early on in life, even when they’re really young. As someone with a younger brother, I can see this trait play out in real life. He has never been shy to say “no” or to get his way no matter what. While I agonise over weeks about what our parents might think, he just shrugs and gets back to whatever he wants to do.
This need to please adults forces us girls to continue making decisions that won’t upset our superiors, thus forcing us not only to never challenge authority, but also to want to be really good at whatever it is that we’re doing. When I looked at this never-ending pattern in my own life — from trying to excel in primary school, to not letting my emotions show at home, to picking out majors and sports, sometimes even friends, based on what others would think of me if I didn’t — I didn’t like what I saw in front of the mirror.
One particular chat with my brother when I was getting mad at our parents for not letting me go to film school brought along with it an epiphany. After hearing my constant bickering about how they were so unfair to stop me from going, and how much I had really wanted to at the time, and a few other things that I had not stopped repeating for years after I started law school, my brother simply said:
If you really wanted to go, why didn’t you?
Yeah, if I really wanted to go, why didn’t I? That level of defiance was never instilled in me. That ability to simply say “no” and stick to my opinion, to havea communicable, steadfast opinion at all, was all very foreign to me, despite the fact that my brother and I were brought up equally.
What helped me break out of this habit was to be more vocal about my emotions, choices and decisions, with everyone. If I didn’t feel like going somewhere, I said so. If I didn’t feel like eating something, I wouldn’t eat it. If I had to break a few conventions to get where I wanted to be, I broke them. It’s called being a rebel with a cause.
It’s important to know that this is not an easy process. Start really small. As you start noticing that people don’t take all your decisions personally, that they won’t turn on your for not liking pasta, that your parents will understand if you want to do something your own way, it will get easier. You can’t please everyone, but you can please yourself.
THINK LESS, ACT MORE
When I say I ruminated over silly things for hours at a time, really picture a cow chewing that cud over and over again, like it gets paid for it.
It got to a point where I would stop before any exciting project just because I would start to explore all the possible possibilities that could happen, and I would be frozen on the spot because what if the topic was not relevant, and what if the source was not that credible in the first place, and what about that casual nod Abe gave when I mentioned it, maybe it is not that interesting, and oh my god, what if people laugh at me? This chatter, this needless need to be a perfectionist with every project of mine and to please everyone, stopped me from ever attempting anything, and that inaction in turn made me less confident about everything every passing day.
There is only one antidote to paralysis, and that is movement.
If confidence does not reside in you naturally, you have to cook it up. The confidence to do something can only come from doing that very thing. Here is an example.
When I was a child, I was not very good at math. Funnily, not many people tried to pass on that “girls suck at math” stereotype at me because many of my teachers and tutors were women. I developed that perception of myself all by myself. It was a fact, a trait of mine set in stone. Luckily for me, my parents believed in paying extra attention to our weaker areas, so instead of giving up, I had to attend extra tuition classes to make up for it. Letting it go was never a choice. In fact, I had to do it every single day, especially during vacations. I didn’t improve that same year. I was still pretty terrible. But I kept going. Fast forward to tenth grade, and I ended up scoring the highest grade. The kid who was about to flunk fourth grade math, the kid with a mental block, the kid who always treated math as a weakness made it — all because she kept at it.
Being a perfectionist is detrimental in many ways, but it is especially terrible because it negates the very existence of improvement and progress. You are not a terrible driver, you are a terrible driver today. You are not a bad public speaker, you are just one today. I am not a great writer, I am just not that greattoday. And that is okay. Tomorrow, we will be better than today, and day after? A month later? A year later? We will only know if we keep at it.
Confidence is borne out of trial and error, out of repeating an activity over and over again, out of the self-assurance that comes when you’ve done something and survived. Confidence is, in fact, also borne out of failure, because failing something signifies your trial, your ability to take criticism, and your survival. Confidence, above all, is the ability to say “fuck this shit” and turn a thought into action, regardless of the outcome. There is nothing worse than waiting or whining till you are perfect to begin something.