On self-confidence, and self-criticism

I came across an article this week, titled “The Trouble with Bright Girls” by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D

This may be the first thing I’ve ever read on self-confidence and self-criticism that makes sense to me.

I know I’m good at self-criticism. I know I lack self-confidence at times. But, I never really knew why. So I never knew how to fix it. Anything I have tried to fix it (i.e. telling myself things like “stop being that way” because I don’t know what else to do,) has failed miserably.  That does not work.

You should read the whole article.  But if you don’t want to read the whole article, I’ve included some highlights.

“[psychologist Carol Dweck (author of “Mindset“)] found that Bright [fifth grade] Girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up; the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts rather than give up.

So, what does that mean?  Boys are more persistent? It seems like that might come from having more confidence. Isn’t that a “catch-22?”

“Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: More often than not, Bright Girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

I never noticed it, but I have felt that way my whole life.  I have always thought that abilities are innate and unchangeable.  I have.  I thought everybody knew that. Wow.

“How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or “such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

“Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”) The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart,” and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

Huh.  That’s interesting.  I can relate to receiving that kind of girl-praise.

“And because Bright Girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves — women who will prematurely conclude that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena, and give up way too soon.

Woah.  That hits home.  I have concluded that I “don’t have what it takes” a lot.  Sometimes I give up and quit.  Sometimes I get over it for awhile, try again, and end up repeating the same sick cycle.

I think it happens the very most when I’m playing sports.  I started playing hockey circa 1999.  Then I gave up and quit sometime in 2006.  I like to tell people it’s because I got burnt out being the team captain.  That’s a tiny bit true.  But the big reason was that I became so frustrated with myself and my lack of ability that it wasn’t fun anymore.  But part of me missed it.  I started playing again sometime in 2009.

Lately I have started seeing signs of the downturn of that cycle again.  I’m find myself looking at the time clock during games, wondering how much longer we have in the game because I kinda want to leave.  Not really bad, just kinda.  Sometimes I find myself wondering why I even keep playing when “I can’t seem to do X” and “I don’t understand Y.”  And just in the past few weeks I think I’ve started manufacturing other reasons that maybe I don’t belong, like that I can’t put up with women in the locker room badmouthing my boyfriend, when really that only happened once, and the truth is everyone likes him and everyone has my and his back anyway, and I’m pretty sure that won’t be happening again.  So that’s not a real reason.

“So if you were a Bright Girl, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.

We start a new session of hockey in a couple weeks.  I’ve only just started noticing the downswing; It’s not beyond repair yet. Maybe I can leverage this to give me a whole new, and much better, perspective on my self-perceived “abilities.”

So there were really 2 main things that all of this has helped me realize.

1. As I’m reading and reflecting on all of this, I have come to realize how much “I just can’t do it” has become such a regular part of my inner vocabulary.  A statement of defeat; as if that’s it, that is the end, it’s a fact and there’s nothing else to be done about it.  Now that I am aware that I’ve always thought abilities are innate and unchangeable, hopefully working on convincing myself that is just untrue will be more effective than trying to convince myself to just “stop being that way.”

2. The article doesn’t mention this exactly, but I think this is also why I tend to take things more personally than I should.   I have abilities and thought processes, which in turn form my opinions, situations, etc.  You see, I’ve never realized that I’ve always (even if subconsciously) thought that those things are innate and unchangeable.  So, I’ve  never been able to separate comments/opinions on those things that are not innate and unchangeable, from things that are innately me.  If everything really was innately me, then of course it’s personal.  So, come to find out, it’s not.

And again I quote this:

“So if you were a Bright Girl, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.

I hope this means I can do that.

The only thing I’m left to ponder is: if the type of praise, the type described in the article, that is often given to girls at a young age ends up having un-intended, negative effects, then what is the right way to give girls praise?  At least, what is a better way?


6 Responses to “On self-confidence, and self-criticism”

  1. Joshua Says:

    Hi Gayle —

    Lovely article, thanks for sharing this.

    I don’t have the book in front of me, but I seem to remember that Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers discusses something similar. In the book, I think he makes it a comparison between Western and Eastern ideas about how one reacts when something is “hard”. My memory is that he says Chinese kids are less likely to avoid working on hard tasks. I believe he makes some recommendations for “teaching” American kids to have a more Eastern outlook.

    Also: I was reminded of a psychological study where people diagnosed with depression were more likely to describe good things that happened to them as being the result of luck or fate or chance, and bad things that happened to them as being the result of their own poor efforts and shortcomings. And, of course, that non-depressed people had largely the opposite reactions. I don’t believe they established which was cause and which effect, but it convinced me to try harder to believe that good things are because of my efforts & abilities, and bad things were just random bad luck.

  2. Gayle Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Joshua.

    It was also cool to see responses and re-tweets on twitter. Here’s one from from my co-worker, Jason:
    “There’s a chapter on the same research in the article you tweeted in this book: http://t.co/lBFaAb7 [NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children]
    “In the book they talk about praising how hard your kids worked to get a result instead of how “smart” they are.

  3. Mike Busch Says:

    Gayle, great post! I love that you are brave enough to introspect in this very public forum. Totally awesome.

    Here are a couple great podcasts (strangely part of the Ruby on Rails podcast by Geoffrey Grosenbach) with Jon Medina on why children may develop to NOT be confident in their own abilities. Great listens too, as Jon Medina is a pretty off the wall and excited kind of guy.

    Hope those offer some insight, and keep up the wonderful writing.

  4. James Bender Says:

    GREAT post!

    BTW, for the record you have gotten better and better at hockey over the past year. I believe I’ve seen you take the puck from “Hockey Jeebus” on several occasions lately. 😉

    • Gayle Says:

      Glad you liked it, thanks! Thanks for the compliment too. Though it’s still up to me to feel that about myself, it helps.

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