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.



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:


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

Historical Alter Ego

I’ve got a new video up, as part of my Quick Ideas for Creative Action series.

This one is all about how to step into a historical alter ego, by picking someone in history who you’ve got a girl crush on (like Margaret Mead, in my case) and copying what you love about them.

Here’s the video:

If you want the shorthand version, are the steps to creating an alter ego based on a historical figure you love:

  1. Pick a historical figure you love
  2. Jot down the traits you admire
  3. Draw their picture (or cheat and find one via google)
  4. Imitate the picture: move, act, dress and talk like them
  5. Adopt one of their habits for a week

Fantastic! Let me know how it goes! (And as always, if you want to take it further, sign up for a navigation session to explore coaching with me)

I suck, I’m great

New exercise in my Quick Ideas for Creative Action series, called: I SUCK, I’M GREAT.

This is a great one for flipping your own expectations around about what you’re supposed to be good at, and what you’re supposed to hide.

Simple idea: make a list of things you suck at, switch each one to its opposite, then say out loud, I AM GREAT AT [opposite thing].

Because think about it — if I suck at being on time, I must be great at being late.

I walk you through it here, and I’d like to draw your attention to my fabulous skills in rambling and repeating myself and abrupt video editing:

Announce a mistake in advance

I made a video as part of a new series I’m doing, Quick Tricks for Creative Living (note: I can’t decide if the name for this series sucks, so I might change it in the future*) (I’m already demonstrating the power of this exercise by announcing a potential mistake in advance!) 

These are short, easy exercises you can try as you’re going about your day, to help you diffuse obstacles, reframe expectations and engage creatively and proactively with the challenges life is throwing at you.


I don’t know about you, but I hate making mistakes. I’m a recovering perfectionist and an oldest child so I get stuck in “if I’m not doing everything right I’m LETTING THE TEAM DOWN” narratives.

That’s why I was so delighted when someone in one of my workshops had this idea (as a way to deal with stress at work), to pre-emptively neutralize criticism by announcing what you might do wrong before you do it.

So say you’re stacking a bunch of onions in a display case. You would announce to everyone around you, “I am about to arrange these onions precariously so it’s impossible to take one out without sending them all rolling.”

When this idea first came up, we all cackled at the idea, and then had a blast thinking up examples.

I am about to awkwardly introduce myself to that woman over there.

Hold on, I need to try and parallel park and end up 3 feet away from the curb.

I am heading out to a meeting, and will take the most roundabout, least straightforward way and hopefully get stuck in traffic on the way.

The more examples we came up with, the more I started to think it might actually be a brilliant idea. So I’ve been trying it out since then, and without fail, it lightens the energy, relaxes the (self-imposed) pressure and more often than not, helps me to NOT make the mistake!

I’ll walk you through it here — give it a shot and let me know how it goes!


*UPDATE: I have indeed changed the name, it’s now Quick Ideas for Creative Action!