Give me confidence! Or some semblance of it.
August 28, 2014 5:32 AM   Subscribe

I have a self deprecating sense of humour and I've come to realise that I can take it too far. I can sometimes play dumb and it gives the impression that I don't know what I'm doing/talking about. But at this point in my life/career, I do!! (in certain areas, I think). Help me change my wiring.

Example. I was working on a project (a live event) with a couple collaborators, and coming into some disagreement with one of them. She was talking about marketing and publicity, to which my joking response was a loud, exaggerated whispered "I don't actually know the difference!" Laughter (score 1 for me). She went on to explain the difference and I TOTALLY KNEW THE DIFFERENCE (and also, we only needed publicity but I digress). Anyway, add a few more examples of this sort of thing that I do and the upshot is that I came across like I don't know what I'm doing, when in actuality we've done two other iterations of this project already that I essentially produced and directed myself while she stayed in the background during crunch time (to be clear, she's a friend-ish, I like her, we just clashed on a few points). On top of that, I've worked in a related field for over 15 years, 10 of those in a creative head of department capacity on multi-million dollar productions, and while there are some differences, I effing know what I'm talking about, or at the very least, I know what I don't know and how to find out. I think (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)

However! I am so hard wired to put myself down and defer to others, regardless of experience, that I think I do myself a disservice. It doesn't inspire others to have confidence in my ability, although in my particular day job I am liked and respected and work hard. It's just when I wade out into other areas where I might feel less sure about this that I put that front and centre, often in a joking way, but ultimately to my detriment.

(I have some theories about having an inferiority complex due to having grown up in an intimidating, strict family and having "respect your elders unconditionally" drummed into me, and being a P.O.C. etc culture etc female etc but that's by the by.)

How do I fix this? My dear partner was the first to point it out properly, and often reminds me that I need to curb it or find some other default mode of humour. He's a bit younger than me and earlier in his career, and he points out how far I've come in mine, and yet, I already have started to defer to him in more than a few instances because he's so confident in his (despite only really having started in the last couple years. He's also awesome and precocious and reminds me that he comes from white middle class privilege but that's by the by).

I think I also do it to disarm and make other people feel smarter or in some way better? Like they don't have to prove themselves because there's already this other dingbat in the group. It's a less helpful version of being the class clown, maybe.

Partner says I'm doing well to notice it after the fact at least, and I'm starting to notice on rare occasions when I'm saying something self-deprecating but I still can't stop myself. Are there any other exercises I can do to speed this along? It's like I put myself down and have to work twice as hard to get people's confidence back, it's just not efficient. Please help!
posted by scuza to Human Relations (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
In my last performance review, my manager noted that he was pleased to see me presenting myself more confidently. I think one of the contributing factors is that whereas before, I saw myself as being an odd choice to lead the program I lead (my background is all over the place), I came to terms with it and realized that at this point I know more about it than anyone else does. You might try reflecting a bit more consciously on who you are, what your strengths are, and how you want to be seen. I think if you internalize the idea of yourself as a competent person, you might be less likely to do the self-deprecation thing (which I am also guilty of, but I notice drives me bonkers when my colleagues do it. I feel like it just wastes time in a meeting. Get to the point!).
posted by chocotaco at 6:21 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have similar tendencies, and it has caused me similar issues at work. I've overcome this by practicing. At first, I kept a little checklist on my desk that I would look at before every meeting (in fact, I'd put a reminder in my calendar to look at it before the meeting) that included things I needed to do to be prepared. It had stuff on it like "review notes from previous meeting" and "bring pen" but also "Hold fast", "Don't play dumb" and "The lowest ranked graduate from medical school is called doctor."

During meetings, I would sometimes literally bite my tongue to keep from saying something like that, or other times stab my foot with my pen (under the table, where no one could see). Anything to choke it back.

Maybe a checklist isn't what you need. But I think it helps to have some kind of reminder right before a specific type of situation where you tend to put yourself down. A rubberband on your wrist? A reminder on your phone? Anything like that.

Once you are practicing these changes in one specific area, the changes will spread and you'll feel more comfortable.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:21 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When you mention your femaleness and your partner's male privilege, you do it in parenthesis and make it out to be a side issue. But this issue is very classically gendered. Male confidence is rewarded while female confidence is discouraged through subtle social signals ("micro-inequities").

Maybe from your perspective that's just "backstory," because you're focused on changing your own wiring – but it might be helpful to be aware of the social habits that reinforce this structure, and especially to realize that those habits are stupid and ridiculous.

You don't need to be a dingbat to be disarming! You can also just ask questions when something is unclear, for example. That shows you're not omniscient, but also that you're basically confident enough to admit it. Sometimes there really is unclarity and just by asking a simple question you can start a valuable discussion.

A simple example that comes to mind... A boring presentation by a dull and unsympathetic (white male) manager, PowerPoints with revenue charts and so on. A (female) coworker at some point asked something like "so the Y axis is labelled with [some arcane acronym], what is that?" I'm pretty sure most people in the audience had no clue, so the question is disarming in a way, but also quite powerful: it signals that you're following the presentation and aren't afraid to ask.
posted by mbrock at 6:24 AM on August 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: First of all, I think you do have confidence. Look at that:

I effing know what I'm talking about

Good for you! I think it more "communication style and deportment" rather than an underlying lack of self-confidence for you....yes? Also it's not clear (to me) from your question what the negative effects of your self-deprecation are on your career. Are you losing out on interesting assignments or being talked over in meetings? Maybe it's not as bad as you think. The example you cite in your first paragraph....if I'd been part of the group, I would have thought you were clever and confident, and the person who lectured you was a humorless pedant. Again, good for you! But I will assume since you're asking, it is a problem sometimes.

One of the tricks that helped me as woman moving though my 30s, was just to become more comfortable with silences. As women, we are socialized to fill awkward conversational gaps and make everyone feel at ease. We don't have to do that! There's nothing wrong with allowing some pauses in group discussion - it slows down that urge to make a jokey comment and gives you a few seconds to remind yourself that you effing know what you're talking about.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:30 AM on August 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I had this same problem too. The answer is to fake it till you make it. To start out, you don't actually have to "be" confident. Step one is that when those clever, self-deprecated remarks pop into your mind, don't say them out loud. Just let the opportunity to get some laughs pass and let your brain move on to the next thing.
posted by deanc at 7:27 AM on August 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I do this quite a bit, and I found that figuring out what response I wanted from the self-deprecation helps me to work within my more self-confident parameters. For instance, if I saw an opportunity to make a self-deprecating joke to clear the air and make other people like me (like your, "I don't know the difference!" joke), I'll actively try to find something funny or light to say that actually spotlights what I know (that joke could easily be, "Make sure we include the difference between PR and Marketing for those folks who insist it's the same thing!" or something).

When I'm self-deprecating to try to fit in and seem like a non-threat, I try to find ways of complimenting people that doesn't diminish my status. "Thanks for your great input! I am very excited about working on this project together!" And so on.
posted by xingcat at 7:35 AM on August 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Building on what zingcat said - maybe make more outrageous jokes to keep the lighter mood you enjoy without sandbagging yourself.

If you spent any part of your life where you would "get in trouble" for asserting yourself or were constantly reminded that you were not good enough or that everybody else, anybody else was better than you, then work through a few a those memories and look at them logically - whoever had that attitude was wrong.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:59 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I recommend reading about authority charisma in the book The Charisma Myth. It sounds like you have a lot of kindness charisma, but could use more authority charisma.

The book has recommendations on body language (stand squarely on both feet, stand up straight, breathe deeply), and voice (project your voice like an actor, vary your voice instead of using a monotone).

It's admirable that you want to disarm people and make them feel smart. But it doesn't actually feel that great for them to go from being nervous to feeling like "well, at least I'm only the second-stupidest one here." Even in terms of their self-esteem, it's way better to feel like "wow, scuza has worked on amazing multi-million dollar projects for 15 years, and she respects me! I must be super smart!"

Instead of self-deprecating jokes, you could joke about your past experience or make jokes about how awesome the group is, e.g.:

- "Guys, we did better marketing last week on a budget of $5,000 than my $2 million production last year. If only I could've worked with you guys and split the $2 million budget between us instead!"

- (as disagreement arose) "I'm willing to give up point-A if you'll yield on point-B! Compromise? Come on, work with me here!"

- (another disagreement tactic) "Let's make sure we have the same goal. Our shared goal is to increase metric-X by 20%, metric-Y by 10%, make big-boss happy, and then go to local-bar and get blitzed, right?" This can be very revealing, because often disagreements come from people having different interpretations of the project. She might say "What? I thought the goal was to increase metric-Y and we didn't care about metric-X! That's why I was suggesting marketing instead of publicity!" Even if it highlights you have the same goals, it reminds everyone that you're on the same team working toward the same purpose.

If all the jokes and compliments fail, you have to become okay with seeing other uncomfortable, without feeling that it's up to you to "fix" it at all costs. Sometimes people are just nervous for a while. You help them as much as you can, but then you have to let them get through it on their own.

Regarding deferring to your partner because he acts more confident, are you fearing that you'll be embarrassed if challenged? Practice not being embarrassed. If you're corrected in public, just say, "Thanks." or "I stand corrected. Thank you." Even if someone straight out says, "You think you're an expert on this, but really you don't know what you're doing," just say calmly, "I do believe I'm an expert, but I'm open to hearing your suggestions, if you can say them in a civil manner."
posted by vienna at 8:49 AM on August 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

" Laughter (score 1 for me)."

In fact, no - that was score -1 for you. Yes, it feels good to "lighten the mood", but why were they laughing? Be careful that you're not inviting people to laugh at you, or forcing people to laugh uncomfortably.

Before you make a statement about yourself, consider how it would sound if you were referring to someone else in the room. She's talking about marketing and publicity, and you say "I don't think you even know the difference," and some other people in the meeting kind of chuckle. But no, that's unacceptably rude, you don't go around making snide remarks about people, or putting people down like that, even if it's funny. And those people probably didn't think it was genuinely funny, they were just laughing to cover the awkwardness or maybe so you wouldn't go after them next. Moral: If you wouldn't do it to somebody else, don't do it to yourself.
posted by aimedwander at 8:59 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have some theories about having an inferiority complex due to having grown up in an intimidating, strict family and having "respect your elders unconditionally" drummed into me, and being a P.O.C. etc culture etc female etc but that's by the by.

I'm not so sure this is by-the-by at all; I think these are exactly the sorts of things that strongly influence our personal narratives and internal monologues in very deep, complex, and insidious ways. I'd encourage you to continue cultivating a sense of mindfulness around these issues, and see how they might be playing in to your self-deprecating impulses.

One exercise that might help is when you next catch yourself making one of these jokes, ask yourself: "whose voice was that?" Be sure you are inquiring in a spirit of gentle, open curiosity. Don't judge your answer. Just... see if you can burrow a little deeper into the storyline that's playing out. Maybe it will suddenly pop into your head that what you just said was actually the kind of thing a family member used to say, or a teacher, or an ex, or someone you saw in a movie once... whatever it is, the point is that this is coming from somewhere that has been embodied by someone.

Now, once you've started to identifying these voice(s)/character(s) that are populating your internal narrative, you will be able to take your mindfulness to the next steps. You'll begin to consciously recognize the narrative that's playing out in your head as you have the impulse to say something self-deprecating. This will allow you to catch yourself, and to make a choice to say something else in that moment.

As this continues, you'll probably see a pattern beginning to emerge -- that this impulse tends to happen in certain situations, for example, or when certain feelings are being triggered for you. This is where you can start actively rewriting your internal monologue, from a point of view of understanding and gentleness. For example, "Oh, that's the old impulse to crack a joke so people won't reject me. But I know now that people can like me for my skills and intelligence." Keep being gentle, aware, positive and realistic with your language -- no grandiose statements or exaggeration, no judgment, no "all or nothing" thinking, etc. -- and with some persistence, you can start to override the old narratives.
posted by scody at 9:20 AM on August 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

One thing that could help is to identify some of the specific words and phrases you automatically use (looks like one of them is "I think" which you identified above) and decide to replace them with something more confident (for example, "in my experience") or replace them with silence (instead of "I think marketing and publicity are different," it would be "Marketing and publicity are different.")

At home, imagine what people might say in an upcoming work situation and role play your response in the mirror or video yourself until you look and sound polished and confident.

Also at home, try going overboard with overconfidence to stretch yourself in that direction, which can help bring you to more of a middle ground at work. For example, sit at your desk in your home office leaning back in your chair with your feet on your desk like a caricature of a business mogul. Strut around the house with your shoulders down and back, reminiscing about your past successes, and lecturing an imaginary underling about how they should everything exactly as you did in order to succeed.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:31 AM on August 28, 2014

I have noticed that competent women seem to do this a lot. I think it is because it is kind of not okay to be a competent, powerful woman. It gets done to get people off our backs. It gets done to defuse the shitshow that goes down if we don't do it. It gets done because we have cultural role models for alpha males to follow but women are mostly supposed to be subservient. I was one of the top three students of my graduating class. I used to engage in a lot of self-deprecating humor. I have worked hard to try to find alternative ways to deal with these issues. I am still working on developing answers because I think there mostly aren't good models on how women can be women and very competent. We are offered the option of mimicking alpha males but trying to feminize that, and that seems to not work, or being at the bottom of the hierarchy.

I recently read a book by Frans de Waal called Our Inner Ape. One of the things he talked about was the role that alpha females play in the group. This is the first time I have ever seen a template laid out for a good role for a female in power. It has been good food for thought for me and I feel like it gives me a path forward for how to be a woman and not be a second class citizen. Because there are ways in which I am very extremely stereotypically feminine and I have never found a model for how to still be me and be competent and authoritative. I have seen models for how to behave more like a man but not how to be a woman in this role.

So maybe one of more of his books would similarly cast light on this issue for you.

I also try a lot harder these days to more clearly signal that I AM KIDDING when I make self deprecating jokes. And I am more careful about whom I make them with. I think it isn't a problem if done amongst folks who know that you are good at what you do but are just not an egomaniac. I think it is problematic when it becomes a kind of mixed signal which now puts you in this double bind of not being able to correct them without sounding like you are an egomaniac or making them look stupid or something. They need to be in on the joke or it stops being a joke and becomes a social problem.

I once asked for feedback on what to do at work instead of making self-deprecating jokes and a woman with more career success than I had suggested that instead of putting myself down to make people feel comfortable, I could try complimenting others. So elevate others rather than denigrating yourself and also that gives them warm-fuzzy feelings about interacting with you. I think this is the point of the value you place on getting a laugh -- it is a positive feeling you are trying to evoke -- but that positive feeling has an ugly cost.

I have found that judicious use of compliments -- not in a schmoozy way, but in an acknowledging their actual good qualities way -- is helpful in getting along with others and all that.

I am still working on this. I am still struggling with this. But I have found some things that work and it's less of a problem. Though I think it is a multi-faceted problem and it has helped me to look at it as a complex thing and not just some one-off personality quirk.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 11:32 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hmm, familiar. Charming, deferring, and using self-deprecation to lighten the weight of your requests are classically feminine strategies of gaining engagement and approval by removing all semblance of threat. I.e. working to be liked, rather than respected. I agree that encouraging respect, vs. likeability, is a weird thing for women, who are negatively judged for using tactics that look too much like the ones men use (taking an authoritative tone, using strongly declarative or imperative statements, etc.).

I think it's probably useful for women (in terms of minimizing backlash) to retain a bit of softness, even while claiming authority. So I agree with all the advice above along the lines of staying on the friendly side, but making the jokes about things that aren't you. (At the same time that you just say the things you know, because you know things.)

I also agree with acting the part. One quick and dirty way of doing it on a surface level is using clothing. I don't know about you, but I tend to shift, just a bit, into the characters suggested by particular outfits. If I put on a cocktail dress and let my hair stay loose, I move and hold myself a little differently than when I'm wearing a t-shirt and jeans with hair up, and a bit differently again in a sharp suit with a collared shirt and clackety shoes. Also, you could try to model your behaviour after strong women you know. The ones I know tend not to move around a lot and take their time speaking.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:19 PM on August 28, 2014

I am so glad you are thinking about this because it is such a common problem for women and most of us take forever to realise it, and lots of us never get it handled.

I used to have this problem in a big way, and still default to self-deprecating if I'm not careful. Example: last week I had a meeting external to my organization with a guy who's a peer and a woman who's junior to me. They had asked me to come in to offer advice on a challenge they were facing. I kicked off recapping why I was there, and said a bunch of self-deprecating stuff about how the specific problem was hard, I was not an expert, but was happy to kick in and give them an hour. The guy (who I know pretty well) was fine with that, but it was immediately obvious that the woman (who I hadn't previously met) took it at face value and took what I said less seriously because of it. I was kind of pissed at myself afterwards -- the meeting didn't matter at all to me, but it was a resurgence of a bad habit I ought to have broken by now.

The lesson I have learned over and over again is that when you say something self-deprecating, especially if you're a woman or otherwise a member of a marginalised group: people believe you. Women are trained to be modest and charming, and so we do it reflexively. But it hurts us. Especially because the male pattern (and therefore the standard pattern, especially at work) is the opposite. Men reflexively, generally, are over-confident. And guess what: they are also believed.

I don't have much practical advice. If you can take a workshop from the Op Ed Project that would be awesome: this is exactly what they help with. If not, I'd recommend yes, getting comfortable with silence. Saying nothing is better than undermining yourself. Start imagining and thinking of yourself as competent rather than likeable. Let go of the idea that it's your job to make things smooth and pleasant and fun, and instead hold back a little. Wear dark colours. Avoid cute :)
posted by Susan PG at 6:39 PM on August 28, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. You're right, those parenthicals are not side issues.

It's strange, I can be both very confident in some areas and also shrink away in situations less familiar to me. What it does is put me on the backfoot if I need to debate an issue with someone (be it male, female, or in between). I just don't do myself any favours. Part of the jokey-ness comes from a feeling that I come across as young, quiet, and studious (perhaps this is internalised stereotyping because I can pass for mid-twenties despite being mid-thirties and am, well, Asian. And female. So being put in a relatively high position at a time when I could have passed for a high schooler and having people judge me as being either too young for the job or resentful of my perceived youth, or too...straight/nerdy, perhaps?...for so many years makes me actively work against this impression in this unhelpful way).

Hearing similar experiences and practical advice is very helpful. In summary, I'm going to work to get comfortable with silences, and work harder to joke only about things that aren't directly about me (that's the big thing that I default to). And practice preparing myself before each meeting/encounter to remind me of these. Often I just go into things headfirst without considering what might be said, and then I go into default mode.

Thanks again, everyone!
posted by scuza at 9:36 PM on August 28, 2014

Best answer: My sister had serious career success in her twenties. She got good at dressing in a very serious fashion and it helped her appear older and more authoritative. She is 6.5 years older than me but was sometimes mistaken for my mother when I was a teenager, in part because she dressed so seriously. She referred to her work clothes as her "armor." So it is possible to downplay the "I am so young/look so much younger than I really am" thing.

Also, I wanted to clarify when I talk about complimenting other people but "don't be schmoozy," I have found that telling people "YOU are awesome/the greatest thing since sliced bread/whatever" or "I am YOUR biggest fan" type thing is problematic in much the same way as self-deprecating humor: It convinces the other person they are superior to you. What I have found helpful is giving credit where credit is due and talking about good work, good traits and good habits. Saying "They are very good at what they do" or "They are habitually punctual/polite/whatever" or "they did this thing very well on this project" are things that work to elevate others without lowering myself in their eyes. So don't compliment the person, instead compliment their work, their habits and their positive traits. Don't exaggerate. Don't say "They are the very best" unless they really are. Mean what you say, don't just do it as social manipulation.

I think I am nice, compassionate, etc, so I tend to assume people know that I don't have some hugely negative assessment of them and I tend to assume no one cares what I think about them anyway. In practice, I find that neither of those things is true. People do care what I think and when I am not giving credit where credit is due, they assume I hate them, they assume nothing they do is good enough in my eyes, and so on. So I find that I do, in fact, need to tell people what I think of them but I need to do it judiciously. I can't do it too much or make it too much about their ego or that kind of thing. But, yes, I actually do need to tell people that I think they are good at x or they have y positive trait or I respect them for z virtuous habit. And doing that is a much more reliable means to get the kinds of effects I was hoping for when I was constantly putting myself down in a joking manner.

I will add that I asked a similar question on a professional forum after running into the highest ranked female in my department at a Fortune 500 company in the bathroom. And she was making all these self deprecating remarks. And my reaction was "God, at her rank and all, is her self esteem THAT poor???!! WTF?" and then I realized later that, no, she is probably trying to be approachable and put me at ease and trying to signal "don't feel all intimidated just because I am 5 levels above you and have the power to fire your sorry ass." And that was when I went "Ooooh. That self deprecating humor thing I do does not read the way I want it to. Not at all. I have got to work on that. That is a major fail."

So you are in very good company. Lots of extremely successful women do this. And good on you for trying to figure out a better answer, because it really does not work.
posted by Michele in California at 9:36 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bite the bullet to begin acknowledging and internalizing your own sense of power.
posted by infini at 5:43 AM on September 13, 2014

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