03 January 2016

Fear, Part 3: It's Just Me Against Me

It was around downed tree #39 when my brow wrinkled up, my heart leapt to my throat, and my focus became laser-like. Precision would be key for the next three steps. A large log was perched right across the single-track trail on an incredibly steep slope several hundred feet above the river canyon floor. The move over the tree would be slippery and awkward with a 30-pound backpack, and it would be difficult for a short person like myself.  After crossing, I would need to gingerly step across a short segment of sloping, crumbling dust with a potential 200 foot tumble through chaparral and poison oak. This was a definite choose-wisely/can’t-fall moment. I was in front of our group of four and had no one else’s footsteps to guide my choices. When we all were safely on the other side, I said, “Wow, that was the hairiest bit we’ve seen all trip.”  My friend said, “Huh. Yeah, I guess you’re right. I didn’t really notice.”

Wait.  Really?!

I’ve been thinking about that moment. Was it a personal difference in perception? His legs were longer, so the risk wasn't as large, perhaps. Did he block out the exposed slope in his mind - either to mentally overcome it or because we were all hot and tired and had been crossing sketchy slopes for three days?

Or was it a gendered difference in perception? Was it because he was male and men perceive fear and risk differently from women? I was equally, if not more experienced, than my male counterpart in similar terrain. Are women more likely to question their abilities when faced with fear? According to this article from the Atlantic, the answer is probably "yes." 

The article compiles a number of studies that demonstrate a "confidence gap" between men and women.  It says that women tend to underestimate their abilities, while men tend to harbor an "honest overconfidence" - they're not trying to consciously fool anyone, but truly believe in their abilities.  (If you're interested in the "why" behind the confidence gap, read the article - it's interesting.)

So then, the more important question is, does this lack of confidence cause women to sell themselves short? In some situations, undoubtedly, this low confidence is life-saving: "I'm not capable of that; it will hurt me if I try." However, I have to imagine, in most cases, underestimating our skills in a situations like this, causes us to fall short of our potential. Our fear of failure, of not being good enough, of not being up to the challenge keeps us from making it into the highest ranks of leadership, from earning as much as men, and from challenging ourselves in the same way as men do in the outdoors.
There's sort of a trail through there...
I have known women to deal with the confidence gap in different ways: "Fake it until you make it." Calling each other out when someone is selling herself short. Sharing articles like the one from The Atlantic so that more women are aware of the issue
"When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do...to become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act." 
-Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, based on studies by Zachary Estes
In my own life, I have tended to work toward tangible achievements that serve as measurable data of my abilities and bolster my confidence.  When I start to doubt myself, I try to look back on my achievements and remember who I am and what I have done. I am hyper-driven to overcome my self-doubts, to prove myself capable, to reach a never-attainable potential.

This drive has typically paid dividends - hard work yields deep rewards, but I'll admit that it's not always the healthiest or most sustainable solution to the confidence gap. It has led me to injury from pushing myself too hard. When an achievement is not met, one can lose perspective on the beauty of the journey and the gifts of learning through mistakes. Perhaps most notably, the sense of ever-forward progress cannot replace a true sense of self-worth and contentment.
Where do YOU find confidence? How do we instill confidence in our young women without contributing to our misguided culture of exceptionalism? How do we allow women to be confident and assertive without being labeled as overly aggressive or bitchy?

This blog was the third in a three-part series on fear, as it relates to women in the outdoors. The first one focused on fear of environmental factors, while the second one focused on a fear of other humans in the wild. Check out another perspective on why I am driven to do hard things.

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