Well-Being//

How Girls Can Overcome Self-Doubt and Close the Confidence Gap

Confidence can be learned and practiced

Image courtesy of HarperCollins

Each time I did something that I was afraid or nervous about doing successfully, it made me more confident.

—JESSIE, NINETEEN


A few years before she came to my Courage Boot Camp, Jessie was

afraid: of talking to people she didn’t know, of public speaking, and

of mistakes. At her state university in the Northwest, she kept up

a high GPA but avoided clubs and activities, keeping to herself and

commuting from home. In class, she rarely spoke up, even when she

knew the answer. “If I say it out loud, I might say it wrong, or actually

get it wrong, or mess up in some way, or somehow embarrass myself,”

she told me.

Jessie’s parents had divorced a few years earlier, devastating her

mother. Bearing witness to her pain galvanized Jessie. “I don’t want

to let my fear get in the way of doing something I want to do,” she

recalled deciding.

She began tackling her fear of meeting new people by going to

cafés. Normally, she could barely utter an order because she feared

the judgment of cooler-than-thou baristas. This time, she said, “I

started making myself go alone. I would stumble, and drop the

money, and make a fool of myself. I was forcing myself into a new

situation.”

Over and over again, as her internal voice hollered with anxiety,

Jessie talked back to it and reassured herself. No one cares how I order

my coffee. It doesn’t matter if I stumble. When she felt overwhelmed,

she reminded herself “that really, if I want to do anything in life, I

have to be able to talk to people to get over it.”

Jessie soon discovered her courage was a resource that replenished

itself. “Each time I did something that I was afraid or nervous about

doing successfully, it made me more confident,” she said. When she

faced down a new risk, she reminded herself, “I’ve done things like

this before. I can do it again!” The rush of courage was addictive,

and she wanted more. Jessie was afraid of needles, so she went and

gave blood. Another fear conquered.

When she came to Courage Boot Camp, she was struggling

to confront a roommate who stayed up late talking loudly on her

phone. I asked her what the worst thing that could happen was if she

took the risk (a great question to ask your own daughter when she’s

wavering). Jessie thought about it. Then she wrote down a script of

what she would say and ask for. She role-playedher conversation with

a friend. Finally, she went to talk to her roommate. The following

week, the roommate posted a quiet hours schedule on their

dorm room door, written in calligraphy.

What did Jessie learn that allowed her to leave her comfort zone?

How did she summon the courage to take a risk? What inspires a

girl to face her fear and take a first, intimidating step? 

Despite all the progress girls have made, a stubborn confidence

gap persists. In a twenty-year Assessment,

UCLA’s Linda Sax found that male college freshmen

consistently ranked themselves higher than their female peers in

almost every category linked to confidence, often by double-digit

margins. Men said they were stronger in academic ability, competitiveness,

emotional health, leadership, math, physical health, popularity,

public speaking, risk taking, intellectual confidence, social self-confidence,

and self-understanding.In answering the question,

“How smart am I in comparison to my friends—as smart? Smarter?

Not as smart or capable?” Black women score lower than Black men,

even though they outperform them academically. There is a notable

exception: graduates of all-girls schools report feeling smarter,

more confident, and more engaged on campus than female peers

who graduated from coed private high schools.

Yet few schools explicitly teach students skills that increase their

confidence. The good news is that there is plenty you can do to

help, beginning with how you talk about it. There are three framing

points to keep in mind as you begin working with your daughter:

1. Ease up on the Girl Power talk.

Since the 1970s, we believed telling girls they could do anything

would translate to high confidence. But messages like these can

actually undermine it. When we tell girls the sky’s the limit, they

become afraid to admit when they can’t get there—and that, ultimately,

makes them fearful of taking risks and being brave. Confidence

is much more about how we handle our fears than about how

good we are at concealing them.

Girls develop confidence when they face down the unknown and

come out the other side—note that I didn’t say succeed at the other

side. The trying is just as important as the outcome. Put another

way, it’s when a girl attempts a feat that makes her question her ability

to be and do anything that builds true confidence. When girls

move through challenges and learn to appreciate their lessons, they

come to understand that the outcome doesn’t define themselves or

their self-worth.They learn they are stronger than they thought.

That, in turn, infuses them with motivation to try again.

This is why vulnerability, not invincibility, is crucial for confidence.

As one new college graduate put it to me, learning to take

risks and face the unknown was “a bit like putting yourself fully

into an emotional relationship, risking getting hurt, risking losing

what you built or worked for, but really putting your heart into it.” If

you don’t leave your comfort zone and become vulnerable, she said,

“you won’t get the full experience . . . you won’t fully feel the joy of

getting into whatever job, school, or project you applied to, and the

hope surrounding what that can be for you.” Without risk and some

fear, she was learning, there would be no real reward.

2. Closing the confidence gap is not your daughter’s job.

The confidence gap is anything but her fault. It is a tax she pays

for growing up in a society that still withholds full equality from

women. To tell a girl that she can get braver if she only tries hard

enough is to ignore this reality.

Let her know you understand it’s not exclusively her responsibility

to “fix” her confidence deficit. She may be under a different impression.

In a so-called postfeminist world, write professors Shauna

Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby in Smart Girls, girls are told they “can

do, be, and have anything they want without fear of sexism or other

inequalities in school or beyond to slow them down.” In this world,

gender inequality is seen as a thing of the past, putting success entirely

in girls’ control. Sexism is “framed as a personal, rather than

a social defect.”

But sexism is alive and well. Indeed, girls question their competence

because they are often treated differently by teachers, who

are more likely to critique their ability (leading to less intellectual

confidence). Girls are less confident because they are ghettoized in

certain fields of study and work, and see women occupy only tiny

minorities at the highest levels of power. Girls doubt their worth

because they are inundated with images of half-dressed

models and celebrities selling the idea that stick-thin

sexiness is the way to make friends, be attractive, and succeed in life.

And they worry about failure in part because they are still expected—per

the rules of “good girl” femininity that refuse to die—not

to burden others with their mistakes. Let her know you understand all this.

3. Confidence can be learned and practiced.

Most students are well aware that practice improves performance

when it comes to solving a math equation or playing a sonata. Athletes

know they’d blow a game if they showed up cold. Yet many

of these same students adopt a black-or-white

attitude about confidence: they believe you’re either brave or not,

a risk taker or not. But practice and repetition are as crucial to success as the gifts or 

talents we bring to an experience. The more a girl does anything in life,

the better she gets at it—and this is especially true when it comes to

building her confidence.

Skills are like muscles: they must be flexed repeatedly to stay

strong and agile. Risk taking is just such a muscle. My students are

inspired by the TED Talk of Jia Jiang, the Chinese immigrant who

decided to conquer his fear of rejection by purposely getting rejected

for a hundred days in a row. Among his “rejection therapy”

exploits: showing up at a stranger’s house and asking to play soccer

in the backyard. Asking a flight attendant to make the safety announcement

on a plane. Asking a cop to let him sit in his patrol

car. Students love Jiang’s journey because it’s funny, and because

he shows how he learned over time to stay confident in the face of

the word no.

Play his videos for your daughter. His journey is a fantastic teaching

tool because it happens in small steps, not one big aha moment, and

this is a crucial message for girls to hear. You can also explain it to her

this way: just as most sane people wouldn’t go to the gym for the first

time ever and do squats with a fifty-pound bar—they

would be hurt, overwhelmed, demoralized, or some combination of the three—it’s

equally foolish to attempt a huge act of courage straight out of the gate.

The same is true of building confidence: it happens little by little, step

by step, “no” by “no.”

While it’s true that confidence building is not entirely your

daughter’s responsibility, she will have to commit to building it like

any other goal she’s ever taken on. 

ENOUGH AS SHE IS. Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Simmons.

Reprinted here with permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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