This article first appeared on Forbes
Have you ever had that feeling that you’re pushing yourself harder and harder, but driving with the brakes on? I certainly did, and I’ve seen many high-achieving women put in everything they have, and not experiencing the success they want and deserve. Or edge upward on the career ladder, carrying the heavy regrets of dwindling relationships or passions left on the backburner of life.
If that’s you, you may also be nostalgic for those earlier days when success was easier to come by. You had time to invest in your growth, and your efforts were appreciated by your bosses. These days, you live in that never-ending drain of motherhood and management where success rarely comes without the gnawing pain that we as women know all too well: Mother’s Guilt.
And here’s the double whammy—your efforts likely aren’t rewarded the way they once were. You’re supposed to take responsibility for the tiara on your head—but that goes against the training you’ve received almost from the day you were born. You struggle to voice your ideas and achievements that you spent long nights toiling over, and watch in frustration as others casually claim them as their own.
When you do speak up, it doesn’t go down too well either. I’ve sat next to countless women who are distraught by the negative feedback they’ve received about the way they come across to others or their inability to boost team morale. Ample studies confirm what we as women know all too well that the negative feedback given to women is mostly related to personality, by male and female managers alike. Who of us hasn’t been told, or doesn’t know other assertive women who’ve been criticized for being “bossy”, “abrasive,” or “unleader-like”?
Does success have to be such a difficult journey? I’ve done extensive research on women’s confidence in the workplace, and here’s what I’ve found. One of the key reasons many women struggle is that they are “addicted” to success because it masks a deep hole in their heart. Those who continue to be successful can be unaware of the deep-seated feelings of shame or inadequacy precisely because of their successes. However, their inability to give themselves a break, their extreme standards that can drive employees to burnout, their tendency toward micro-management and control are all signs that they’re desperately avoiding failure and criticism—including their own.
This is the realm of “Fragile Confidence”—a particular form of high confidence that lives in the gap of high competence underpinned by low self-worth. The desire to succeed, and for us women, to also get approval, is a matter of psychological survival, albeit misguided. So many of us are spending inordinate amounts of time perfecting our work at the expense of other important areas of our lives. Ironically, this is also keeping us stuck in jobs that have become too small for us. Sally Helgesen, author of How Women Rise, says that perfection makes women indispensable to their roles and thus stalls their professional growth.
If you relate, here’s the good news! The way out is not in more pushing, more perfection or more proving. On the contrary, it is in slowing down and savoring more, so you build your home base, your place of courage, connection and contribution. The way out is truly the way in.
So today, give yourself permission to savor your successes and to bask in the warm glow of what they mean to you. Give yourself permission to slow down and to be grateful for how far you’ve already come—instead of obsessing about how far you need to go. Give yourself permission to connect with the people around you with love and not judgment, so you don’t numb the pain of loneliness with more work, more food or more drinking. And give yourself permission to do nothing but connect with the small pleasures of life because we forget that the whole world gives itself to us every moment, if we were only to pay attention.
As you do so, you build your inner buffers and close the gap of fragile confidence. That’s how you open up to new opportunities with grit and not stress, and learn to manage criticism and failure with grace instead of raising the bar even higher for yourself.
Authentic confidence is about striving from a place of security. It’s the best gift you give yourself, and the world.