I don’t always enter a room thinking I’m the smartest person there, but that night, I am sorry to say, I did. The pub’s high wood paneling, coved ceiling, and large picture windows framed the friendly atmosphere perfect for the people gathered for trivia night and I walked in with soaring confidence. I joined my bubbly new friend in the area she had staked out for our mom’s group: two soft velvet sofas and armchairs surrounding a large, low coffee table.
It was the first night I had been off kid-duty in a long time. My exuberance showed as I glided my shins along the wooden table and plopped down on the couch, where I was immediately swallowed alive by the well-loved, broken-down furniture. We both let out a laugh as I climbed out of the couch to sit perched on the edge instead. The air was filled with good-natured fun, and I was excited to meet with this new-to-me group of friends and play trivia with the rest of the teams gathering at the pub. We laid down our jackets and purses and the cover charge to play, collected drinks, and psyched ourselves up to do trivia battle.
The first round of questions was easy, presumably on purpose to get us all warmed up. I am a competitive person and love to win—when I get excited, I get loud. Pair that with being a trivia rookie attempting to overcome my social insecurity with a bold approach, and the result was a lot of shushing from the players of other teams when I would blurt out the answer. I felt a sense of pride wash over me with every question I answered correctly, even if everyone else at my table knew it too. Adrenaline mixed with early success created a feeling of satisfaction that went to my head.
In most social settings, my goal is to establish myself as a smart, capable woman, confident in herself; a woman who knows her own mind. But I get nervous easily, self-conscious that I am going to fumble my words and send the wrong message, one I’ll never get to take back. Most of the time that internal pressure causes me to clam up and I never say anything. Even friends who’ve known me for 20 years don’t get much in conversation from me. That night, though, perched atop the velvet sofa, I was in rare form; speaking up in a group of mere acquaintances. I (confidently) pawned educated guesses as gospel truth, coaxing my teammates to go along with my answers. As the night wore on, those educated guesses were pronounced wrong time and time again. I felt a crack growing inside—with every incorrect answer my confidence crumbled a little bit more, and I found myself retreating further and further into the chasm of the sofa.
You’re blowing it, Jen.
And you can’t afford to screw it up with these people.
The number of friends you’ve got now won’t even add up to the fingers on one hand.
With my knees up by my chest, I licked my wounds from the relative safety of the sofa hole. I questioned everything about myself, doubting my ability and intellect, assuming everyone else was better qualified than me. I wanted to impress them, these friend-hopefuls. I imagined them complimenting me on my knowledge of an impressive range of random information, and I envisioned my personal (unproven) trivia skills as the golden ticket to our team’s success. Winning anything holds a space in my head as the ultimate way to show that I am a valuable person. As our team continued to fail under my self-proclaimed leadership, I worried I had permanently damaged my chance to endear myself to these people and they were going to think I was a stupid, pushy person. All these swirling thoughts shut me down completely.
Do not open your mouth.
You clearly do not know what you are talking about.
If you cannot be correct, then this conversation is dead to you.
By the end of ten rounds, my ego battered and bruised, I was on the verge of never offering another answer to anything, anywhere, ever again. I failed to lead my team to victory. I began questioning my own intelligence and felt ashamed I had ever thought I had anything of value to say.
You don’t get out much do you?
You are just a stay at home mom.
Leave the intellectual heavy lifting to those with resumes and degrees that prove their worth.
How old are you anyway?
In the space created by the silence of my own voice, I started listening to the conversations taking place around me. One mom was irritated she didn’t know some of the sports questions, the area where she was supposed to shine. Another mom said she felt overwhelmed about the upcoming election and was going to vote how a local news publication suggested because she couldn’t sift through it all on her own. Suddenly, from my velvet cocoon, I realized everyone was feeling some level of insecurity, but most people were not retreating in shame like I was. The whole night, I looked for the right answers thinking that was the only way my voice would be of value to people. My internal focus up to that point had been about how my decisions had a direct bearing on my worth, but when that went south, I ended up silent. The more I listened to those women speaking unabashedly about their shortcomings, the easier it was to inch back out of the couch and reclaim my voice.
If I say nothing, then the only thing these people will ever know about me is that I am insecure.
That might be true, but that is not the end of my story.
I discovered that having the freedom to express myself was more important than just being right. Owning and embodying my perspective was liberating. But going one step forward and giving my perspective a voice was the key to having freedom from self-doubt and knowing that my contribution, right or wrong, was worthwhile.
I must wade through a lot of insecurity to establish confidence in the choices I make as a mother. But to be fully myself, I must admit my weaknesses, embrace my strengths, and recognize that vulnerability is more endearing than impressing others. It takes courage to stay in the game, especially if I fail.
Retreating from a challenge is comfortable, but it also prevents personal growth and the rush of trying something new. Isn’t it thrilling to have a chance to know what we are made of and take it? Sharing our voice and perspective is not without its risks but, remaining silent robs the people around us of our insight. We may think weakness is a risk to mitigate, but there can be great power in showing our weaknesses. To people struggling with similar circumstances, our mistakes offer hope and make us approachable and human. After watching us crash and burn and live to tell the tale, someone might find the courage to climb out of their own velvet cave of self-doubt. We’ll never know unless we have the courage to be ourselves.
Your perspective is valuable. Find a balance between owning what you don’t know, and not giving up your seat at the table—retreating in shame. You can haul yourself out of the couches of self-doubt and insecurity with the knowledge that you are a valuable, capable woman with the freedom to speak up, even if you may be wrong sometimes.
Don’t let people shush you when you’ve got something you’re burning to say. Say it loud. Take a good look around the room and note that you may not be the smartest one there, but your presence and perspective are gifts to those around you. Now, carefully take your seat.
Jennifer Van Winkle lives in Seattle with her husband and three children (twin boys and a girl). She is a teacher, musician, and currently a stay-at-home mom. She loves fueling the imaginations of her children with creativity, songs, all things science, good food and lots of play indoors and out. She blogs at Pepper Sprout Home and you can also find her on Instagram.