The Shame of Self Aggrandizement (Spiritwalker Monday 18)

In a post dated January 2012 that consisted of an update and several links to reviews of Cold Magic and Cold Fire (here on WordPress and mirrored on Live Journal):
I wrote:

There’s a part of me that feels it is wrong for me to link to positive mentions of my work like the ones above, as if I am thereby somehow self aggrandizing or bragging or trying to act like I’m better than others or something. This is some of the baggage I carry from growing up as a girl in the 60s and 70s. I’m not quite sure from whence it stems, and I can certainly only speak to my own experience. Partly, it seemed to me that girls were meant to do well but never excel more than boys and certainly if they did excel weren’t ever to say anything of it because it was unseemly and boastful and something one ought to be ashamed of. In fact, there is a little piece of my psyche that feels ashamed (yes: ashamed!) when I read a [really positive and praising] review.


In the comments on Live Journal, lostrack621 wrote this in reply:

You nailed it right on the head; but I would go as far as to say that it’s not just related to the time you were growing up. I feel the same way, too, and I’m an ’80s child. I’m a member of the Association for Women in Science and there was an article recently about how one of the big issues and problems with women in science today (and arguably other fields) is that we are taught that bragging and taking ownership and simply being darn proud of our work is somehow “bad” and frowned upon. Part of it probably comes from the ’50s and ’60s, but the big issue is WHY is this belief persisting and what can be done to stop it. Every month there’s a new blurb about how to become more productive, well-known, etc etc because for some reason, we women are STILL behind the men. I mean, JEEZE LOUISE, we do these amazing things and there is no reason to feel bad about tooting our horns about it but for some crazy reason we do. So, I don’t know how we – collectively as amazing women – can break down these barriers other than doing what we’re best at and keep doing what we know is working for us. :: shrug :: I’ve come to the point where I just keep my head down and slog through (speaking of, I should get back to my work….)


First of all, I don’t want to suggest that ONLY women get this message because I know of men who get it, or who feel it, also.

“Simply being proud of our own work:” Amazing how contentious that can be. How difficult to own, as if it is shameful to say “I love this project” or “I really nailed this.” That can expand to discussing one’s own work in appropriate contexts, as if one ought to just produce the work and then never mention it again because that would be immodest or self aggrandizing. [I am not talking about situations where people push their project, work, or title into every conversation, but note that I feel obliged to make that caveat, as if I am sure that even by discussing this someone out there will be thinking that I am saying too much or that they once sat on a panel with a person whose every answer/statement was a reference to his/her own book, as if that is equivalent, related, the inevitable end of any mention substantive or brief of one’s own work.]

What is this? How many of you feel it? Where does the pressure come from?

I have felt undercut at odd times from unexpected places, and I often wonder if “we” even know we are doing it, if we judge praise or discussion of praise more harshly and if there is a gender–or race or ethnicity–component in how we do so. Is there praise that is never questioned and success that is deemed always “appropriate?” While other success is always suspect?

How about your own personal experience? Do you, like lostrack621, feel that “taking ownership” is frowned on in your field, for you? For others?


13 thoughts on “The Shame of Self Aggrandizement (Spiritwalker Monday 18)

  1. Feel it, absolutely. Funnily enough, feel it to the extent that even starting to write about my feelings about it felt uncomfortable, because it would mean admitting pride in my work. But I do think a lot of it comes from social pressure in schools, where being good at the work means that your peers label you “teacher’s pet” and the rest of the repertoire of insults for being academically talented. It’s tough to outgrow that. I wonder if athletes have an easier time of taking price in what they do well, because their successes are acknowledged in a different way?

  2. How about your own personal experience? Do you, like lostrack621, feel that “taking ownership” is frowned on in your field, for you? For others?

    Well, I think this comes to light when it comes to award eligibility. It feels odd for me to say “Yes, I am eligible for a best fan writer Hugo, if you want to nominate me”. Very odd, as if my bringing anyone’s attention to it somehow invalidates me as a potential nominee.

    “If you were so good, you wouldn’t have to promote yourself.”

  3. That’s a good question. In athletics at least you have quantifiable things. If a writer sells a lot of copies, some people will say “yes but the book isn’t good.” But if a runner runs the fastest time, then unless they are doping they are simply running the fastest time. Or their team scored more. Although I know there are issues in sports that are scored by judging (diving, figure skating) if there is considered to be a judges’ bias.

    When I mention I have a book coming out, or I have just finished a draft, people will sometimes ask me: “Do you like it?” And even if I love it I have a hard time saying “yes” as if it would be impolite to do so.

    I hadn’t thought about the teacher’s pet syndrome but it’s true that it is used as an insult rather than as approbation (the teacher likes you because you work hard and turn all your assignments in on time! Go, you!)

  4. I think fundamentally, it’s inherent in the Puritan founding of our country — only God is perfect, everything we do has a mistake in it/pride is a cardinal sin, kind of cultural spiritus mundi. Add in a bit of “children should be seen and not heard”, and the lack of gender equality (this is an interesting retrospective on the anniversary of The Feminine Mystique — — especially the “Normal women, psychiatrists proclaimed, renounced all aspirations outside the home to meet their feminine need for dependence.”

    And you have tremendous societal pressure on women to hide their strengths, their intelligence, their achievements. If we “need” dependence, then announcing our achievements is abnormal.

    The spouse and I were just discussing yesterday how much he detests all the young ladies at his college because they’re all playing stupid in order to get a date. They are definitely downplaying their achievements to not be seen as “better than the guys”. So unfortunately, it didn’t end with our generation.

    As for undercutting another’s achievements — I think we do it subconsciously. I remember a story from my childhood (probably learned in church/CCD) where God struck down a man who’d been bragging — since that was one of the 7 deadly sins. Undermining others ensures that no one is at risk of being prideful. So you’re really being helpful to the other person, keeping them from God’s wrath. What twisted, warpped logic.

    this is a bit rambly because its late, but hopefully my point comes across.

  5. ” Undermining others ensures that no one is at risk of being prideful. ”

    That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of that aspect of it but it is definitely related to “pride goeth before a fall.”

  6. Sadly, my boyfriend did that to me once. I was mapping out a story, the longest I’ve ever worked on, and things were finally starting to fall together, connections forming rapid-fire until I had a huge web of interconnected people, timelines, and stories to make up the greater whole. It felt amazing, like fireworks in my head, and I was so proud that I was able to take all those swimming ideas and make a road map of them, to get to the story underneath.

    I told my boyfriend about it and said “I’m awesome!” in my excitement, and his immediate response was “whoa whoa, don’t get all puffed-up and braggy.” I was like…what? Braggy because I feel like I’m doing something amazing here, finally waving goodbye to my fear of imperfection and just throwing myself into a writing project that’s singing back to me? How is that braggy?

    Needless to say, there was a talk about that.

    Take ownership, ladies. We ARE amazing.

  7. I know — I recognize that kind of thing; in my experience it is usually not even malicious but more of an automatic response, like protecting you “from yourself.”

    But we ARE awesome. Amazingly so. I think there is more pushback now about owning it.

    Also: absolutely no wonder you were excited about having “fireworks in [your] head.”

  8. I went to public school in the seventies, a little country school on the north shore of Oahu with grades 7 through 12. I’m Caucasian, but the student population was primarily Asian/Pacific Islander in background, and I remember one of the teachers lecturing the class on “blowing your own horn”–and not in a negative way! He was a young man of Japanese ancestry, and his spiel went something like this: “In our (Asian) culture, we’re not supposed to brag, or blow our own horn, but people on the mainland don’t think that way. If they do something good, they’ll say so (basically, take the credit for it). And if you want to get anywhere in the world, you’d better learn to do that too.” For some reason, this made an immense impression on me. I suppose it was a kind of permission to mention my accomplishments—something that is immensely helpful now that I’ve shifted from traditional to indie publishing. 😉

  9. He was right.

    In general, people will not volunteer to boost you if you are not willing to champion yourself at least to some degree.

    I’m always interested in the contrast between those who are happy to blow their own horn and those who struggle with it.

  10. A few years back, my employer changed the performance appraisal system to add a self-assessment portion, where the employee must detail their accomplishments for the year. In addition, management now determines final performance ratings (and hence raises) not only based on personal performance, but relative performance in one’s peer group. It is critical NOT to sell yourself short in your self-assessment, as this is a critical tool for your manager in selling your final performance rating to the managers of the others in your peer group.
    I have spent a lot of time both teaching and coaching the staff who report to me on this process, as many of them tend to be self-effacing, and to undervalue their achievements (most are female, and many originally not from the US). Some of them have really struggled with this, but I do notice that over time, they are getting better at tooting their own horn(s)! My impression is that once they got a clear idea of how this was going to impact their pay/bonuses, it got easier to stomach. There is also a pride element–I had one employee tell me very firmly that she intends to be top ranked this year, no question, and I love her determination.
    I have also talked about this frequently with a friend who is self-employed as a graphic designer and PR consultant. Modesty has no place in growing a business, and since part of her work involves helping others promote their businesses in turn, it has been vital to learn to self promote.

  11. Those employees were fortunate to have you supervising/coaching. Imagine if they had dealt with someone who had the ingrained attitude of diminishing women’s achievements.

    It’s very true re: self employment and/or working in a creative field; I struggle with this incessantly and usually (unfortunately) I fail.

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