I read these two articles on female self-depreciation earlier today (Self depreciation and the female cyclist ; Being honest about your strengths) and they struck a resounding cord. Both pieces are spot on and thought-provoking - I encourage all my female friends to read one, if not both.
They clearly highlight the all-too-common habit of perfectly sensible, grown women to put down their abilities or (more often than not) completely write themselves off. At the risk of repeating what has already been written (they have already put it better than I ever could), the issue deserves some attention.
And you don’t need to be a cyclist: in my opinion, this just as easily applies to a lot of women in their day-to-day lives.
Myself? I'm guilty as charged.
It’s comforting to read Boyd and Stacey’s articles and realize that there are other women out there (especially ones I would look at and think “wow, you’re so impressive!”) who actually think just like I do. It’s both reassuring and worrying to know I’m not the only one who puts down their abilities to themselves and other people (be it to do with work or sport) for fear of… fear of what exactly?
People laughing at me? Being told I’m not fast enough? Being told that what I’ve achieved isn’t actually anything special? Being told I can’t play with the big girls? Being told I’m not cut out for the job?
In reality, how often does that happen? Rarely if at all. So what are we women apologizing for?
If many are like me, then perhaps a great number of females are so concerned by [failure, rejection, humiliation, you name it- insert appropriate female trait here] that they set the bar deliberately low for themselves and convince themselves they can’t do something that they probably can.
I spent a long time avoiding joining a cycling club as I was worried about being dropped (I was the first time – it wasn’t a big deal in the end), not competing in races as I was too scared of being laughed at or that I wouldn’t be able to finish (I still do this even though I’ve never not finished a race) and I spend my time constantly comparing my abilities to those of my (pretty bloody incredible) husband – this last one in particular is recipe for disaster.
I don’t see the Frenchman worrying about being dropped on the 5:15am smashfest (it happens) or about being beaten in a race (it also happens, believe it or not). Similarly, my male colleagues at the same level as me would never tell themselves they cant do the task put in front of them, but when given the same thing, the first thing I do is panic. Similarly, this fear stops me putting my hand up for anything new or challenging out of the gods-honest belief I wont be able to manage it.
If you asked me to describe my cycling ability, I’d say I was pretty average for Asia, pretty rubbish anywhere else. As a triathlete, I’d say I was ok, for a beginner. As a lawyer, I’d say I was crap.
In reality, neither my sporting nor legal skills are going to set anybody’s world on fire, but I am not bad, I am not rubbish and I am most-probably better than the average person on the street (depending on the street…please don’t pick the average person in Boulder for instance!). So why can’t I just be as proud of my progress and accept I’m doing pretty well as I am?
Perhaps if I gave myself half a chance and stopped telling myself I’m as good as useless, it’s likely I could be half decent at both my job and sport…. Hang on, see what I did there?! Why did I say 'half decent'? Why didn’t I say ‘good’? Or why didn’t I say I already am good?
Let’s look at the facts:
1. The Frenchman likes to point out to me that I ride in a cycling group where often I’m one of just a couple of females and I can leave some men for dead on a sprint on LCK (Me: that’s only true if you give me a headstart and they get stuck at the lights); that in the year I’ve been in Singapore I’ve increased my average speed by about 10kph (Me: I started at 20kph average, so lets not get excited here); that I’ve doubled my speed in the water (Me: but I could barely stay afloat at the beginning) and that I’ve podiumed in every one of the four triathlons I’ve competed in, I’ve even won my age group in two of them (Me: three of those were beginner races so they don’t ‘count’).
Despite my misgivings here, whilst I’m not fast enough to keep up with 75% of the riders in my club (and particularly not most of the women), I’m a darn sight better than I was a year ago, that I can accept without question.
2. I ride my husband's old bike (don’t get me wrong, it’s a great bike, I love it like a fat kid loves cake), perhaps it's not the best fit but I wouldn’t dream of buying a racing bike for myself. My wheels are falling apart and my husband has spent months trying to convince me to spend some money on replacing them, but I still haven’t done it. Why am I so reticent?
It’s not so much the cost (though I am the more ‘sensible’ one, that’s no secret) I earn enough money to buy myself a bloody good set of wheels, or even a new bike if I wanted to, but I am loathe to buy anything more thing more than just something entry-level and ‘functional’ because, in all honesty, I don’t think its worth it to spend that much money on me, as I’m not good enough and... yes, because I think I would look silly (I spend enough time around cyclists, we can be a judgmental bunch.. I think I figured that one out years ago).
However, the Frenchman wouldn’t think twice about buying himself some new snazzy kit (yes granted, he is much better than I am, but I do roughly as many training sessions per week…he just goes further, faster and for longer :P) so who do I think would ridicule me?
When I joined a cycling club in the UK, the Frenchman was so proud and happy (bless him!) he bought me the club kit straight away. I, on the other hand, was mortified: I was so worried I would be laughed out of the club (as I could barely keep up with the slowest group, let alone wear the kit) that it stayed in my wardrobe for months.
When I finally wore it, no one laughed at me. Not a single person. What was I scared of?
3. I work at a 'magic-circle' law firm. They (apparently) don’t let numpties in. But I have spent my entire career so far waiting for someone to realize that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing and that I shouldn’t be here (yup, if someone was to look for a stereotype of Imposter Syndrome, it would be me). But they have had nearly 6 years to figure it out, if they were going to do it, they would’ve done it by now.
Like a lot of women, you would probably have to hold a gun to my head for me to come up with something I think I’m really good at, but I would like to think that if I was running my own business, I wouldn’t go out to clients saying, ‘by the way, I’m crap at what you’ve hired me to do, just to warn you…’ so why the insane reflex to do this in every other aspect of life?
Whilst objectively I think that a certain amount of self-doubt keeps you sharp, stops you getting cocky and makes you good at spotting mistakes, I also reckon too much stops us realizing our full potential. And unfortunately a lot of women I know have it by the bucket-full.
It's easy to see that constant apologies and self-depreciation will only take us one way, and it isn’t forward. It won’t just be ourselves who end up believing we cant do something, it’ll be those around us too.
So, what would happen if instead, we take a more male-oriented approach, have a bit of confidence, remind ourselves of what we ARE good at and have a bit of self belief? When I take the time to think about it, I AM actually proud of what I’ve achieved so far and I DEFINITELY need to have more perspective sometimes: I should try and focus on how far I’ve come and what I can do, rather than how far I haven’t got or what I can't do yet.
Sadly, I don't have a magic wand. I can't guarantee I'll suddenly stop apologizing for myself and start finding more self-confidence, after all it's hard to stop the habit of a lifetime.
However, I do wonder whether just a bit of self-awareness of the problem is all that's needed to start making conscious changes to the way we view our own abilities, even if it's just by baby steps. If only one other girl reads this, realizes she does the same thing and consciously tries to stop herself apologizing next time she goes to open her mouth - then if nothing else, the time I spent writing this was worth it.
I just wish I had read something like these articles years ago, perhaps I’d be a better cyclist now as I wouldn’t have let years of fear get the better of me and stopped me from doing what I really quite enjoy – just riding my goddamn bike.
No guarantee I’d be a better lawyer though... :-P