A few months ago, I wrote this post about the role of fear in my life and made a comment that if it were possible, I’d like to conduct a study about whether fear and that internal sense of not being “good enough” was unique to accomplished and driven women or whether men experienced the same fueling anxiety. So when my issue of The Atlantic Monthly arrived in the mail last week, I was very excited to see this cover story examining that very issue and citing numerous studies. Turns out, it is pretty gender-specific, and women consistently rate their abilities lower than what they actually are while men consistently overrate themselves. Women also tend to be more perfectionistic than men, tend to take fewer risks, and therefore tend to have less confidence. This explains (“this” being a woefully abbreviated summary on my part–you really should read the original) at least in part why, even though a company might have just as many qualified if not more qualified female employees as male employees, so many of the top positions are still dominated by men. As the article states, if a man feels he has 60% of the qualifications for a higher position, he’ll go for it, whereas a woman would feel she needs to be 100% qualified and therefore precludes herself from even applying.
This has been an issue at the forefront of my own life in the past year as I continue my slow and sometimes painful but often rewarding self-education in risk-taking and building confidence. Recognizing that I was full of fear, anxiety, and a complete aversion to risking *anything*, I decided in my mid 30s to try a little behavior modification. In other words, I would force myself to do at least two or three things every year that scared me shitless and gradually build up (hopefully) some tolerance for that fear and an ability to overcome or at least get through it. And it really has helped. The more things I try and force myself to do, the more confidence I gain to try something else and the more opportunities and experiences open up to me. But it still requires a considerable amount of mental/emotional processing and sheer force of will each and every time.
For example, this past fall I found out that my alma mater offers a fellowship for alumnae to travel. When I first read the description of the type of person and the type of purpose the fellowship is meant for, I thought, “That kind of sounds like me” and got excited for about five minutes. Then I looked at the application and required proposal/forms and started getting overwhelmed and having “I’m not worthy” thoughts. Still, I made myself e-mail the contact person and ask for a list of past winners and their projects/proposals. Reading through that list just made the “I’m not worthy” voices even louder. Several years ago, I would have given up right then and this would be the end of the story. Instead, I thought about the other things I’ve tried in the last several years that have all turned out well, and I decided that it couldn’t hurt to at least come up with a proposal. I did, and then another stage of paralysis and doubt set in. This time to combat it, I had to physically write out all the things I was afraid of–that I’d look like a complete loser-idiot, that I’d impress them and not be able to actually live up to any of what impressed them, that my proposal wasn’t thought-out enough and wouldn’t make the most of this opportunity and I’d be wasting it, that the timing wouldn’t be right, and so on and so forth (it was a hefty list). I then made myself write out a rational response to each of the fears and called my sister and a friend to discuss it and get a little bolstering from their encouragement and support. Then I finally submitted the application, still full of fear, trembling, and nausea.
Apparently, if I were a guy, I would have looked at the fellowship description, thought to myself “Cool, I’m perfect for this!” and fired off a proposal and my application in the day or two after.
I can’t help but find some of my angst and hand-wringing anxiety and insecurity funny, because there is something ridiculous about having to go through such a process and requiring hand-holding and being on the verge of needing medication just to turn in an application. But I also find it very frustrating and draining. As the book of James says, “he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.” According to the Atlantic article, though, I am not alone and a lot of this has both physiological and sociological roots. There’s something comforting about that, because it means that I’m not entirely to blame for these issues (side note–another thing women tend to do is over-blame themselves) and I can stop giving myself such a hard time over this.
Meanwhile, I’m making progress. After going through such a thorough preliminary fear-abating process, I was able to go to my interview with a surprising amount of peace and confidence. Not confidence that I was perfect for the fellowship and would get it, but confidence that, like Popeye, I am who I am and there was no shame in interviewing for something and not getting it, because that’s just part of life and trying new things. As a result, far from being some gut-wrenching ordeal, the interview was truly enjoyable. I was awarded the fellowship, and now I am planning a month-long trip to Denmark and Scotland.
And writing out another fear list. But at least I’m going somewhere.