Shaking hands with the gremlin on your shoulder: there are gender differences in dealing with anxiety | Glasgow Chamber of Commerce
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Shaking hands with the gremlin on your shoulder: there are gender differences in dealing with anxiety

By Nicola Denegri, an experienced coach, trainer and facilitator at Kissing With Confidence 

Almost everyone I have met, professionally or socially, has one. I’ve only ever met one person who told me he hadn’t, and he was an exceptional case. 

In sports psychology, where a large proportion of performance-related research originated, performance anxiety has a number of names. In publishing and academia it is referred to sometimes as ‘Imposter Syndrome’. I however, think of it as a gremlin sitting on your shoulder. 

When I’m coaching business people, I explain that gremlins are the self-limiting voice that comes into play when you move from the known to the unknown, or move outside your comfort zone. It is an almost universal experience. 

When I explain the gremlin concept there are often ‘light bulb moments’ amongst the members of my audience who are happy to know they’re not alone. 

Men and women are afflicted equally by the gremlin on the shoulder trying to convince them that they are not capable when they really are. 

That said, I have found a significant difference between the way men and women react to the gremlin. 

Whether it is the right to resources and jobs, or being heard in meetings, or even a right to physical space, women tend to minimise and self-deprecate, often to beat others from doing it for them. Men on the other hand tend to be more confident in their ability (rightly or wrongly) and do less of the self-deprecation. Remember – both men and women suffer from the gremlin. But it’s not all negative. 

The astronaut, Colonel Chris Hadfield, has spoken of how an individual’s contribution in the demanding world of NASA is measured by one of the three numbers, -1, 0 and +1. If someone is judged a -1, they are actively harming progress for themselves and others around them. If they are a +1, they are actively adding value. In his view, when first joining NASA, people should start off in the neutral zone, watching, listening and learning until they can see where their skills are the best fit.

This, I think, is where the “female” attribute of adaptability works best, rather than the “male” attribute of over-confidence. In other words, a gremlin telling you to wait and watch could better help you fit into a smoothly running machine and be judged a +1 as long as it doesn’t become completely overwhelming, of course. 

Recently, I was coaching an all-women group and was struck that whenever anyone was moving around the room, a polite ‘excuse me’ to get past was met by a round of apologies. I noticed also that so many ideas were heralded by minimising language, such as “I’m sure everyone is already thinking this”, or “It might be a silly idea, but…” This is a habit that all of us – men and women – need to stop, and replace with more direct, straightforward and confident language. 

Being ready to acknowledge the gremlin doesn’t leave women more or less prey to it. In one case, I was coaching an engineer who felt her career was in danger of stagnation. She knew exactly what her gremlin was saying and was able to describe it. 

Over the course of an hour we visualised the voice of doubt as a physical being and talked it down to the size of a gnat. This, in turn, gave her solid ground to stand on and to succeed. 

When men are afflicted by a gremlin they may not be as willing to discuss perceived weakness. It follows then that more men than women struggle alone with their gremlins.

The men I meet who are willing to talk about it say that asking for help with a confidence issue isn’t something they can do in a professional environment. My advice has been that they can ask for help obliquely.

For instance, if your gremlin gives you a fear of public speaking, and you feel you cannot admit that fear; ask a trusted colleague for an honest opinion on an upcoming speech – and help them by pointing out the things on which you’re looking for feedback. If he or she is any good at all you will get a starting point for further improvement, while helping manage your gremlin to quieten down. 

In conclusion, how to deal with the gremlin? Its voice can be an occasion for a self-audit. Ask yourself: do you have the skills and knowledge to match the task? If the answer is yes, the voice is just a gremlin. The only antidote to fear and to failure is, and always has been, competence.

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