I can think back to being a child sitting cross-legged on my fourth grade classroom's floor, obnoxiously raising my hand for everything. I considered myself a smart student, and was eager to please my elementary school teacher. I expressed my opinions as if they were facts, and felt so much pride in showing that I knew what I was talking about (American Girl history books sure did give me a leg-up on the competition).
When you are young, you often lack self-awareness. I didn't feel annoying until someone told me I was, I was just there. I had ideas and laughed a lot and always wanted to be present for every activity.
I have a specific memory of looking in the mirror before a 5th grade skating party, and thinking "Do I look pretty?", birthing the concept of self-image, raw and vulnerable. It was the first time I can recall noting my appearance, and for a brief moment, being worried about how others would perceive me. I was over-analyzing my sparkly butterfly shirt, butterfly necklace, lip gloss, and thin purple glasses that matched my shirt perfectly.
Fast forward to my senior year in college, when my mental health was close to its most unhealthy point to date, and my confidence even worse. Gone was the lack of self-awareness that ten year old me had, because in fact, I was overly aware of everything. Of each step, how every movement my body made while walking across campus felt like shattering glass. I could hear myself breathing, the clearing of my throat, wondering who was watching me and noticing too, that I didn't belong. I felt out of place, and going to class only put a spotlight on my fear of taking up space.
In fact, I had a lot to say during my classes. The elementary schooler inside of me was oohing and ahhing, shifting her wait from one small hip to the other so that her hand could be raised higher. But I found myself unable to speak. Every once in a while, I would express a thought in order to get participation points (many of my classes had less than twenty people so we were all expected to contribute) but would mostly be paralyzed with sweating hands and a shocking pain in my chest. I didn't want the professors or students to hear my thoughts and think I was a fraud. That I wasn't intelligent. That I couldn't fool anyone.
I spent much of my later college years wondering Do I look okay? Should I even be here? What do my classmates/friends/sorority sisters actually think of me? I was the small girl in the butterfly shirt standing in front of the mirror again. And have recently sense noticed aspects of her leaking into my professional life.
One of our college's Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies professors once mentioned she had read a study on how women are more likely to phrase their questions with "In my opinion" or "Well I think" instead of just expressing their thoughts. I have never forgotten that, and often find myself doing similar things in meetings or even in emails, the text staring back at me, apologetic.
I've been trying to do away with the "Maybe it's just me but"s or "At least that is what I think"s, whether it's at work, or in deep discussions among groups of friends. To women, oppressed peoples, or anyone who feels anxious and amplified in the world, know that our thoughts are valid. Our feelings and opinions do not have to have a qualifier. They are enough by themselves.
For example, while working this morning, I went to point out some messaging in a piece that I disliked in an email. I began by phrasing with "To me, this part is confusing because ____ but that could just be me!" I stared at the words on the screen, ashamed that I felt the need to cushion my opinions with exclamation points and kind smiley faces. I realized that I have the right to be here and my feedback has weight, and changed the phrasing. "This part is confusing because it sounds like ___. Perhaps we should change it." I pressed send, terrified that I would come across as too harsh or haughty, but I'm done being nervous. I'm done being worried that being perceived as confident is a bad thing. I have to be the girl that butterfly-shirt-wearing-fifth-grade-Jordan needed.
I urge you to speak your mind without apology. It's a hard habit to break, but I'm on my way. You are allowed to be here. You are allowed to feel, and you are allowed to say your thoughts as if they are the absolute truth. Use your words with power for each child standing in front of a mirror and wondering if they are good enough. They could all use someone like you.