Acknowledging our own success (both to ourselves and to others) is something that’s very difficult for a lot of us. But, in my experience, it is crucial to developing any kind of self-confidence or realistic self-appraisal. Particularly, it’s important to acknowledge our own success in a way that is unqualified and doesn’t minimize it.
Do any of these sound familiar to you?
“I just did what anyone in my situation would do.”
“I had a lot of help; Susan really should get all the credit.”
“Oh, it wasn’t really that hard.”
Now, there are certainly times when the above might be true. And, if you’re managing other people at work, giving them their share of credit is an important skill to have. But, a lot of the time, we just don’t want to seem arrogant, or full of ourselves, or too confident, or too assertive. Or, maybe we’re afraid that the other shoe will drop and we won’t be as successful next time, and so we want to manage (in other words, reduce) other peoples’ expectations of us. Or, we’re suffering from Impostor Syndrome and we’re afraid other people will find out that we’re not as capable as this one success would indicate. And so, for any or all of these reasons, we minimize the things that we’ve accomplished.
Alternately, sometimes it’s that the thing that we’ve accomplished is just a stepping stone on the way to what we see as the “real goal”, and we’re worried that if we acknowledge that intermediate step, we’ll make ourselves complacent, or we’ll reduce our motivation to get the rest of the way, or we’ll be seen as celebrating too soon, or something.1
But, it turns out that none of these worries are actually true in real life. Acknowledging intermediate successes builds confidence. If the real goal is something that’s valuable to you, celebrating your victories along the way increases your hope and belief that you can achieve the goal, which makes you more likely to achieve it—not less.
This also applies to when someone says something complimentary to me about the work that I did or what I accomplished. One of the best things I was ever taught in this regard was the idea that when someone gives me a compliment, all I have to say in response is “Thank you.” It’s usually not necessary to make a big deal of it, but appreciating the compliment isn’t arrogant, it’s courteous.
And, our refusal to acknowledge the things that we accomplish is in and of itself minimizing. Accomplishments, almost by definition, are worth acknowledging. If we don’t acknowledge them, even to ourselves, we’re reinforcing the message that they’re not really accomplishments, or not really worthwhile, or that we just got there by luck, and thus fertilizing all of the ground that impostor syndrome and low self-confidence can grow in.
It’s also important to acknowledge the process that we use and the effort that we put in. Unfortunately, even with the best of processes and the best of intentions, not all efforts will succeed. But, if we have a good process and are putting in good effort, that is putting us in position to succeed as often as possible, regardless of whether or not any given attempt succeeded. And, that’s also the sort of thing that’s worth acknowledgement.
For me, all of this is important to acknowledge both in social interaction and in self-talk. When I’ve done something worthwhile, I don’t need to spend any of my self-talk minimizing it. I don’t need to believe those thoughts if they come up. I don’t need to buy into the old voices of “not good enough.” If it’s not a huge deal, I don’t need to make a huge deal out of it either, but I can tell myself “Good job” and move forward knowing that I’ve actually done something worthwhile. If this isn’t how you currently show up in the world, maybe give it a try?
- Kelly McGonigal tells a funny story in her book The Willpower Instinct about receiving a bottle of champagne as a gift for getting into grad school. She didn’t feel like that was a “champagne-worthy” accomplishment, so she put off opening the bottle again and again. By the time she did open it, a few years later, it was undrinkable. ↩