How Honest Feedback Helped Me Own My Value

Laura Cox Kaplan | Nov 1, 2019


As women, we are often hard on ourselves and can, at times, misjudge our own performance, or not see our talents and value clearly. This tendency can hold us back from taking big risks like running for office. Seeing ourselves clearly (and being aware of our blindspots) requires self-awareness, and self-awareness often requires honest feedback.

As I was getting ready to teach my personal development course as part of American University’s Women & Politics Institute, I was reminded of an experience earlier in my career. At the time, I was working at the Treasury Department as a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs. My portfolio spanned all aspects of the financial markets, and I often found myself in policy discussions about financial instruments that I had barely heard of, much less understood. As I struggled through many meetings, looking for ways to add value based on what I did know, I would raise my hand and apologize for asking a question: “I’m sorry, I know I’m new to this, but….” or worse, “I’m sorry, this may be a stupid question, but….” always something along those lines. I was sure that everyone in the room knew a lot more about the underlying substance of what we were discussing than I did. (At least that’s what I thought!)

After one such meeting, a colleague who was a peer pulled me aside and asked if he could give me some feedback. A little terrified of what he might say, I said, “Sure.” He told me, “No one in these meetings thinks you are dumb, and no one thinks you don’t deserve to be here until you open your mouth and say something that plants that seed yourself.” A little taken aback, I realized he was absolutely right. I had been inadvertently undermining my own credibility not only in my colleagues’ minds, but in my own. By constantly focusing on what I didn’t know, and fretting about that, as opposed to owning what I did know and working hard to learn what I didn’t, I was wasting energy, getting myself into a total stew, and not adding the value that I could have been adding all along.

The messages we tell ourselves matter. When we feel like imposters or worry we don’t belong, it undermines our credibility not just with those around us, but within ourselves. It hurts our confidence, and it impacts our ability to speak up, offer perspective, and take action. And, when that tendency is coupled with the all-too-female habit of apologizing (I know I’m not alone here!) it serves to devalue our contributions.

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