Part I—The Problem
Learning That Failure is Not Fatal
You all know exactly what I’m talking about. That constant internal critical voice telling you that you should have said or not said something or that you should have done or not done something. Harping at you that you’re not good enough, you’re going to embarrass yourself, you’re going to fail, you’re a fraud, and you don’t deserve your success. Holding you back. Making you afraid. Doubting yourself.
How does this play out in the professional world? Let me break it down for you.
- Women suffer from self-doubt. We question our abilities and downplay our achievements. We aren’t comfortable confronting our own power. We don’t own the right to be the leader.
- Women are afraid to risk and fail. We try for perfection, believing that competence is enough to put us on top. This is a fundamental misconception. Confidence trumps competence every time. If our greatest fears are realized, and we do fail or receive negative feedback, our self-confidence and self-esteem plummet. Men, on the other hand, are better able to shake it off or blame external factors.
- Women feel like frauds. We constantly underestimate ourselves. We suffer from imposter syndrome and fear we are about to be found out. Women who have reached admirable positions cannot shake the feeling that at any moment they will be unmasked as incompetent pretenders.
- Women are unable to rely on past achievements. Far from resting on our laurels—or even allowing ourselves to enjoy them—we ascribe our success to a confluence of luck and the efforts of others, while men will credit their innate skills and abilities.
- Women lack self-confidence. We allow our fears to hold us back—we don’t put ourselves forward, challenge ourselves, reach for opportunities, take bold risks, choose growth, or insist on a seat at the table.
Telling that incessant internal nagging voice to shut up or overriding it is one of the hardest challenges women face. But it’s necessary if we’re going to learn the most important lesson: Take action. If you succeed, terrific. If you fail, so what? Failure is not fatal.
Society has been drilling male supremacy into us since we were little girls. The internalization of historic gender stereotyping has convinced us to buy into the patriarchy by giving away our power. How often have you been too afraid try something for fear that you’d be humiliated or come across as too pushy and aggressive? All too often we are our own worst enemies.
From childhood on, we’re constantly told to be good little girls, to behave like a lady, to defer to the boys, to please the grownups to secure their approval, and not to be bossy, outspoken, aggressive or disruptive. Meanwhile, “boys will be boys,” rough housing, hitting, yelling, interrupting, pushing girls and other boys aside.
Think about it.
Let’s go back to our elementary schools for a moment. At that age, girls are developmentally more advanced in the skills prized for excelling in school. We have more advanced verbal and fine-motor skills, longer attention spans and greater social awareness. In contrast, the boys are rambunctious, have difficulty sitting still for long periods of time and frequently disrupt the classroom. Girls quickly understand that teachers value them for behaving properly and being “little miss perfect.” They become approval junkies, vying for praise and validation. In their quest for perfection, girls avoid “acting out.”
As a result, girls never learn that taking risks, making mistakes, and disappointing the expectations of authority figures are all part of the path towards self-confidence. Instead, we live in fear of being ridiculed for making a mistake, doing something that causes the loss of approval, and, most terrifyingly, of failing. And if we do make a mistake or experience a failure, girls spend endless amounts of time and energy beating themselves up and dwelling on that defeat, reinforcing self-doubt and risk-aversive behavior. Letting ourselves fall into that thinking only feeds our internal critical voice.
The ability to accept criticism, get penalized for bad behavior, and take failure in stride is never incorporated into most girls’ makeup. Boys, on the other hand, receive fairly constant criticism and disapproval for their behavior, allowing them to become accustomed to scolding, disapproval and even failure while inuring them to the idea that only perfection is rewarded. They learn to slough it all off and move forward.
Not us. Girls go to great lengths to prevent exposure to one of life’s greatest lessons: Failure is not fatal. The world does not stop spinning, life goes on, we are not shunned and shamed, and we survive to fight another day.
Instead, as children we needed to experience any number of failures and defeats to acquire the knowledge that you can brush yourself off, persevere, compete and succeed. That engenders self-confidence.
Well, you might say, that’s all well and good, but I’m a grown up now. As a child, I did not allow myself to repeatedly fail and persevere. Or, I have already failed more than once, and it has left me insecure and fearful. I never want to experience that again!
As a result, I allow self-doubt, risk-aversive behavior, self-sabotage, and the ‘impostor syndrome’ to keep me from speaking up boldly, taking risks outside my comfort zone, taking credit for my accomplishments, asking for promotions, snagging a chair at the table, or laying claim to leadership roles.
What do I do now? Am I doomed to a life of fear and self-sabotage?
Stay tuned for Part 2: How to start conquering your self-doubt so that you can live your life with self-confidence and reach your full potential.
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— Linda Smith (@meanestwoman) July 18, 2017