The Confidence Trap

Trapped woman

Among my repertoire of Funny Stories and Anecdotes for Social Gatherings, is one that perfectly captures Prez’s off-the-chart confidence.

In 2005, we started a handyman (handyperson?) business. What more perfect job was there for us? Prez was a natural Mr. Fix-It and I was obsessively organized, good with paperwork and a pleasant face for customers. Voila! Instant job!

One of our early jobs involved a fair amount of plumbing. Quoting the job, Prez strutted through the client’s bathroom, measuring, calling out items for me to note, and assuring the client that this would be “no problem”. We shook hands on the job…and Prez drove straight to Home Depot to buy a book on plumbing. “Wait,” I said, “you just told that woman you could do the job, no problem. What do you mean you need a book?”

Prez’s response?

“Oh, I can do it. I just need to learn how.”

Turns out, he had a very basic knowledge of plumbing and this was not going to be a basic job. In fact, sitting on the edge of a bathtub, trying desperately to make fittings fit and work properly, was the closest I’d seen my husband come to public tears since he got the news that his sister’s cancer had returned.

Eventually, he figured it out and everything came together. The client was happy and we were relieved. But that wouldn’t be the last learn-as-you-earn job we took on and, more than once, Prez would still be flipping through the pages of a how-to book on the drive to the job.

The way I tell it in person, this story is a guaranteed laugh producer. What’s not so funny, at least to me, is that it reminds me of the lack of confidence that I struggle with daily. Prez got us that job—and many others that paid our rent and bought groceries and funded the occasional jaunt south—because he was confident enough in himself that even if he didn’t know how to do a specific task he was sure he could figure it out. Me? I would have to have had a three-year plumbing course under my belt before I would have agreed to take that job.

This is the confidence trap that I have struggled to free myself from for most of my life. I know I’m not alone. Though Prez’s level of confidence is extreme, in general, most women are less confident than men. Even when—and this is the important part—they are just as competent, if not more so, than their male counterparts.

More on that later.

For now, let me say that my lack of confidence has held me back more times than I can count and it wasn’t until I was at the end of my third decade that I began to see how much so. Sure, I took more risks than a lot of people but not as many as I could have, and should have. And while I’m glad that I finally wised up about this a part of me mourns my wasted potential.

My confidence and (perceived) competence are conjoined twins. And my perception of my competence relies heavily on external validation. It has taken over ten years of people telling me, “Hey, you’re really good at this!” for me to actually believe that I am a competent writer. And, yes, regardless of gender, writers tend to be folks who struggle with confidence and self-doubt, but that’s the best example I can offer to show how difficult it is for me to trust in my own abilities.

Now, some of you are reading this and thinking, No, not you, Princess. I’ve seen you at work, you’re super confident!

Ah, outward appearances are wonderful, aren’t they?

It’s not an act per se. But what others perceive as my confidence is simply me forcing myself to be the person I want to be. It is me grabbing myself by the lapels, slapping my own face, and shouting, “Stop whining! You can do this!” I do this because I have learned that when I can get out of my own way magic happens.

It has also been my experience that forcing myself into situations where failure is likely, and then failing, and getting up and dusting myself off, and trying again, is (against everything logic would suggest), one of the surest ways to build real confidence. I’ve also learned that “failure” is a trickster. Spectators judge you more by how you fail than by the failure itself. We respect people who can laugh and say, “Well, I sure blew that! I’ll do better next time.” far more than those who slink off to the corner to pout.

So what is the confidence trap and how did I fall into it? Nature? Nurture? Diabolical alien plot?

The first two for sure. The jury’s still out on the aliens, but I’m not ruling it out.

For an in-depth examination, I’ll point you to this fantastic article in the Atlantic. But, in short, women’s lack of confidence is partly biological (more testosterone = more risk taking), partly social conditioning (don’t even get me started on that one), and partly personal experience (how are we rewarded or punished for our confidence?).

I can trace the roots of my own confidence deficiency back to grade school—teacher’s pet, perfectionist, conflict-avoider, natural klutz, blossoming weirdo, book worm. By puberty, I was already a prime target for predatory males who seek out girls with low self-esteem…and then systematically lower that esteem even further. Passive-aggressive mother. Alcoholic and domineering first husband. And the vicious circle goes round and round.

Essentially, I have spent the better part of the past twenty years climbing out of that trap. And, no, I’m not out of it yet but I’m not going to give up.

There are two tests ahead of me.

First, as mentioned in the previous Coconut Chronicle, I’m starting up my own freelance writing business, which means I’m going to be putting myself out there in a whole new way. I need to be assertive and confident. I need to take jobs that may be out of my comfort level. I need to be able to say to myself, “Yes, I can do it. I just need to learn how.”

Second, Prez has been working on a project for several months now and I have been helping out. At the end of May, he wants us to participate in a pitch fest in Los Angeles. Now, I am perfectly happy writing a pitch or a treatment but standing in front of real people and pitching an idea? (I think I just peed in my pants a little bit). But I have agreed to do this and I am determined to put myself out there and maybe fall flat on my face. One step closer to getting out of this damned trap.

So how do we keep our young girls from ending up in the trap?

It’s tempting to suggest praise and encouragement but I think girls get plenty of that. If anything, we need to stop praising the very behaviour that sends the message that pleasing people and being “good” is desirable. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” We need to think about how we reward boys for their risk-taking behavior and start applying it equally to girls.

It’s also incumbent on us adult females to get past our own self-limiting beliefs and behaviour, and set the example for future generations. As any good writer of fiction will tell you—show, don’t tell.

Men, you have a role to play too, especially if you’re in a position of power. When a woman acts assertively or confidently, she’s not being pushy, she’s not a bitch, she’s just doing what men do all the time. When you talk about confident women in those terms, you’re telling young women that confidence is bad.

For me, I will continue to crawl out of this stupid trap, inch by bloody inch, and I will call out encouragement to you in your trap as I do.

We’re better than we think we are. Now we just have to believe it.

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2 Responses to The Confidence Trap

  1. Josh says:

    There’s a very key point here on failure.

    To me, life is best lived by thrusting yourself into it. That includes a certain amount of reasoned risk, essentially the adult equivalent of getting on the bicycle the first time. You’re probably going to fall. It’s probably going to hurt. But you’re going to get back up on that bike and do it again until you finally get that glorious freedom, that first time when your balance kicks in and you’re pumping the pedals and making that thing sail along the road.

    We have to test ourselves against things we can fail at, and in the doing we will fail sometimes. But that’s the only life worth living, in my opinion.

    That wraps around to the point of self esteem. What’s the point of pride in a rigged game? What’s the value of hollow praise? So you’re right, it’s not about fakey encouragement and ‘you go girl’ platitudes, it’s about encouraging the young women to get out there and stick their faces in.

    It’s like I told Kris before, women these days have this really incredible chance to set the definition of what ‘being a woman’ means, and I hope they make it awesome.

  2. clubfredbaja says:

    Agreed. Women have fought to shove the doors open, it’s up to us to walk through them!

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