Psychologist Spotlight Blog: Bridging the Confidence Gap, Why Anxiety and Courage Matter by Dr. Alicia H. Clark
Courage of the Lioness
“I am woman – Hear. Me. Roar.” Many have heard this phrase from Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit. These six words cut to a matter of utmost concern in modern culture today: women’s confidence. “I Am Woman” was an anthem for female empowerment over forty years ago, yet today there is increasing focus on women’s lack of self-confidence, especially compared to men. This has been termed the “confidence gap.” When women act out their inner, roaring “lioness” qualities – stretch out and up, believe they are leaders of the jungle, and risk taking charge – women can be their true, confident selves. And yet this remains elusive for so many of us. Why?
Lean In, Ban Bossy, The Confidence Gap, The Confidence Code: Women’s lack of confidence compared to men has garnered much media discussion recently due in part to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, her collaboration with the Girl Scout’s launching the Ban Bossy campaign, (stating, “The confidence gap starts early”), and the Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “The Confidence Gap” (April, 2014), based on The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. The opening line of The Confidence Code states the issue clearly: “Evidence shows that women are less self-assured than men—and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence. Here’s why, and what to do about it.”
Anxiety’s Role in Self Doubt, Inaction, and Avoidance
The Ban Bossy campaign and the Atlantic Monthly article cover much needed ground. There is consensus women need to take more action, risk more, and be willing to fail. But how do we do this? And why is it so hard? The key to building confidence not addressed widely in the media and literature on women’s confidence is the ability to understand and harness anxiety. Yes, anxiety. As women, we feel more anxiety, and need to learn how to better understand and embrace it, use it as a springboard for courageous action, which in turn builds confidence.
The Ban Bossy campaign, Lean In, and The Confidence Code all agree that women are too often burdened with self doubt, and retreat from risk for a variety of reasons. Self-doubt, an expression of anxiety, often translates into avoidance and inaction. Not trying is the ingrained “freeze or flee” response to the stimulus of fear. We know that avoiding a stressor only serves to make it bigger, not smaller. Avoidance begets future avoidance, and problems tend to snowball. Research indicates that anxiety is a key player in decision-making, often tempting us to be more cautious than we need to be.
Anxiety and Female Biology
Scientific research points to higher anxiety levels in women than in men, likely underpinning women’s reduced sense of confidence. When women feel anxiety, we are sometimes accused of “being hormonal.” Whether it’s “that time of the month,” adolescence, pregnancy, postpartum weeks, or menopause, any anxiety women feel can be brushed off as merely a chemical upswing. While dismissive and even offensive, this is not entirely false: female hormones, particularly estrogen and progesterone, play a key role in the experience of anxiety for women, each having its own fluctuations and interplay within the body. Science is only recently coming to understand exactly how these hormones’ impact anxiety, but there is agreement that these predominantly female hormones do, in fact, impact anxiety levels for most women. This does not mean women are predestined to be less confident. Understanding these facts can lead to change and empowerment. We can roar!
Anxiety and Confidence
Anxiety can be a confidence killer. Think of anxiety and confidence on opposite ends of a scale – as anxiety goes up, confidence goes down. Knowing women are biologically wired to feel more anxiety than men, it makes sense that many women struggle with confidence issues. There is no question in my mind that anxiety is behind women’s avoidance of action, and this inaction, in turn, begins a vicious cycle leading to poor self-confidence and limited success. Case in point, a foundational element to the Ban Bossy leadership campaign is data collected by the Girl Scout Research Institute in their study entitled, “Change It Up.” This study shows that fears of failure, being judged, or losing relationships drives girls’ inhibitions and lack of motivation to lead. Simply stated, fear of rejection is primary, and fuels avoidance of risk-taking in most girls. Of course, fear of rejection is nothing more than anxiety.
So what is anxiety really? Anxiety is a signal of internal conflict. It is that quiet (or not so quiet) voice that whispers, “You aren’t good enough;” or “things could turn out badly;” or “you’ll get hurt.” Anxiety’s voice can be crippling, leading to inaction, but it can also provide critical information needed for adaptation and provide energy needed to take action.
At its best, anxiety is an information source about internal or external conflicts. Deciphering and listening to anxiety’s message is a key first step in assessing what needs to be done. Ask yourself – what are you worrying about, what are the conflicts, and what would you do if you were not afraid. These are a few methods to harness anxiety’s message towards taking the necessary steps forward. Anxiety is a powerful unrelenting energy source, readying our bodies for action. Recognize the energy in your anxiety and seek to harness it for productive action. If taking action feels too big, too overwhelming, break the action into smaller pieces, small enough that your natural resistance to moving forward is fooled. Anxiety is after all our body’s way of preparing itself for action – fight or flight. A lion fights! With practice, we can choose how to discharge our natural anxiety into productive action. Anxiety is simply an energized signal, how we react to it is up to us.
Taking action isn’t always easy, even if it seems simple. This is where confidence, self-esteem, and courage come in. Confidence and self esteem serve as ballast to life’s turmoil, and the anxieties it generates, by supplying a willingness to be brave and act courageously. Confidence is that counterveiling voice that tells us “even though it’s hard, you can do it, you will feel better for having tried, and you’re going to be okay.” Confidence is built up over time in incremental steps and can be actively cultivated through action.
Anxiety into Action – a Call for Courage
Courage is fundamental to taking action amidst anxiety, making brave decisions, and leading. Like any muscle, courage needs to be practiced and exercised to get stronger. Every time we stretch, and try to the point of vulnerability, confidence and self-esteem grow. Working with and through anxiety builds confidence and creates the positive feedback loop that offsets anxiety’s downward spiral that depletes confidence.
Women need to be clear on how insidious anxiety can be, and start to see it as a natural response that can be mobilized into action, not simply avoided. Harnessing anxiety’s energy, mustering courage, and pushing through fear are critical to bridging the confidence gap.
Let’s help women recognize their anxieties and learn how to quickly mobilize them into action. This way, we’ll have the key to reverse the cycle of inaction. Anxiety can be viewed as a good thing, a positive force for change. A catalyst for actualizing confidence. An excuse to grow. A reason to improve. A voice to sound. Hear. Us. Roar.
Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, PLLC
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Washington, DC Private Practice since 1999
Assistant Professor, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Washington, DC campus
National Register Credentialed since 2008
Member, American Psychological Association
Visit my Website: AliciaClarkPsyD.com