I have long admired Stacy Abrams. When she lost the Georgia governor’s race in a very unethical election supervised by her opponent, Brian Kemp, she decided to fight back by founding multiple organizations devoted to voting rights, training and hiring young people of color.
Ms. Abrams has a fascinating background: a writer of romance novels, graduate of Harvard Law School, for seven years she was the Minority Leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, as well as being the first black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party. She co-founded Nourish, Inc., a beverage company with a focus on infants and toddlers, and is CEO of Sage Works, a legal consulting firm that has represented clients including the Atlanta Dream of the Women’s National Basketball Association.
Her book, “Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change” is a handbook for outsiders. Abrams says that many of us are plagued with self-doubt: we play down our capacities, pretending that we’re being humble. We pretend not to be interested when we’re really scared as shit to try something new.
As sexual, ethnic and gender-based minorities, we grow up in a world that tells us to doubt ourselves: “You don’t have the qualifications” or “Do you really think you have what it takes?” As queer people, we sometimes feel like we have to “prove” we’are as good as heterosexuals. We come from a one-down position. As a cis, white male, I grew up with plenty of privilege until – finally – in my thirties, I came out as a gay man. Then, I plummeted in status, fast and furious.
Unless you’re a cis, straight, white man, you’re not playing on a level field. If you don’t come from privilege, you’re taught to be humble in a way that privileged folks are not. I went to an East Coast graduate school where, during the day, I sat next to Jackie Kennedy’s niece and the actress/writer Carrie Fisher. In the evenings, I worked the night shift at a word processing center and, on weekends, cleaned houses for rich folks.
In her early days as a politician, Ms. Abrams deflected compliments, saying, “Anyone can do it” until a colleague told her, “Don’t give your power away. If you keep telling people that you’re nothing special, they’ll start to believe you.” We make fun of our ambitions before someone else does. We are uncomfortable with success because other people may be jealous. We say we’re “lucky”, not that we studied and worked hard for years to get where we are.
Believing in yourself can be scary: you may have dreams unlike anyone you’ve ever met. You doubt yourself and feel paralyzed: it all seems too hard. And then comes a wake-up call: a friend achieves his dreams while you sit there in shock, having hidden yours. A colleague gets your promotion.
What’s the cure for self-doubt? There’s an inner component (changing our self-talk) and an outer component (creating a support network to drown us in praise and encouragement).
Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. Notice the parts of you that are afraid and insecure. Instead of condemning them, help, comfort and encourage them. They’re like frightened little children, they need the support of a strong, smart adult: that’s you. You are the one they’ve been waiting for.
When you start to believe in yourself, you attract people who believe in you, creating a community of friends and colleagues who reality-check you when you’re playing and feeling small. You can’t change yourself all by yourself. My grandma used to say, “You can’t get to heaven all by yourself.” Well, you can’t “get” self-confidence all by yourself either.
Have you ever set yourself an ambitious goal, found yourself full of self-doubt and ended up lying awake in the early hours of the morning, wondering: “Can I really do this?”
Well, if Stacy Abrams and I have our way: “Yes, you can.”
Stop playing small and putting yourself down. Start to encourage yourself when times get scary and surround yourself with others who believe in you too.
Self-doubt CAN be tamed. Start now.