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