I recently got into a Facebook “discussion” (you know those . . . they seem to happen a lot right now) with someone who I did not quite remember friending. I pushed back on an argument – calmly at first, until his real argument came out. His real argument was not only specious, it was racist.
So I went from calm and gently questioning to very firm (full disclosure, I called him “dude”, which was more inflammatory than I thought it would be). His response was to delete my comments and write that I “obviously thought very highly of myself” and to stop posting “garbage” on his wall. And then a friend of his (whom I didn’t know at all) told me to “calm down, girl”, complete with a kiss emoji.
Here’s the thing – nothing about that particular exchange is revelatory. It’s not going to change my life or his. Women with opinions are told to shut up and calm down all the time. But the assertion that I “thought highly of myself” and that’s why I should stop? That – in combination with the last two weeks of news – got me thinking. When I told a friend about this conversation, she said, “You know you are around some non-excellent people when ‘you have self-respect’ is a diss.”
During a recent project for a new speech client, we had the opportunity to interview audience members who had seen her speak to get some authentic feedback. In this particular interview, our interviewee said something in reference to the client that struck me deeply. The interviewee said: “There was no shame in her confidence . . . it was a revelation.”
The interviewee said that she was used to the women around her (even those who were high-achieving) undercutting their own accomplishments, apologizing all the time, and making sure everyone felt comfortable with what they thought of themselves. For her to see a woman who was authentically, unapologetically confident was mind-blowing.
On July 27th, we saw Congresswoman Maxine Waters, in a viral moment akin to “nevertheless she persisted”, insist on “reclaiming her time” during a hearing with Secretary Mnuchin. That moment of confident expression from a woman prompted this possibly well-meaning but wildly ill-thought-out tweet from Will Saletan of Slate:
The response it received from numerous women who were articulate, confident, and often KIND in their pushback on the reductive and problematic nature of his advice? Saletan called it an attack from “outrage twitter” – a convenient way to call the responders angry, crazy, and dismiss them as not worth listening to. What it boiled down to for me was articulated by several people in the responses:
The response to perceived confidence in women often looks like this: dismiss them as angry or crazy or otherwise overly emotional, suggest that their confidence is proof of any number of unpleasant personality traits, and suggest that they sit down and shut up.
That client I spoke of earlier? She is an absolute powerhouse of a woman with credentials for days, highly respected with a network who will walk through fire for her, a true badass. I also happen to know that she is highly self-aware, comically self-deprecating at times, and genuinely kind. She believes, as I do, that someone else’s success takes nothing away from hers – and vice versa. Success is not a zero sum game of winners and losers.
How often do we apologize or undercut our real talents, skills, and contributions lest they come off as bragging?
How often do we “dim our light” to make other people feel comfortable?
How often do we perform humility because it would be societally dangerous to be seen as all that we are?
People who display bravado but who are secretly terribly insecure are deeply threatened when they see real, unapologetic confidence in others. And bullies will try to take you down to their level. Shame can be weaponized, but your self-knowledge can be a shield.
I want to say this to everyone who feels threatened by seeing someone else’s confidence, as well as to everyone else who feels that they must hide or undercut their own confidence:
My confidence does not mean I think I’m perfect.
My confidence in my knowledge and skills does not mean that I think I know everything.
My confidence in expressing myself does not take anything away from your ability to express yourself, including your right to disagree with me.
My confidence does not mean that I believe I am a finished product.
My confidence does not mean I don’t need help, guidance, and tough love sometimes.
My confidence is not bulletproof, and sometimes slips into self-doubt, anger, irrationality, and fear.
My confidence requires – and supports – admitting when I’m wrong, apologizing when I need to, recognizing my privilege, and continually learning from people who are different from me.
My confidence in myself makes me more – not less – likely to celebrate you and everything that makes you amazing in the world.
My confidence is a daily practice and a work in progress.
My confidence takes nothing away from you unless you allow it to.
My confidence does not require your approval.