Every time I look at social media, I see another article, telling women to ‘know their worth’ and to ‘get confident’. It typically involves women ‘changing their narrative’, ‘faking it ‘til they make it’, or ‘being more confident to appear more competent’. Strategies galore to help you feel like Wonder Woman. Whilst I can appreciate the desire to offer some helpful solutions to women who are struggling with their confidence, particularly after a career break or significant promotion, I feel that these calls to ‘just be more’ something, do more harm than good.
The thing is, in my ten years of working with people experiencing low confidence, low self-esteem or anxiety, I have never met someone who has managed to ‘just be’ more anything. Especially not by ‘changing their narrative’. This idea that if we just change what we say to ourselves we will eventually feel different, doesn’t sit well with me. I am sure many psychologists will point to some research studies and evidence to prove to me that it does work. And yet when I work with clients, I experience that they feel more inadequate than ever when they are faced with others telling them how to be this or that. It minimises and invalidates how they really feel and suggests that there is a quick solution, if only they were smart enough to figure it out. It creates a lot of additional pressure.
Take my client Sarah, who returned to work as a DIrector in professional services after extended maternity leave, feeling low in confidence and anxious about her performance at work. Pretty much every time she spoke to her people manager at work, she was told to ‘be more confident’ and ‘just believe in herself’. After each one of those meetings she felt worse than ever, because it gave her the impression that confidence was just out there waiting to be discovered and harnessed, and that she must be doing something drastically wrong if she couldn’t do that. It was just one more thing she felt incapable of achieving. Instead of feeling buoyed up, she felt totally inadequate hearing her manager’s advice.
In our sessions we spent time really listening to her anxiety, hearing what it had to say, and accepting it for what it was. There were depths to it she had not anticipated and they went much deeper than just her return to work. We respected her anxiety, because it was telling her something important about herself. We didn’t look for quick fixes or solutions. There were no 10 steps to this or that. I didn’t once suggest she just changed her narrative. This was a slow and often painful process for Sarah. Some days she felt on top of the world after a session, some days she felt quite low. What I find important in my client work is always staying with where the client is – not trying to hurry them to a more ‘positive’ or ‘productive’ place. By really getting to know what it’s like to live in their world, I can get much closer to my clients and offer them the support they need in that moment.
I think it’s fair to say that eventually, Sarah even made friends with her anxiety. She had learnt to understand it on a much deeper level. There were other factors that contributed to Sarah’s growing confidence and lessening work-related anxiety: Supportive significant others, some high-quality feedback from someone senior at work, and several experiences at work that showed her what she was really capable of. It was a blend of positive support and experiences.
What I’ve learnt over the years, is that all feelings have a purpose. They tell us something really valuable. If you can take the time to explore those feelings with someone AND those feelings are heard, understood, and accepted for what they are, positive change can occur. This is my experience.
I would like to ask confident people to stop telling women who lack confidence or who experience work-related anxiety to ‘be more confident’. If anything, it signals that you don’t know how to support them in that difficult place. Yes, offer practical work-related solutions such as coaching, mentoring, buddying, feedback. But first, listen to how it feels for those individuals, because in my experience, being heard, understood and accepted is a better condition for personal growth than being told how you could be a better version of yourself.