How my 5-year old and Mae Jemison taught me to Stop Qualifying Myself

Do you ever modestly shun credit for something you do?  For example, if I said to you, “Wow, I love how your house is decorated!  Did you hire a decorator?”  If your initial response is, “Oh, I don’t really decorate.  I just copy Pinterest,” then you are qualifying yourself.

When people find out that I write, I often downplay it by saying something like, “Oh, it’s just a hobby.”  

I never seem to claim that I do, in fact, write almost daily, or that I’m trying to have a children’s book published.

For me, and I think for most of us, we qualify ourselves–that is, downplay our achievements by giving credit elsewhere or minimizing the size of them–because we don’t want to be seen as pompous jerks.  

But is it really pompous or misplaced to respond with a simple “thank you” when someone complements us or wants to know more about how we spend our time?

I don’t think so.

For one thing, I notice that this is something that women tend to do way more than men.  

If you give a man and a woman the same complement, I’ve noticed I’m more likely to hear a qualifying statement from a woman.  

For example, a friend of mine was once asked by a mutual friend if she was a runner.  I had wondered the same thing since she has a runner’s build.  My friend replied, “Oh no, I’m definitely not. My husband is the runner.”

You can imagine how shocked I was to find out a few months later that this friend–the one who claims she isn’t a runner–completed a half-marathon!

Maybe she doesn’t really like running and so stopped, but in my book if you ever completed a half-marathon at any point in your life you are a runner.  Clearly, my friend had the mental and physical capacity to run a great distance.  I’ve no doubt that she could do it again if she decided to.  

She downplayed her great accomplishment, and I can only think that she didn’t want to sound like she was bragging.  But my friend and I who were part of this conversation would have only had a more complete picture of our friend had she told us this.  I already knew that she was amazing and could do anything she set her mind to–this was just proof of what I already knew!  

Recently, a neighbor invited my children and me over for a music time with her grandchildren.  She has a friend who comes with a guitar to sing with the kids, and it was a very lovely invitation to receive.  When I brought my daughter to her house, arriving promptly at the appointed time, the musician was running late and my daughter asked my neighbor if she could play on the very inviting piano in the living room.

My neighbor said that she could, so Butterbean first tried out the keys with a devilish grin, then after a few moments of simply mashing keys, she began to make a little tune.  It had only three or four notes, but it didn’t sound bad, and she repeated it a few times so I knew it was intentional.  It was nice.

Butterbean was still picking out this little tune when the musician arrived a few minutes later.  As she got out her guitar she asked my daughter, “Oh, do you play piano?”

Butterbean looked right at her, continued to pick out her tune, and said, “Yes.”

I qualified the situation to the guitarist, “She’s only played for five minutes!” I laughed, but as soon as the words came out of my mouth I thought, “Why am I qualifying this?”  

When Butterbean does something, even for a short time, she claims it.  She took a dance workshop for two weeks last summer.  She hasn’t had ongoing dance lessons, but she will tell you with all seriousness that she knows ballet.

Evidently, now she knows piano.

As her parent, of course I don’t want her to claim mastery of something that she really has only had exposure too.  I really try to keep my kids from being pompous know-it-alls, I swear.

But in that moment of qualifying her piano skills, I saw her response of “Yes!  I play piano” a little differently.

She said yes because she was doing it.  Not because she had mastered it.  She was doing it in that moment.  

It also became painfully obvious that I do the complete opposite.  When someone ask me if I am a writer or a photographer for example, I’ll just shrug and modestly say something like, “Oh, I’m just a hobbyist.”

I always qualify myself. 

And I write and take pictures way more than my daughter dances ballet or plays piano.

As an adult I understand that I wouldn’t put “violinist” on my resume simply because I played violin for two years in elementary school, but when am I actually going to claim some knowledge and skill at the things I actually do?

Perhaps I’m afraid of sounding like a pompous know-it-all, which I don’t want.  As the eldest sibling in my family, I was often called bossy.  I was overachieving at school and a perfectionist in all I did, so I’m sure I was in danger of being an insufferable.  

Yet, I think I swung too far the other direction–I learned early to downplay my achievements so that others wouldn’t think I was an insufferable know-it-all.  

Now, I find myself qualifying everything, from being a mother (oh, anybody can be a mom!) to being a blogger (I’m really just getting started:  in reality I’ve blogged for a year now, although it is true that there is always more to learn).  

As I’ve been thinking about this post and what would it sound like for a woman to claim her achievements and abilities without downplaying them, I happened to hear Mae Jemison, who is best known as the first African-American female astronaut, interviewed on NPR by Ari Shapiro.

Mr. Shapiro asked Mae Jemison if she was constantly aware of her groundbreaking role as the first African-American female astronaut, or if while at NASA she simply tried to do her job.

Mae Jemison, who is very accomplished and who I’ve admired since I was a kid, gave a wonderful answer, listing her many amazing and huge achievements and roles, but didn’t sound like she was bragging at all.  She sounded matter-of-fact, self aware, and passionate.  Here is her answer:

“I always think of it as like, ‘What do you do with your place at the table?’ If you act just like everyone else, what difference does it make that you’re there?

And so for me — having grown up on the South Side of Chicago going to public schools, having been a medical doctor, having worked in Cambodian refugee camps as well as being an engineer as well as being someone who was very versed in dance and the arts — yes, I’m supposed to bring those perspectives to bear on the questions that we ask about space exploration.”

I love Mae Jemison’s response.  She doesn’t downplay any of her accomplishments or roles–her role as a dancer is part of her, just as being a medical doctor and and astronaut are part of her.  

She doesn’t qualify herself at all.  She doesn’t say, “Well, that was a long, long time ago.”  She doesn’t downplay her arts accomplishments next to her scientific ones, or vice-versa.  

I doubt anyone who heard that interview thought that Mae Jemison was being a pompous know-it-all!  I know that I heard her tell these facts about herself, and I thought “Wow, that is an amazing person!  How awesome that she made all of that happen!

Now, if Mae Jemison can work as a medical doctor with refugees in Cambodia, fly on the space shuttle Endeavour, and dance her way through it while never forgetting where she comes from–and talk about it with grace and truth, I think I can be truthful about who I am too, without downplaying it.

So here I go:  I am a mother, wife, writer, painter, cook, knitter, photographer, seamstress, traveler, and deacon.  I volunteer on the PTO, with the Girl Scouts, and with my neighborhood organization.  

And what about you?  Do you often qualify yourself?  Tell me what you can do below!








Read on, my friend...

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