How to Stop Apologizing for Your Own Accomplishments

November 30, 2020

Lane Anderson award winners, 2014

Me and the other winners of the 2014 Lane Anderson Award. Photo taken by Emma McIntyre.

Welcome to STEMinism Sunday! As a former woman in science, I have a deep and enduring interest in the experiences and representation of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). This series will be an opportunity for me – and you – to learn more about these intellectual badasses.

Two things you might not have known about me:

  1. We moved around a LOT when I was young, so I was the new kid right up until high school.
  2. I was a gifted kid who learned quickly and tested very, very well.

In combination, these things are kid kryptonite. NO ONE likes the kid who moves to town and is suddenly at the top of the class (especially that kid who was at the top of the class a hot second before).

Bullying ensued. It sucked.

It also taught me that if I wanted to survive, I was going to have to find some defensive mechanisms right quick. I developed a two-pronged strategy:

  1. Never tell anyone what I “got” on a test or assignment. This worked much better after teachers stopped reading everyone’s marks out loud. Seriously, teachers – never, ever do that to your class. Except for those kids comfortably in the middle, it is THE WORST.
  2. Deflect and downplay.

I stopped raising my hand in class, answering a question only if the teacher specifically asked me to (and avoiding eye contact so they’d ask less often). I avoided leadership roles or any activities that would draw attention to me, and tried to stand in the back whenever I could.  If someone said, “Great job on that test,” I wouldn’t say thanks, I’d say, “I got lucky.” If someone said, “You’re really smart,” I’d say, “No, I just studied really hard – you could do it, too.”

I thought that by doing this, I’d protect myself from negative attention. If it was true that “They only tease you because they are jealous”* maybe the secret was not giving them a reason to be jealous.** It… only sort of worked (finding really good friends worked better – there’s protection in numbers).

I also thought that, by downplaying my achievements, I’d make other people feel better about themselves. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was actually doing was making myself feel worse. By telling people that anyone could do what I had done, I robbed myself of the right to feel proud of what I’d accomplished.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized I am still doing this – telling myself that my successes are accidental, or coincidental, or just not that big a deal. I’m uncomfortable taking pride in my hard work or celebrating my own “wins.” That sentence in the intro where I described myself as a gifted kid? I had to re-write it four times before I could convince myself that it was OK to use the word “gifted” without scare quotes.

I am not alone in my fear of drawing attention to myself. Women in STEM – and other academic fields, and in society in general – are taught to be quiet, to take up less space in the room, and to never make anyone else uncomfortable. This not only makes it harder for us to succeed, but harder for us to own our success – to feel joy and pride and satisfaction in our work. The joy and pride and satisfaction we’ve legitimately earned.

So how do we learn to stop apologizing for our success?

Here are some things that I’m personally working on, with varying degrees of success:

  1. Recognizing that I’ve been lying to myself and everyone else for years. It’s not actually true that anyone could do the things I’ve done. Yes, I really am incredibly lucky – blessed with good genes and parents who had the means to provide me with books and educational opportunities. But I also work really, really hard. And while I can’t take credit for the good genes or the privileged upbringing, I can take credit for the work ethic. That’s mine, and the products of that work ethic are mine, too, no apologies necessary.
  2. Recognizing that there’s a difference between giving credit where it’s due and giving away ALL the credit.
  3. Recognizing that there’s a difference between unearned arrogance and justifiable pride.
  4. Recognizing that, while it IS my responsibility be kind, I CANNOT be responsible for someone else’s happiness or self-esteem.
  5. Recognizing that, while other people might not be able to do what I can do, they can do AMAZEBALLS things that I could never do. And cheering for their accomplishments makes me feel better about cheering for my own.

I’ve shared this in the hopes that it will help other women who are struggling with the same issues. But I’d really like your help, too. How have you learned to stop apologizing for your accomplishments? No really, I’m asking. I’m all ears. 😀


*a platitude that’s just as dangerous as “He only pulled your hair because he likes you.”

**without actually sacrificing performance, obviously, because I had also been taught that it’s really important to always do your best

6 Comments on ‘How to Stop Apologizing for Your Own Accomplishments’

  1. thank you! Such important lessons. And difficult, as well. Difficult to temper owning your accomplishments with the importance of being humble. We can at least start by telling ourselves the truth about any accomplishments.
    It’s important to remember that, at least for some of us, self-esteem is like a checking account. You have to keep putting deposits in, because sooner or later, you do something that causes a withdrawal, and there needs to be enough in there to cover it. <3

    Reply | 
    1. I have been very, very good at withdrawls… Kristin Neff argues that self-compassion is even more important than self-esteem – I bought her book, because I feel like it will help with this issue!

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  2. Oh my gosh, YES to everything here!! I can totally relate. I was at the top of my class and known as a nerd but, what other kids didn’t know, is that I worked SO hard. I never stopped to appreciate my accomplishments. Only now, in my ‘40s, have I finally learned to take credit. Surrounding myself with supportive people and fellow nerds helps. They do exist!!

    Reply | 
    1. Supportive fellow nerds are SO important! And it’s really hard to stop and look at what you’ve achieved when there’s always something new to work towards. I’m trying to give myself permission to take the time to rest and enjoy before throwing myself headlong at those moving goal posts…

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  3. I relate to many of these experiences greatly, such as the bullying over being a “nerd.” But I never really tried to make myself smaller to counter it. I always took pride in being “the smartest.” It pissed people off. There was a guy in Grade 9 who bullied me so severely about my weight every day of that entire school year that I literally blocked it out of my consciousness and didn’t recall any of it until recently, when I took a deep dive through my old journals. In hindsight, I wonder if he started targeting me this way because he felt intimidated by my academic success.and my obvious pride in it. Perhaps I inadvertently hurt him by being obviously disappointed in or angry about a grade that was still much higher than his. He likely has no idea I spent the entire summer between Grade 9 and 10 eating only one meal a day as a result.

    I remember coming to high school and meeting you. I was definitely threatened because I was not used to having any competition on my level, let alone in the form of someone who was an even higher achiever than I was. But I’m glad I got past it and we ultimately became friends. It was an important lesson in humility for me.

    I’ve struggled a ton with imposter syndrome in my career. I’ve experienced some disappointments and rejections that were hard on the ego. I’ve experienced some gross misogyny too. But I’ve also developed resilience and perseverance in the face of that. I’ve kept going even after being told super discouraging things. One that sticks out in my mind, during an interview for a job very early on when I was trying to transition from marcomm to web development — “I had hoped to see something with more creativity from you.”

    In any case, just wanted to tell you that I appreciate you!

    Reply | 
    1. Imposter syndrome is THE WORST. The horrible irony of being a high achiever is that there is ALWAYS someone who appears to be doing better than you are, so you start to tell yourself that unless you’re perfect you’re not good enough. I still struggle with that every day (as my journals will testify!).

      I’m so sorry to hear about your grade 9 bully and the affect that it had on you (and oh yeah, the misogyny). And I so glad that we became friends, because appreciate you, too! I really hope we can grab that coffee when it’s safe to leave our homes again…

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