Why do people downplay their achievements?
Fear of being considered a show-off often means that personal achievements and milestones aren’t shared, even when friends and family would love to hear about them. Rosalind Miles, a BACP-accredited psychotherapist and therapeutic counsellor based in Kent in the UK, notes that self-doubt or low self-worth often feed into a reluctance to sing your own praises.
‘When we doubt ourselves, we can dampen our accomplishments, thinking they aren’t significant or worthy of celebration,’ says Rosalind, who’s also a member of the UK’s Counselling Directory.
‘Impostor syndrome can play a big part here, [too], as self-doubt often creeps in and can make a person feel like a fraud. They may feel [as though] they aren’t worthy of the achievement or success. This can make it difficult to accept a genuine compliment because they may believe that they just don’t deserve it.’ People often also underestimate their ability or contribution to a project, meaning they shy away from praise. They might also focus on the less successful aspects of a task and, therefore, feel unworthy of compliments.
Downplaying or ignoring your achievements also affects career opportunities (how many people have been overlooked for promotion because they were too polite or too full of self-doubt to flag up their contribution to a team success?) and personal wellbeing.
‘Being unable to acknowledge successes can chip away at self-esteem over time, which can fuel and reinforce self-doubt,’ says Rosalind. This might mean that you choose not to pursue a craft or skill for fear of not being good at it or don’t push yourself further in an area where you’re undoubtedly talented because you constantly underestimate your ability or focus on the negative. Imagine, for example, an artist who’s painted an emotive and striking landscape but chooses only to see the one tree where the scale doesn’t feel quite right. They might ditch the lot and decide to give up rather than develop their skills and their enjoyment of the creative process.
What are the upsides of highlighting your accomplishments?
Sharing your successes, even ones that might seem insignificant to you, is a way to highlight what you’re good at. In turn, this encourages friends and family to relay any opportunities they hear about, makes it more likely that former colleagues and associates will hang on to your details for future projects and increases your chances of promotion.
If you’ve played a pivotal role in an innovative development at work, for example, it’s more effective to discuss your input with your line manager than it is to assume that they’re fully aware of what you did. Placing your achievement at the heart of the team’s success will help to ensure that your name is in the mix for new opportunities and give your boss the chance to recognise and thank you for your contribution.
The benefits of this approach go further, too, as it encourages other less-than-vociferous-but-talented people to acknowledge and be proud of their achievements. ‘The more people talk about their success, we see what it took for them to get there,’ says Zoé. This demystifies and makes success seem more achievable to others, without underestimating the hard graft involved.
How to celebrate triumphs in a sensitive and empowering way
See how others respond when you praise them. And when someone pays you a compliment, rather than bat it away, try saying thank you. Let it sit and see how it feels. Try to build this naturally into your life, so you get used to celebrating both your own and others’ successes.
Rather than just saying: ‘Oh, it was brilliant, I made more money than I’ve ever made in my business this month,’ which might sound a bit showy to some, shift the focus and mention your hard work. An alternative could be: ‘I’m proud of the effort I put in to make more money in my business this month.’ This shows pride in yourself and the process.
If, for example, you and a colleague both went for the same promotion at work and you were successful, it’s important to be sensitive to their feelings. It may be best to avoid talking about the success in front of them – perhaps celebrate over dinner with friends instead, so you can still acknowledge how much this means to you. Remember, too, that success isn’t a competition – there’s space for everyone to do well.
In your friendship group or with family, try to make a habit of asking what people are up to and what they’re proud of. It could be that some friends are unsure about sharing their good news, so try to create an environment where everyone feels able to say what’s going well in their lives, from small wins to big changes.
If your struggles with self-doubt are overwhelming, talk to someone you know well and trust. If that feels too much, discuss your situation with your GP, who will be able to suggest if it might be useful to seek professional help.
You can read more articles about self-esteem and self-empowerment in issue 61 of Breathe magazine.