“You’re too humble,” she says to me and I try not to laugh. Being humble is something I have never been accused of. “I mean it. You need to tell people about what you do. People need to know. You can’t be quiet about it.” “You’re right,” I say, not sure what to do with this information.
I walk out to my car thinking it over. I feel like I talk adnauseum about the work that I do. So I put her words on the back shelf of my mind.
A couple of weeks later I am in a class and sharing a bit about the piece I am planning to work on. “You need to talk about your work with more passion! I know you feel more deeply about this!” Again, I take it in. Again, I think that I have spoken about my work passionately.
Then a couple of weeks after that it becomes clear to me that in still another area of my life people have no idea what I am working on. And it’s not because I am not working. It’s not even because I am not telling people what I am working on.
Somehow there is a disconnect in my life. From what I am thinking, feeling, and working on to what other people are seeing and hearing. I feel like I talk about my work all of the time. I post about it on Facebook, I talk about it with friends, I write about it here. I feel like when I talk about it I am excited and engaged. I mean, I must be, right? Because when I think about the work I am excited and engaged!
But what if how I am thinking and feeling doesn’t come across when I actually talk about my work? Growing up I was told a lot of really awful things about pride. And was often accused of being prideful. (I think mostly because I spoke my mind and seemed to enjoy performing. Anyone who didn’t seem to hate themselves and everything they did was seen as prideful. Oh, unless you were a white straight cisgender man. Then you were a future pastor.)
I was told not to get a master’s degree because it would make me prideful. Told that reading books would make me prideful. I was constantly being encouraged to not be as smart as I am because being smart made people, you guessed it, prideful and also made them turn away from God. What I heard all of my life was “be less, be less, be less”.
But back then I fought those messaged. Back then I stood up for myself. Back then I could and would talk confidently about myself and my work. I was bold in sharing my ideas. I was passionate and fired up.
Somewhere along the way things changed. Maybe it was getting older. I think some of it was transitioning and feeling less secure about my place in the world because of that. I lost some confidence after a string of setbacks, rejections, and things just generally going badly. Some of it is not wanting to take up space in the way I see all of the dudes around me taking up space.
So now I tell myself “be less, be less, be less.”
So now I internalize these gestures and phrases: The ducked head and averted eyes. The “I couldn’t have done it without other people” comment. The, “No, thank you for coming!” when complimented on the work. The “Oh, it’s no big deal.” The “I’m just doing my job.” The “It’s not really that good. I could have done better.”
All the while, “You are less, you are less, you are less.” You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve this applause. Be quiet about your work.
Now caveat: It’s important to give credit to the people around you who actually did the work. It’s important as someone in leadership to be willing to take the blame, even for things you didn’t do, and to work to make it right. You realize that the buck stops with you as the leader of an organization or ministry area.
But often? Often I’m giving away credit for things that I actually did on my own. I am taking the blame for things that I did not drop the ball on. I am giving credit to people who do not deserve to be given credit. I sometimes use the “royal we” even as it was just me staying up way too late, hustling to get things done because no one else stepped up to do them. (Or because people stepped up to do them and then…didn’t.)
And yet I still feel that taking credit, for work that I did, is too prideful. I feel weird quoting compliments about my work. When someone thanks me for writing something I say you’re welcome, but then immediately thank them for coming to see it.
In every avenue of my life I have been trained and taught to put myself down. Growing up fundamentalist I was taught that I was trash. Growing up queer and trans I was taught that I was worthless. Growing up religious I was taught that humility was the best thing to strive for. As an artist I was taught to let my work speak for itself.
But honestly all of these messages are wrong. I am not trash. I am not worthless. Humility doesn’t mean that you don’t exist and can’t also take pride in your accomplishments. Your work can’t actually speak for itself if no one knows you have created any work.
What I am realizing is that I have internalized the message that my voice doesn’t matter. That I shouldn’t want to speak or to work. That I don’t have anything important to say, not because I actually believe that, but because I have been told that what I have to say doesn’t matter. Because there will always be someone more male, more cisgender, more straight, more advanced, more whatever who’s voice is even more worth listening to (even when it’s not).
I think often of that t-shirt I’ve seen, “Lord give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” And it’s true, I do sometimes long for that level of confidence in myself and my work. And not only that level of confidence in the work but the confidence that would then enable me to tell other people about the work. To speak about it with passion and boldness. To share how deeply I care about it. To tell people why it’s important, why it’s important that I am the one doing it.
I don’t want to be less anymore. I want to be big and bold and all of who I am. And I want to shout it from the rooftops.
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