Retrain Yourself to Be Yourself

When I was a teenager, I noticed that every sentence I uttered ended with a questioning rise in pitch…? Like it was a question even when it wasn’t…? And I put loads of uncertainty into my statements, even the ones I was flat-out certain of…?

God, it was annoying. Every other girl I knew did it, too, but I noticed that guys didn’t. I noticed that most adult women didn’t. I started watching people, just random strangers in shops or around town. I noticed that every once in a long while, I’d see a woman who was tremendously self-assured, radiating a relaxed confidence that could never be mistaken for bitchy.

I decided I could do that, too. And I did, long before I left my teenage years. Just getting the idea and determining you’re going to change is 80% of the battle.

The real question is why my entire generation had ever slipped into that “Is it okay for me to answer…?” tone of voice. To answer it, I had to look backward. And not just at myself: I had to do some asking around, to see what common experiences had led us to it. And a pattern did emerge.

We had all been trained to self-doubt. Some girls had teachers who refused to call on them if they raised their hands with confidence, saying they were demanding attention. But a meek hand-raise, accompanied by a timid, hopeful frown would get a response. Others noted that if they gave a correct answer flat-out, teachers thought they were being smart-asses. But if they couched that same correct answer in questioning tones and lots of “like, you know” valley girl stuff, the teachers praised them.

Conversely, boys who answered straightforwardly got straightforward responses. Boys who answered uncertainly got encouragement, support and praise. (This is not universal: I had plenty of teachers who were fair, and even one who preferred girls to boys.)

Several of us also recounted stories of teachers “picking on” us – what would now, in today’s lawsuit vernacular, be called harrassment: teachers singling us out specifically, cutting us down in front of other kids, punishing us for things we didn’t do, making us constantly paranoid. No matter what approach we tried, the teachers kept it going with mind games and abuse. In one case, at least some valuable insight was gained: one of my abusive teachers (yes, I had two) escalated a parent/principal/teacher conference that backfired against her. In it, she was backed into admitting just what her problem with me was: I had tested higher on aptitude and intelligence tests than the son of a good friend of hers, so she felt I needed some humbling.

Strangely, all of the girls who recounted these experiences claimed they never doubted themselves while it was happening: they knew they weren’t doing anything wrong, and it was the teacher who was nuts. Just speaking for myself, I know experiences like that have made me more confident as an adult. And every girl I talked to who’d been through something similar reported that it had made them stronger, not weaker. We all decided to take it as a compliment if someone felt threatened by us.

So… why’d we get all hair-twirly-girly when we were teenagers?

Was it because we were starting to look at boys, and getting signals that they didn’t want a woman who was more confident than they are? You know all the old maxims about always letting a man think he’s getting his way (while surreptitiously walking all over him), always laughing at his jokes, always saying he’s so smart.

Or was it that we were starting to feel the beginnings of adult pressures to fit into the world or be denied a living? I remember girls I knew talking about how you would “starve to death” if you didn’t have a college degree, so clearly there was some programming coming from somewhere (note: in the US, you’re probably more likely to end up homeless because of an excess of degrees than of the lack of them).

Whatever the reason, I still see young women, even well into their twenties, hiding their self-assurance behind masks of humble, adorable uncertainty. Is it serving them well? Is it serving them as well as a more confident approach would?

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