How to brag without sounding like a douchebag

I have a question for you. If I asked you to brag about yourself right now, what would you say? I imagine you would react by freezing up and mumbling and not doing a very good job. And you are not alone! Most of us find it difficult to brag. (By us I mean women, but if any of you dudes find it hard, this is for you too).

I’ve been thinking about why it’s difficult, and I think it’s this tension: on the one hand we want to feel respected and appreciated, to be seen as powerful. And on the other hand, we don’t want to sound like douchebags. We don’t want to bullshit people. It feels uncomfortable to make a claim about yourself that someone could knock down.

I have an exercise I use to get myself in a headspace to talk about my achievements without feeling that creeping horror of “they’re all gonna laugh at you” – one that helps me talk about my achievements without making it all about me. It’s a simple idea:

  1. Write down 3 of the hardest things you’ve ever done
  2. For each one, ask yourself: what was hard? What did you learn?
  3. Say it out loud: My name is [insert name], and I [did this hard thing]

That’s it! No elaboration required – you just SAY OUT LOUD THE HARD THINGS YOU’VE DONE. You aren’t lying or bullshitting. You are stating the facts, and sharing your growth, and letting whoever is listening draw their own conclusions.

I’ll show you what’s on my list. Off the top of my head, here are 3 hard things I’ve done:

  • I gave birth to my son after 44 hours of labor.
  • When I was 22, I moved to Oregon with my best friend. We had no plan, barely enough money and only knew one person out here.
  • 12 years ago, I took a show to Poland with my theatre company. We performed in many crazy situations, the craziest of which was doing the show in an open field at sunset while the set caught fire and burned down around us.

So let’s look at that last one. What was hard? It was grueling. I put myself in some dangerous situations. We could have died. It was scary. What did I learn? How to keep calm when the world (or set) is crashing down around you.  How to dodge fire. How to think on my feet. That I could handle the worst case scenario. And after that, performing onstage without fire seemed like no big deal.

From this, I can put together a pretty good brag. Like this:

I am Faith Helma, I worked for 15 years as performance artist. I made 20 shows. I performed in some crazy situations. Once I did a whole show while the set burned down around me. Two years ago, I hatched an idea to channel that creative energy into a coaching business. And instead of dismissing that idea, I took it seriously, and now I am running this business. I am failing and learning every single day. And I am being honest about my failures which scares the shit out of me but you know what? One thing you learn when you are performing a show while the set burns down around you is how to keep calm, how to think on your feet, and how to dodge fire. 

So now it’s your turn! Go through the steps, dig deep into what you’ve overcome in your life, and practice saying it out loud. And then if you’re up for an extra challenge: see if you can sneak it into conversation with another human being.

p.s. I wrote about this topic over a year ago, here: BOASTING PRACTICE . Back then I shared clips from two masters of the boast, Nicki Minaj and Muhammad Ali. Both of them start with something hard they did — making stupid mistakes when starting out, getting knocked down in fights — and spin that out into some righteous, braggadocious poetry.

 

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Playtime with my inner critics (a lesson in failure)

OK. So part of this experiment I’m running called my business is making a practice of being honest. I may not always shout it from the rooftops — sometimes I want to hide, and there’s no shame in hiding — but I’m owning my truth and living transparently.

So here is the deal. I put together a workshop called Playtime with Your Inner Critic. I showed up tonight to lead the workshop. And nobody else showed up.

That’s tough. But the bright side is, I had planned to lead a group through exercises in turning your critical energy around and playing with it — so I am well prepared for the critical thoughts that I am now having. And I’m in a beautiful room with big paper and markers and all the tools I need to work through my critical thoughts.

So I might as well share that process. A virtual workshop, in a way. A workshop of one.

First, I am going to write down what sucks about this situation.

  • I suck at promoting workshops
  • I suck at picking one thing and repeating it. I’m pretty sure if I’d picked one workshop topic a year ago and did that once a month for a year, people wouldn’t be so confused about what I’m doing and when and why.

What is the opposite of those things, that is also true?

  • I am great at hiding out. I am great at bursts of inspiration at the last minute. I am great at under-promising and over-delivering.

I mean, I really did have a great two hour workshop planned:

  • I am great at offering wildly divergent things. I am great at improvising and never doing something the same way twice.
  • Maybe I could find a way to offer that wildly divergent zone regularly. Would anyone show up for that? Maybe if people knew SOME of the why and what, and if the when and where was always the same, it would be clear enough to stick.

Let’s go deeper into my frustrations with this situation

  • I’ve been through this before
  • I knew this would happen
  • I’m tired of this pattern
  • I feel embarrassed: where are my fans, where is my momentum?

Have there been things that did not follow this pattern?

The answer is: yes. And ironically, the events that I’ve had the most success promoting in the past are my failure workshops. Two questions arise:

  • Do I want to lead a regular workshop on failure?
  • Would I have come to this workshop today, if I weren’t leading it?

I think the answer to both is: no. I love my failure practice workshops — but I don’t want to lead them every month. I want something bigger, more open — I want failure to be part of what I’m leading us through, but not the only framework.

And if I weren’t leading this workshop tonight, I am pretty sure I would have found an excuse to not come, because the idea of dealing with my inner critics when I’m tired and cranky and hungry does not appeal to me. (Oof! This is hard to admit, but it’s true).

So what IS the workshop that I would drag my lazy ass out of the house to attend every month?

As soon as I ask this, 3 ideas pop into my head. Ideas that are open enough for me to go wild but have a simple structure that speaks to a clear need (I think). I have no idea if anyone else would like these, but I know I would.

I’m getting too heady, so I take a break to draw my critic

This is Beebee Eye Roller, rolling her eyes at all this WACKINESS which she is sure everyone will think is SO STUPID.

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BeeBee Eye Roller is basically 15 year old me, frozen in time. (Wearing a weird hat and with yarn for hair). And I’m making light of this, but I also want to say: her concern comes from a real place. Her fear of humiliation is real. I can still remember the fear I felt in high school — so don’t think I’m not taking Beebee seriously. It’s just that, I’m 38 years old now, and I am wearing a unicorn shirt, and a headband, and taking selfies of myself jumping in the air, and what’s the worst that could happen?

Then I put on Cyndi Lauper and we dance it out

I dance like I am Beebee Eye Roller and no one is watching.

I dance like I am a ballerina even though I am not.

I dance with white girl abandon even though my greatest fear is dancing like a white girl.

And I am going to share the video I took with you, even though I promised Beebee we wouldn’t share it.

She thinks it is a TERRIBLE idea. Actually what she thinks is something like this: This is not how you run a business. Who would ever hire you to do anything based on this video? Oh my god you are going to embarrass yourself.

An opposite which I can also find a way to believe is: This is an inspired way to run a business, one that other inspired lunatics will respond to. I would love anyone who hired me based on this video.

So here it is:

Oh yeah, and here are the 3 ideas for future workshops:

  1. Dance with your monsters, critics and fears: a hilarious dance party with our monster selves. I bring a playlist that takes us on an hour-long journey and throw out prompts to inspire us to dance with our monster energy.
  2. Failure storytelling circle: share stories about your mistakes and messes, get practice bragging about them instead of hiding them, and get active backup and support from the group for doing hard things.
  3. Big crazy idea clinic: bring your big crazy idea and we’ll brainstorm ways you could make it happen. (You can bring in ideas you think are terrible or would never work and we’ll still give it our best shot. All ideas are taken seriously.)

I would love to know which (if any) of these you would come to.

How to turn self-criticism around

To continue in the vein I started down earlier in the week, I thought I’d share one thing I do when I find myself in a firestorm of self-criticism (like the one I was in last Friday). It can come on you so suddenly, can’t it? That’s why it’s important to be aware of your own signals — because you are the only one who can tell when your body is slipping over from “I’m a little hungry” to “EAT NOW,” or from “I’m not feeling so great,” to “I HAVE A HORRIBLE CASE OF THE FLU,” or from “That didn’t go so well” to “I AM A MISERABLE FAILURE.” Because when you catch yourself at the first signs, it’s easier to turn it around gently.

In other words, try not to do what I did — try to catch the signs before the storm is raging around you. But you know what? That is another thing I have to remind myself of all the time — that this is not a game of self-evolution, not a thing to win or do once and be done. This is something we are working on all the time. It’s an ecosystem, with checks and balances and weather systems that fluctuate.

So. Here is how I pulled myself out of the frenzy:

STEPS TO REVERSE THE SELF CRITICISM

Step 1: Write down what your inner critics are saying

Here’s what mine were saying last week: 

  1. You’ve got too much to do
  2. You wasted your day AGAIN
  3. You can’t get this right
  4. You are a stressful person
  5. You suck at managing time
  6. You made a mess of it
  7. This always happens  (this = trying to do too many things
  8. You can’t get anything done
  9. You couldn’t even do ONE thing right today!
  10. WTF is wrong with you

Step 2: Make a list of things that are the opposite of that (and that also feel true)

Here were some opposites that felt true to me, and/or made me laugh out loud:

  1. You have just the right amount of things to do.
  2. You did good work today
  3. You can get this right
  4. You are a calming person. You want to help people.
  5. You suck at wasting time. You could be better at it.
  6. You get too focused on organizing
  7. This does not always happen
  8. You can get things done
  9. You did lots of things right today
  10. WTF is not wrong with you. Why the fuck is nothing wrong with you?

Step 3: Read that list out loud

Are you being too hard on yourself?

I’ve been thinking today about why it’s so easy to be hard on yourself.

I hear it from women I talk to all the time, and I catch myself doing it too: getting tired, getting overwhelmed and suddenly finding myself caught in a frenzy of self-criticism.

In fact, on Friday AS I WAS COMPOSING THIS POST ABOUT BEING TOO HARD ON YOURSELF, I got sucked into a vortex of being too hard on myself.

Here’s the short version of what happened — see if you can relate: I was writing in MS word. At 2:00, after about an hour of writing, I was 99% finished, so I closed my laptop to head home, thinking I’d finish there and post it before driving to pick up my son from daycare.

But when I got home and opened my laptop — the document had disappeared.

Word hadn’t crashed, I hadn’t saved it somewhere weird — it was gone, as if I hadn’t written it. This was baffling. I started questioning my sanity — had I written it? And then my inner critics showed up in force.

They started saying things like, Oh god, this ALWAYS happens, you ran out of time again. You should have kept it simple instead of making it too big to pull off LIKE YOU ALWAYS DO. Why can’t you get one thing done like a normal person?

I used the exercise I talk about in my new workbook to identify and give a name to one of the critical voices in my mind. He’s Randolph the pencil sharpener shark and he’s constantly barking at me to be stronger, smarter, faster, better.

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Randolph was upset. And after doing some dialoguing with him over the weekend, it’s clear to me now what he is scared of: being left behind, being unprepared, being eaten by bigger sharks, being swallowed up by the world.

This morning, after looking back on the wreckage I abandoned on Friday, I started over.

And ironically, by giving up Friday afternoon and admitting things were a jumbled mess and I couldn’t fix them, and by letting myself go through the process of being hard on myself and then pulling myself out of it — I achieved what Randolph the pencil shark wants. I now am feeling more clarity about why I am too hard on myself, and when it happens, and how to get out of it (I’ll write more on that later!).

Anyway — that’s what’s going on in my world. If you are being too hard on yourself too — know that you are not alone.

With love from me, Randolph and my inner champion, Wild Coach Helma — here’s to growing and stretching and learning to go easy on ourselves.

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