Bragging Rights: Why it’s Fine to Shine

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I see it all the time: Amazing, capable women who choose to give their power away by disowning or belittling their considerable accomplishments. It happened just this weekend, at a public speaking workshop that I facilitated. Not one but two women stood up, gave presentations about their life’s work, and essentially pooh-poohed the astonishing evidence of their brilliance and determination.

“So, I kind of put together several conferences,” said one woman, describing the growth of a conference series and a foundation she’d established to help bring awareness of her son’s rare genetic disease to the world at large… “and, oh, yeah, we’ve even had some international experts speak at them, so that’s been pretty good…” She tossed off her remarks in a tiny voice and in an offhand manner.

Another woman spoke somewhat tentatively about the services provided by her health care company. When she was done, and someone commented on the importance of her company’s unique services, she replied: “Do you think so?”

These incredible, capable women willingly soft-pedaled their remarkable accomplishments and were uncomfortable taking credit for them. And when I asked them to try once again to verbally express their achievements in a more confident and defined manner, they were flummoxed and flabbergasted: … “Brag about myself? That’s just so HARD,” one of them exclaimed, “I don’t know how to DO that?”

“Well, men sure do,” said an older man, a CEO of several successful companies. “If you were a man, you’d have no trouble standing up and telling us what you’re good at and what you’ve accomplished. It’s what we do!”

Unfortunately, I did not disagree with him. And for the millionth time, I had to ask myself: Why is it that men embrace their bragging rights, while women avoid them like the plague?

To answer that question, all I have to do is look back at my own childhood and remember one of my dad’s pet expressions: “Don’t Toot Your Own Horn.” He’d toss those words at me like a grenade whenever I was overflowing with enthusiasm and pride over some accomplishment or other. I’d hear those words and automatically shrink, like a balloon, to a size that I figured was more tasteful to my father and to the world in general. I got the message: It was, apparently, very bad form to claim your accomplishments publicly, or to declare your involvement in something that was successful, especially if you were a girl. Girls – especially good girls (and, oh, I was such a very Good Girl) were modest, quiet, self-effacing; they NEVER bragged. Because bragging smacked of conceit and arrogance; bragging might make you unlikable. Worst of all, it might make you stand out, and standing out was to be avoided at all costs. Which was ironic, considering that, as a six foot tall girl in the 8th grade, I already stood out like sore thumb. I shrugged off everything I accomplished: Straight As? Oh, I had to work my buns off for them. The lead role in a zillion plays? Luck, pure luck. Athletic prowess? Just a willingness to try hard, that’s all.

The Good Girl syndrome still plagues full-fledged girls and fully-grown women, even in what we might consider a more enlightened 2009. I picked up and read Rachel Simmons’ excellent book, The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence (The Penguin Press) to find out more on the subject ( Ms. Simmons’ hands-on work with girls, and her extensive research, underscore what I witness almost daily with the women I coach and train: That, among other unsettling things, the Good Girl syndrome demands modesty, discouraging girls (and ultimately, women) from committing to their strengths and goals. It also demands that Good Girls diminish and quiet their voice (literally and metaphorically), and tone down or eliminate assertive body language.

Good girls work hard at working hard, and at being perfect, compliant and ultra-nice. They get very good at tamping down their needs, desires and true, authentic feelings in favor of pleasing other people, fitting in and being liked. And then they go out into the world and into the workforce, where the rules radically change. Where, if you want to succeed in business, it’s not enough to be whip-smart and work your buns off: You also have to be able to promote yourself, negotiate and receive feedback. And Good Girls are woefully unprepared to do any of those things. Which is one of the reasons why, once they’re out in the work force, the same Good Girls who were dynamos in middle or high school, will be in fewer positions of leadership, earning less money and asking for fewer raises than men.

The issues “Good Girls” face continue to be issues for us as grown women. Because unless we are aware of these issues, and actively work on them, we won’t outgrow them.

The women I work with wrestle with many of the same issues (i.e. an undeveloped sense of self; an ability to express their authentic voice; an inability to claim their worth) as the “Good Girl” teens Ms. Simmons describes in her book. For example, at her Girls Leadership Institute, Ms. Simmons watched a bright and articulate teen girl struggle to complete an assignment in which she had to list her many talents and strengths. When asked why she was having such trouble with the assignment, the girl replied “I don’t want other people to think I’m conceited.” Which is eerily similar to the answers I get when I query coaching clients –grown women– struggling with the same exercise.

I’m not going to pretend I haven’t spent the better part of my own life grappling with – and coming to terms with– these same issues; it’s probably why I’m so passionate about helping other women overcome them. When I arrived in NYC as a young actress, I figured that my mere presence would somehow titillate the atmosphere to such a degree that the professional acting world would magically find me and offer me acting jobs. Needless to say, that did not occur. Finally, I realized, no one would find me—and discover my talents– unless I helped myself stand out. Which meant marketing my abilities and (sorry, Daddy) tooting my own horn. Because if I didn’t toot my own horn, who the heck would? 20 years later, I’m still tooting my own horn –in the right circumstance, for the right reasons: I do this every time I pick up the phone to have a meaningful conversation about my services with a potential client who is considering hiring me to speak at their conference or to train their team. They’re not interested in having a conversation with – and potentially spending money on–someone who pooh-poohs their own abilities and accomplishments. They need to feel and hear –in my voice, words and attitude–the confidence I feel in what I have done in the past, and in what I can do for them in the future.So, ladies, I challenge you: Stop apologizing for being fabulous and capable. Stop backing off of your abilities and accomplishments and embrace them with all your heart.. Have the courage and the pride to take credit for what you’ve done and who you are. Stand up straight. Look people in the eye. Speak so you can be heard. And claim your bragging rights. Because if you don’t toot your own horn, who will?