Why women strug­gle with con­fi­dence­—and how to si­lence that doubt­ing voice for­ever.

Olivia Stren learns that many of us are, without a doubt, mired in in­se­cu­rity.

ELLE (Canada) - - News - By Olivia Stren

my first full-time job in jour­nal­ism was as an ed­i­tor at a magazine in Toronto. At 24, I was grate­ful—and as­ton­ished—that I had been hired and spent the first year wait­ing to get the sack. I sat through story meet­ings where edi­tors, all of whom seemed in­fin­itely more com­pe­tent, held forth au­thor­i­ta­tively about which writ­ers “de­liv­ered” or why zuc­chini blos­soms were zeit­geisty. I tended to slip in late to those weekly sum­mits so that I could score a seat neatly hid­den be­hind some­body else. It’s not that I’m par­tic­u­larly shy or that I didn’t have any thoughts on, say, why the cour­gette was au courant. ( Well, ac­tu­ally, I had no thoughts on that.) Rather, I was wor­ried that my opin­ion wouldn’t

– Tina Fey “The beauty of the im­poster syn­drome is that you vac­il­late be­tween ex­treme ego­ma­nia and a com­plete feel­ing of ‘I’m a fraud! Oh, God, they’re onto me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the ego­ma­nia when it comes and en­joy it and then slide through the idea of fraud.”

de­liver. Si­lence seemed a safer tack than speak­ing up and risk­ing pub­lic id­iocy.

When I wasn’t sit­ting mute through meet­ings, I wrote break­ing-news bits (like about the time Martha Ste­wart came to town and ate a brioche) and worked on the shop­ping col­umn, co­or­di­nat­ing photo shoots with $20 loaves of Poilâne bread flown in from Paris’ sixth ar­rondisse­ment. When I li­aised with the loaf’s pub­li­cist, ne­go­ti­at­ing its busy transat­lantic travel sched­ule and the best time for its close-up, she asked me sharply, “What are your in­ten­tions with the loaf?” “In­ten­tions?” I asked. “The in­tegrity of the loaf must not be com­pro­mised,” she said, as if I had threat­ened to take the loaf to a drive-in. Af­ter a cou­ple of years, my fears of be­ing un­masked as an im­poster had been out­ranked by frus­tra­tion, bore­dom and the sense that I was on the wrong end of things: I didn’t want to be an ed­i­tor; I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to travel, like that glam­orous French car­bo­hy­drate. So, I quit my job and went free­lance. (If this last sen­tence took me 10 sec­onds to write, the de­ci­sion—ac­com­pa­nied by in­som­nia, de­pres­sion, chronic self-doubt and repet­i­tive pro-and-con dis­cus­sions with friends, fam­ily and a therapist—took me over two years.) Wor­ried about fail­ure, ab­ject des­ti­tu­tion and em­bar­rass­ment, I was anx­ious that for­go­ing my job was just an ex­er­cise in hubris, that the uni­verse would re­ward me with a smack-down. It wasn’t un­til my fear of the half-lived life out­mus­cled my aver­sion to fail­ure, poverty and gen­eral loser­dom that I took the leap.

Ac­cord­ing to authors Katty Kay and Claire Ship­man’s re­cent book, The Con­fi­dence Code, I am hardly alone in my pen­chant for over-think­ing and hes­i­ta­tion. Women are cur­rently, they ar­gue, in the midst of an acute cri­sis in con­fi­dence. This, they ex­plain, goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing the woe­ful ob­stin­acy of the gender pay gap.

Kay (a TV an­chor for BBC World News Amer­ica) and Ship­man (a cor­re­spon­dent for ABC News and Good Morn­ing Amer­ica) be­gan con­sid­er­ing this fe­male con­fi­dence cri­sis while re­search­ing their first book, Wome­nomics, which looks at how women con­trib­ute to the bot­tom line in busi­ness. “Dur­ing our in­ter­views with suc­cess­ful women, we kept hear­ing what seemed like clichés: ‘I

feel like a fraud,’ ‘I got a pro­mo­tion, but I’m not sure I should ac­cept it,’” Ship­man tells me over the phone. “We won­dered: Is it just that, as women, we like to com­plain? Or is there some­thing to this idea of a con­fi­dence gap?” It is not, Kay and Ship­man make clear, that men never feel un­cer­tain. “Do men doubt them­selves some­times? Of course. But not with such repet­i­tive and ex­act­ing zeal—and they don’t let their doubts stop them as much as women do,” says Ship­man.

We are also more prone to all of doubt’s brow-fur­row­ing in-laws: de­pres­sion, per­fec­tion­ism, ru­mi­na­tion, in­er­tia—all sabo­teurs of con­fi­dence. For these dif­fer­ences, we have—at least in part—bi­ol­ogy and ge­net­ics to blame. “Testos­terone is such an im­por­tant hor­mone. Men have much more, and study af­ter study shows that it leads to a greater propen­sity for ac­tion and risk tak­ing,” says Ship­man. But, more sur­pris­ingly, Kay and Ship­man un­cov­ered other neu­ro­log­i­cal causes. For ex­am­ple, fMRI scans re­vealed that women tend to ac­ti­vate their amyg­dala—the brain’s prim­i­tive fear cen­tre— more than men. Mean­while, the tiny part of the brain called the an­te­rior cin­gu­late cor­tex— nick­named the “wor­ry­wart cen­tre”—is



larger in women. “We may be more ac­cu­rate in gen­eral,” says Ship­man of our prone­ness to worry and our tal­ent for bor­ing in on de­tails and im­per­fec­tions, “but we’re usu­ally en­tirely too dis­mis­sive of our own abil­i­ties.”

We don’t only have chem­istry to blame; we can also point the finger at our par­ents and school­teach­ers. “Girls are en­cour­aged and re­warded for get­ting ev­ery­thing right all the time—partly be­cause they can be counted upon to be qui­eter and nicer and lis­ten more to adults,” says Ship­man. “It’s not that boys are re­warded for be­ing bad; it’s more that they learn ‘I messed up and it’s okay.’ They learn to take risks and to fail.”

In­ter­est­ingly, the rea­son girls tend to ex­cel in the class­room is the same rea­son they tend to aban­don com­pet­i­tive sports: From a young age, girls are re­warded for be­ing con­cil­ia­tory at school, which is at cross pur­poses with com­pe­ti­tion.

I have al­ways re­served a par­tic­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion for those who take to the sports field—that arena where con­fi­dence and a com­fort with ri­valry is

re­quired, where hes­i­ta­tion and self­doubt will get you clob­bered and where fail­ure is at times cer­tain. Sure, I en­joy ten­nis and a sunny-day swim, but I hap­pily dropped out of all com­pet­i­tive sport as soon as it was no longer com­pul­sory: in the 10th grade (a glo­ri­ous mo­ment). And I’m hardly alone. Re­cent stud­ies by the Na­tional Institutes of Health in the U.S. re­veal that girls are six times more likely than boys to drop out of sports in early ado­les­cence—right when girls suf­fer from a more acute loss of con­fi­dence than boys.

There are, of course, ex­cep­tions. There are women who thrive on the sports field, who speak eas­ily and force­fully in meet­ings, who pur­sue pro­mo­tions and ca­reer changes without years of ther­apy. When I shared my feel­ings about com­pet­i­tive sports with Ship­man, how I ad­mired those who played them vol­un­tar­ily, she ad­mit­ted that she felt the same way and that she re­serves that in­trigue for her own daugh­ter, Della, who hap­pily be­longs to that re­bel­lious, un­fet­tered mi­nor­ity. “I’ve learned so much [about con­fi­dence] from my daugh­ter,” she says. “She’s on a Lit­tle League team with all the boys, and she said, ‘I want to pitch.’ I watched her on the pitcher’s mound with ev­ery­body watch­ing. My wor­ry­wart cen­tre, my amyg­dala,

“I re­ally did in­ter­nal­ize that ‘OKAY, I don’t have to feel so con­fi­dent, but I have to take my seat at the ta­ble any­way’.... And if you want to be re­ally hon­est about it, I’m not claim­ing that I feel self-con­fi­dent all the time. To this day, I don’t. But I can see and I can re­mem­ber and I can take a step back, and when I’m about to not ask a ques­tion or not vol­un­teer to do some­thing, I can re­mem­ber.”

– Sh­eryl Sand­berg

– Emma Wat­son

“It’s al­most like the bet­ter I do, the more my feel­ing of in­ad­e­quacy ac­tu­ally in­creases, be­cause I’m just go­ing, ‘Any mo­ment, some­one’s go­ing to find out I’m a to­tal fraud and I don’t de­serve any of what I’ve achieved.’”

ev­ery sin­gle part of my brain was on high alert. She was ner­vous, but then she just got out there and did it and moved on!”

She also had fun. Con­fi­dence might (as the authors trou­blingly ex­plain) be more crit­i­cal to pro­fes­sional suc­cess than com­pe­tence. (The two do not, sadly, go hand in hand.) And con­fi­dence is also crit­i­cal in feel­ing gen­er­ally calmer and less hob­bled by a chronic Prufrock­ian do-I-dare paral­y­sis. It’s also, per­haps most im­por­tant, about joy. “Con­fi­dence is not just about ‘ Are you go­ing to be pres­i­dent or vice-pres­i­dent?’” says Ship­man. “It’s about en­joy­ing and har­ness­ing a kind of whole­heart­ed­ness—an en­ergy—and mov­ing to­ward some­thing without doubt. That’s just a great feel­ing,” says Ship­man. It is, as spir­i­tual writer Sharon Salzberg pro­poses, “the pu­rity of ac­tion pro­duced by a mind free of doubt.”

I have al­ways cho­sen to think about doubt as a func­tion of cu­rios­ity—and, to make my­self feel bet­ter, the sign of an ac­tive (al­beit neu­rotic) mind. I can­not pur­chase a pas­try (scone or crois­sant?) without fear­ing I will make the im­per­fect breakfast choice, without step­ping into a time-gulp­ing cy­clone of ques­tions and hes­i­ta­tions. “That’s the prob­lem with what most women do,” of­fers Ship­man. The trick is to know when to mute the sound­track; the treat­ment for poor self-con­fi­dence is to do more and think less. “When in doubt, act” is the authors’ pre­scrip­tive ex­hor­ta­tion. And the good news, Ship­man says cheer­fully, is that, with train­ing and per­sis­tence, we can change our be­hav­iour: “The brain re­mains plas­tic. We can learn an aw­ful lot as adults.”

I like joy. And ac­tion. I can learn. I want to be­lieve that I can learn to be more con­fi­dent, to act more and think less, to take more risks, to be more con­fi­dent, more suc­cess­ful. But I still have my doubts.

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