How to show up without showing yourself up – and why you really can’t keep playing small.

Do you sometimes dread doing social media posts? Hate the ‘look at me’ aspect of sharing your thoughts and achievements for all the world to see? Minimise your brilliance for fear of being branded a show-off?

Why we fear exposure
While many women find that they get more confident with age, there are still a number of factors that hold us back. You may feel more certain about what you think and feel, more in touch with your authentic self, less insecure about being liked… but when it comes to putting your expertise out there on social media, well often it’s a different story. The struggle to overcome these feelings can lead to potential clients being confused about what you do and unaware of how great you are. Because you’re just not telling them.

The problem is, however competent you may be and however great your ideas, there is still a fear of exposure. You may in fact be your own worst enemy when it comes to putting yourself out there. Sticking your head above the parapet is for some women akin to walking around with your skirt tucked into your knickers; it means you’re an open target, laying yourself open to attack. What if people think you’re showing off? What if you get it wrong, or get ridiculed for drawing attention to yourself? These are common thoughts. As a result you may have got used to hiding your light, even if your light is very shiny indeed, for fear of making yourself too visible.

What the heck is showing up?
If you’ve ever dug into the world of coaching, watched a video or followed a coaching programme, you’ll know about showing up. American coaches in particular love this term and it’s starting to creep into UK coach-speak. It’s a term that gets used constantly, because apparently showing up is what makes all the difference to your success. But what does it actually mean? In essence it’s making an impact through what you project. So it’s everything the world sees about you – your face, what you say, what you write and how you present yourself to the outside world. It’s also about accountability and carrying through your intentions, doing things with a sense of purpose and credibility. It’s being consistent – literally showing up every day. Quite a lot then.

This is the stuff you may struggle with on a bad day (or week), when the self-doubt is creeping in and you question your ability to be as smart and on-the-case as you need to be. As we all know in today’s digital world, there is enormous pressure to be visible – to blog, tweet, vlog, engage and generally share your thoughts and expertise with the wider world via multiple mediums. All this so you’re seen as credible, a voice in your sector, a leading light. If you’re having a bad day this is beyond difficult.

The inner critic
One of the reasons this is so hard is because we are used to playing small, to thinking “What if people think I’m showing off? What if I just grate on everyone’s nerves?”. Society at large tends to take a dim view of loud, opinionated women says author and comedian Viv Groskop.

According to Antoinette Dale Henderson, executive coach and founder of the Gravitas Programme and author of Power Up: The Smart Woman’s Guide To Unleashing Her Potential there is safety in playing small. “A woman’s innate inner critic tells her not to show off, not to stand out and draw attention to herself, because she’ll only make a mess of things. We know it’s common for women to suffer from imposter syndrome more than men, and this is how it plays out – ‘I don’t have a right to be here, I’m probably not good enough and I’m bound to get it wrong, so I’d better not draw attention to myself”. Antoinette says she’s lost count of the number of women she’s met who discount or minimise their expertise for fear of being a branded a show off.

“Traditionally girls are brought up to be compliant,” says Antoinette. “Well behaved girls don’t interrupt, show off or take up too much space and they always play fair. On the other hand, boys are often encouraged to ‘win’ through sport, releasing testosterone through running and shouting – you only have to look at the difference between Barbies and Power Rangers for a plastic illustration of gender bias in action”.

“Yet the world is not always a nice place, and not everybody plays nicely,” she continues. “And so women are shooting themselves in the foot by playing fair in a world that just isn’t. Simply put, they are not equipped to fight. And as those girls grow up society’s expectations continue to dictate how women ‘should’ behave. The last thing we want to do is rock the boat and be excluded. ‘Women are wired to seek acceptance,’ says Dr Lynda Shaw, cognitive neuroscientist, business psychologist and author of Your Brain Is Boss. ‘We need that feeling of being part of a tribe. People can put us down very easily by not including us and that in turn impacts on our confidence.’ Combined with girls’ conditioning to be ‘nice’ is society’s expectations of how women ‘should’ behave. We only have to look at newspaper headlines, covering everything from the world of politics to business, to see that the world as a whole disapproves of women who don’t conform. Forceful, powerful women are portrayed as un-feminine, ruthless, mad, manipulative or worse. As a result of this, there’s a tendency for women to stick with what feels comfortable,” says Antoinette. And if shining your light doesn’t feel comfortable why would you do it?

Why it matters
The thing is, if you’re running a business and trying to raise your online profile you have to break out of this mindset. Marketing expert Karen Campbell says it’s essential to show up every single day. “If you’re not going to bang your drum and talk about how good you are at what you do, no one else is going to do it for you. Remember, you’re running your own business for a reason, you’re obviously good at what you do or you wouldn’t be doing it, but you have to let people know”. Karen recommends starting a ‘Big Me Up Book’ to fill with testimonials and positive feedback from friends and clients alike. “So when you’re having a really shitty day and don’t want to show up, and you’re going down a negative rabbit hole, it’s a reminder of what you’re good at – and why you’re doing it”.

How to get over yourself

• Karen recommends using humour to temper the ‘look at me’ aspect of marketing. “Tell people what you do. Use humour to offset it if that feels comfortable for you. Just speak/write how you naturally do, expressing how you actually feel.

• Ask someone else to describe you and your work, then use their wording. So you can say “I was really touched to hear from a client that they were very happy with my work” and then quote their words to describe what you did. It’s a way of telling people what you do and that you do it well.

• “Of course it’s cringey to say ‘I’m amazing!’ and it just tends to make people eyeroll. So be real and authentic, showing your work, talking about a new client, sharing a success, detailing what you’ve achieved this week – these things speak for themselves and tell the world what you’re capable of,” says Karen.

• Share your clients’ good news, mentioning the joy you’ve had in playing a part in the success of such a great campaign or worthy venture.

• Know your audience. Are they following you for tips and expertise? Do they love it when you get opionionated? Give them what they want.

Words: Marina Gask
Antoinette Dale Henderson quotes extracted from Power Up: The Smart Woman’s Guide To Unleashing Her Potential.

Looking for expert advice? The Audrey Members’ Club is a whole world of support, coaching and expertise for women through self-employment, changing careers, running a business or launching one. Join us to kickstart your future, whatever that may be.