“Yeah, I’d love to climb with you, but I hope you don’t mind rope-gunning because I haven’t climbed in forever.”
“I can come, as long as you don’t mind that I’m slow.”
“I’m excited for tomorrow, but I know it will crush me.”
These are generalized statements, but they could have been said by any number of women I have met and recreated with over the years, myself included. Statements like these are a common way for a woman to accept an invitation to go climbing or hiking or skiing but also allow for herself to have an excuse for not performing well.
I live in a mountain town, where the majority of the population is athletic, physically fit, and adventurous. Everyone lives here for a reason, and for most that reason is to play in the mountains. Statistically, I would be willing to bet that the percentage of of strong, bad-ass athletes here is much higher than in a typical town of the same size. Within this demographic are numerous independent, skilled, strong, and inspiring women who I have the great pleasure of knowing and counting as friends. But among this group of women I have noticed a phenomenon that I find increasingly disturbing: the feminine down-talk.
Whenever the discussion turns to upcoming plans or invitations to do something, many women accept the invitation but immediately discount themselves and their abilities. It has reached the point where this is the most acceptable thing to say when someone invites you for a day in the mountains. However, the more women down-talk themselves, the more other women feel the need to also down-talk themselves. It is like a battle of who can say they are the worst.
I don’t notice this happening as often with men. (If anything, the opposite tends to be true.) Even if, as a listener, I know that the woman talking is neither weak nor slow, if she constantly repeats this to me, I will start to believe it. And if I start to think that about her, how many other people who hear her say these things will also make those judgments of her? Even worse, will she start to believe this of herself? And how many times have I done this to myself? In an effort to be modest, I have instead portrayed myself as incapable when in fact I am working very hard to be anything but.
I think women need to own it. We need to take full ownership of the things that we are good at, the things we work for, and the skills we have spent years building. There should be no more cutting ourselves down. It is uncomfortable to the person you down-talk yourself to, it damages your own self-confidence, and it makes women as a whole appear hesitant and powerless, which is certainly not the case.
There is a difference between being honest about your abilities and talking yourself down. I’m not suggesting that women should make ambitious plans where the objective is way over their heads, I’m simply asking them to own up to the talents and abilities that they do have and to to be proud of them. I don’t think this requires boasting either. A woman can accept an invitation from a friend to go out for a day of physical activity without discussing how bad they are at that sport, and that is perfectly acceptable.
I recently met a woman who is impressive in many ways: she is a ripping big mountain skier, one of few female ski guides where she lives, funny, friendly, the whole bit. But she impressed me even more when she told me that she was working on responding to compliments with “Thank you, it’s true” rather than brushing them off and discounting what someone has said about her, which is something many women have a habit of doing. As a group, if more women accepted compliments like this and less women felt the need to down-talk themselves, it would in-turn bring up everyone’s morale.
This isn’t just an issue amongst outdoor athletes, it also happens in the workplace. The Atlantic recently published an article on their website about how women are less likely to take credit for their own work. In Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In she explains that when men are asked for the reasons behind their successes, they most often credit their own qualities by saying things such as “because I’m intelligent” or “I’m creative.” By contrast, when women are asked for the reasons behind their success, they credit external factors such as luck, someone helped them, or they worked hard.
When asked how I got my freelance business started, I have on more than one occasion responded with these EXACT three reasons. Looking back, I can see how that answer fails to credit me for my accomplishments.
When I started out freelancing, I had trouble establishing my hourly rate. I felt that I didn’t have enough experience to charge what was reasonable, so I had a very low price. This resulted in not only clients taking advantage of me, but worse, they assumed I did lousy work. As I struggled to find the right balance for my rates, I met a guy who was starting his own freelance photography company. He is a skilled photographer, but one of his very first jobs was a high paying expedition to photograph professional climbers on a high profile mountain. I was aghast.
“How did you score that job as your first?”
“I went in with confidence, knowing I could do it, and laid a high price on the table. It’s all about the confidence you exhibit.”
And he couldn’t be more right. I was having trouble establishing rates because I wasn’t looking for clients with complete confidence. Instead I was doubting my own abilities, and that inevitably came across in pitches and discussions with clients. Now, having more design experience, more freelancing experience, and better negotiating skills, I can be confident that I have a lot to offer a client. And that confidence can show itself in the way that I talk about myself.
So with negative self- talk, what are women’s costing themselves? They are costing themselves their own success.
Let’s own it. Be fast, be strong, and be tenacious.
How did I get my freelancing business started? I’m creative, so I found alternative solutions to the standard workday script. I’m brave, so I approached people I admired and explained that I could be an asset to their businesses. And yes, I worked hard.
Thank you, it’s true.