My mother has many stories about her experiences as a private piano teacher—stories about tiger moms, children she has come to love like her own, kids turning to self-harm in order to try and cope; stories that speak to larger cultural differences in how people raise their children.
One of these stories is about a little experiment in which my mother had students play through a piece of music, and then asked them to critique themselves before giving any input herself. What she learned by doing this was that, across the board, male students tended to overestimate how well they had performed, while female students underestimated their performances.
There is actual research to support findings like this in not only children, but adults as well, and the results are overwhelming. In a study on self-perception at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Brenda Major found that “men consistently overestimated their abilities and subsequent performance, and the women routinely underestimated both. The actual performances did not differ in quality.” Additionally, another area of the research, called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, suggests that high achieving people tend to underestimate their abilities, while low achievers overestimate their own.
There seems to also be a difference between men and women in how they attribute failure. When men are struggling with something, they recognize the challenge for what it is, responding with, “This is a tough class/project/problem,” and so on, attributing their struggle to an outside source. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to respond with, “I’m not good enough to pass this class/solve this problem,” attributing their failure internally.
This reaction speaks to their beliefs about their capabilities as human beings, and as a woman, instead of recognizing the hurdle as being outside of themselves.
These are only a few brief examples of what you will find if you start to research this topic.
I’ve been thinking about my own self-perception and reactions to success more often in the four months since I started a new job—what I would call my “dream job.” The people I work with have been extremely complimentary of my performance these last few months, and I have been receiving much more validation from my peers than I am used to, and I guess I haven’t known quite how to react.
Obviously, I say thank you and am grateful and flattered that others have noticed and appreciated my work. But many times I have found myself attributing my success to some outside source—mainly, my mentor who happens to also be my boss in this new job. I say I have only arrived at this point because of the things he taught me and his faith in me. I say I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and to know the right people. And every time someone compliments my work, I feel the stirrings of my good friends—anxiety and self-doubt—open their eyes, look around, and say, “Oh don’t worry, soon they’ll see the full extent of your mediocrity.”
What I haven’t been able to articulate, what hasn’t felt “okay” to say aloud, but has been knocking on the door of my conscious mind, begging to be seen, is that actually, a large part of why I am here today is because I worked hard. I worked hard, I took risks, I failed and got up again. I learned from my mistakes, and I am actually good at my job.
I have struggled with allowing myself to fully accept these compliments from others even though I so desperately crave outside validation and struggled with actually having the gumption to say it out loud. Why is it so difficult for me to admit publicly that I’m good at what I do and that at least some of my success has been because of me, and not because of anything or anyone else?
I don’t want to seem arrogant. I’m very aware of how much more there is to learn and that I’m not perfect. I am also aware of the countless people who have helped me along the way, and that my trajectory would’ve been drastically different without any one of them. Unlike many of the men I read about in the research, I don’t have the inherent belief that I am desirable and have a right to succeed—instead, I often feel like an impostor.
I’m not sure where to attribute these parts of myself, whether its genetics, hormones, upbringing, or the culture we live in. The psychologists and researchers aren’t sure about the source either. But after doing some reading, it’s comforting to find that I am not alone.
And very, very slowly, I can feel myself starting to accept and believe the recognition I receive from others. Maybe accepting praise does not mean I lack humility. Maybe my good friends anxiety and self-doubt are the true impostors, and not the calm, resonating belief in myself and my abilities.
Author: Vanessa Chumbley
Image: Flickr/Marko Milosevic
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman