At the Skirt Sports clinic the other night, Melody Fairchild discussed “a-ha” moments — the run that feels perfect, or that moment you think, YES! This is what I’m supposed to do. Melody described one of her a-ha moments, then asked the audience to share theirs. A fifth-grade girl told us that at her school’s field day, she ran the one-mile race and beat everyone –including the boys. Pretty sweet accomplishment, right? But she immediately downplayed her achievement, explaining that fifth-graders were allowed to run the two-mile, but she was “kind of lazy” and ran the one-mile race. When Melody praised her, the girl rolled her eyes, embarrassed, and said, “It was just the mile.”
At eleven years old, this girl has already learned an unspoken lesson that so many of us have mastered: As women, we can’t be proud of ourselves. We can’t brag about our accomplishments, or even discuss them without a disclaimer. Doing so makes us arrogant, conceited, “bitchy”… we think. So we preface any mention of achievement with the words “just” and “only.”
“It was just a 5k.”
“I’m only running the half.”
“I just run marathons. I could never do triathlons.”
And we do it with everything, not just athletics:
“It’s not a big deal. It’s only a small pay raise.”
“I just got promoted because no one else applied.”
“This is only a book review, published in a small journal” — (I said that one recently, instead of being thrilled to see my name in print in any form in any academic journal).
And probably the most common: “I’m just a mom.”
Why do we do this? Why do we brush off praise and deprecate ourselves? Because that type of response is what’s culturally acceptable, and we’ve been subtly trained, since we were the age of the girl at Skirt Sports, to stay painfully humble and rebuff praise any time it comes our way.
This culture is ingrained in us, but we can change it. When the young girls who look up to us see us dismissing our accomplishments, they learn the same lesson we did: women aren’t worthy of praise; our accomplishments aren’t worth much. Our job now is to stop this vicious cycle — not just for our own confidence and well-being, but for the next generation’s.
I’m as guilty as anyone of prefacing my accomplishments with “just” and “only,” and I cringe to think of how many times I’ve done it in front of my nieces and students. It’s time to break that habit. Join me in removing these words from our vocabularies as descriptors of accomplishments. Instead, let’s own our achievements.
It’s not “just” a 5k; it’s 3.1 miles that you ran as hard as you freaking could. It’s not “only” a small raise; it’s a recognition of your value to the company. And for heaven’s sake, you’re not “just” a mom. You’re spending your time nurturing the people who will one day run the world.
Be proud of who you are and what you’ve done. Let’s rewrite the culture of “not good enough.” Let’s change it to a culture of every woman taking pride in her accomplishments and no one feeling the need to belittle herself when she’s done something great. Let’s teach our daughters, nieces, students, and friends that women can accomplish great things, and most of all, let’s show them that confidence has just as much merit as humility.
Will you join me in eliminating “just” and “only”?
Let’s start now: What’s an accomplishment that you’re proud of?