Helping Women Get Past Middle School Insecurity and Uncool Shoes

In all my work with women, I have learned one simple truth: there is a widespread -- but not terminal -- deficiency of "Vitamin C." Not the Vitamin C that wards off colds and strengthens bones -- the Vitamin "C" that stands for Confidence and propels us forward with heads held high.

Of course, there are few men or women who haven't felt confidence falter at some point in their lives. Even those with the most bravado have more hushed moments of fear and uncertainty. This was crystal clear to me the day an accomplished and hyper-confident woman (who never missed an opportunity to brag profusely about her many talents) told me she felt too insecure to attend a black-tie dinner alongside heads of fashion, industry and the arts. "What would I possibly have to say to those people?" asked the woman who never seemed at a loss for self-important words.

Then there was the time I met a "career coach to the stars" -- a professional who guides both men and women as they navigate the C-suite and wield the power to make stocks go up and down. This executive coach told the story of a woman who had been the CEO of several companies. This former CEO was looking for her next big post and needed to revise her CV. The executive coach told her to summarize her key strengths and most recent accomplishments. Six weeks later, the former CEO said that she was still struggling with the task. Despite the fact that she ran several companies, she was having trouble identifying and "bragging about" her talents.

For years I have told this story about the CEO when women appear to be on shaky ground about a job loss, a pending career move or a return to the workforce. It is always a good way to show that a lack of confidence can be very common. But, secretly, I've always wondered if I've been passing along a tall tale. Could a three-time CEO really lack such confidence?

Apparently so: at a recent 85 Broads event, Susan Lyne, CEO of AOL Brands (and former Chairman of Gilt Groupe and CEO of Martha Stewart Living), talked about how, for many years, she kept herself "comfortable" in a series of #2 roles. She wasn't sure she had the chops to be #1 -- the final decision-maker. She also talked about how, at one stage in her career, she was careful not to be too outspoken -- thinking if she could just stay under the radar, "maybe I'll make it to the next level."

Lyne -- an undeniably successful women who now speaks about her career with both grace and pride -- obviously got past any lack of confidence. In her words, she learned that speaking out, having opinions and embracing her talents is leadership -- not cause for dismissal. And she finally realized that minor missteps -- or even more dramatic failures -- are not the end of the world.

The "OK to Fail" drums have been beating for many years -- and though I wholeheartedly agree, I think shaking the confidence problem has more to do with realizing you're in good company. You're not a freak of nature if you're hesitant about taking on a big paid or unpaid role. Your hesitancy does not indicate you are actually incapable. It's just something a lot of women feel... and eventually conquer.

This lack of confidence is not only found among the shy and reserved. A lot of "Type A" women working in the C-Suite and volunteering on Main Street question, wonder, fear, deliberate and vacillate many minutes of the day. Years of coaching have shown me that so many of the women who look like they've got it going on actually have confidence that fluctuates as wildly as the wind.

Once you realize that you don't have a rare Vitamin C deficiency that will stunt your personal and professional growth, you can relax a bit, embrace your strengths, assess where there is room for improvement and give yourself a much-needed pat on the back. And the more you share your fears with other women, the more you'll see that you're not the only one who feels a lack of this or that to get ahead in all matters of work and life.

It's a matter of self-acceptance -- and realizing that women, especially, leave some part of themselves in middle school. We all have times when we think that every other woman is thinner, better dressed, smarter or more accomplished. We worry that all those other women are more qualified for a promotion or career change -- or better positioned to return to work after a hiatus of a decade or more. And we haven't fully gotten over that middle school unease about "raising our hands" in front of the boys.

Middle school girls think they're the only ones without the cool shoes or the right friends. But parents of "popular" girls often reveal that their daughters have the same insecurities as those at the less popular lunch table. Self-doubt is human, but it doesn't define your life or your potential. Rather than giving everyone license to fail (which is of little value to perfectionists), we need to take comfort in knowing that all women experience--and can grow beyond-- confidence shortfalls and all phases of uncool shoes.

This post was originally published on Kathryn Sollmann's blog, 9 Lives for Women, where she helps women navigate 9 stages of work and life from college through retirement years. Follow her practical advice on "Finding the Work that Fits Your Life".