I had a terrifying experience last year (well, relatively speaking…). I encountered myself and didn’t recognize me – at all. In that split moment, I felt so many conflicting emotions – shame, pride, an acute sort of dislocation from myself and a renewed commitment to improving the accuracy of my self-perception.

Here is what happened. I was in the midst of leading my biannual women’s retreat, Homecoming, last October and I came upon a group of women. One woman was talking in a very animated fashion about this other woman she knew – a woman that clearly had made a positive impression on her. She painted a picture of this amazing woman, rattling off all the qualities this woman possessed and all the things she had juggled and had accomplished. As I listened in, I became entranced about what I was hearing. I wanted to know her. Whoever she was, I was convinced we would be fast friends. I didn’t even know her and yet I admired her. Finally, unable to bear the suspense any longer, I inserted myself into the conversation, asking, “who is this woman?”All five women in the circle stopped and stared at me and then smiled, looking at each other. “Lael, it’s you”, the woman said. My jaw fell open and I was speechless. I recovered from my shock quickly, laughing at myself for having been caught in such an awkward bungle. But that experience made a lasting imprint on my nearly 40-year old soul.

While I was still mulling over this experience post-retreat, I came across a blog entry from the amazing Jess Esch that felt like it tapped into the same vein that was pulsating through me.

There once was a wonderful, magical woman
who people looked upon with envy and admiration.
People thought their lives would improve tenfold
if they could be more like her.
But the magical woman’s mirror was broken.
She did not think she was special at all.
We are taught to see the best in others.
No one tells us to look inside ourselves
with the same intention.
I think that is sad.
It makes me wonder about the sun.
Does she know of her beauty?
The joy she brings?
The majesty emanating from her core?
Or does she envy the moon?

Both of these events had me retreating inward, convinced that this was my unique experience. Besides, how do you engage in a conversation in which you share how impressed, nay in awe, you were in hearing a description of yourself? It just doesn’t happen easily. But I was wrong. This is not just about me. In telling my own story, I have learned this is a common experience we share as women. Simply put: we don’t see ourselves clearly. I would wage a bet that we only see pieces, and often not the best ones, that create kind of a hodge-podge impression; a far cry from the big, bold and beautiful expression that complete strangers often experience of us.

What’s going on here? Why is this the case? I must admit, I don’t fully understand it (after all, it’s my stuff, too, right?), but I sense it’s really important. It feels like it’s a key that might unlock so many different but related dynamics in women’s lives: our tendency to diminish or underestimate our value (financial or otherwise), our reluctance to ask for help when we need it most, our resistance to stepping up, standing out and playing BIG (however that looks to you), the various health issues we tend to face as women (depression, heart disease, breast cancer), the competition we engage in with other women. A big fat key.

So what IS the cost of not seeing ourselves as others do? One theory I have is that we might come to rely more on other people’s perceptions of us. Do you see where this might lead? Needing approval? Wanting to be liked? Making decisions based on what other’s might feel or want instead of from our own inner wisdom? Playing it safe instead of taking a stand?

Another theory I’m playing with is how it directly relates to the wage gap we face as women. There are countless books (see Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation) and research (see http://www.catalyst.com/) that implore women to “make the ask” and instruct them on how best to do it. If we don’t see the full picture – the full impact – of what we are bringing, don’t we run the risk of selling ourselves short? Or trusting in someone else’s assessment of what is “fair?” Yikes. I’m beginning to believe this is one of the most universal ways we give away our power as women – by not taking responsibility for calculating our own worth. The irony is that women are known for being quite shrewd and savvy with money. After all, women make over 80% of the household buying decisions from groceries to cars and everything in between. So no excuses.

Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place for me during a conversation at one of my most recent circles for women leaders. The topic was “stepping up and standing out” and – BLAM! – out came the theme again of not fully seeing or appreciating ourselves. The new piece for me was how this was all tied up in our notion of “the ego”. Specifically, our fear of it. There was this palpable sense of not wanting to be seen as too confident, too knowledgeable, too assertive, too (insert your own fear here). In this circle of women, we discussed that our default antidote to mitigate these concerns was to either diminish (“it really wasn’t a big deal..”), disclaim (“this is probably a crazy idea…”) or distract (“it was actually the team’s idea…”). What is it in us that prevents us from saying, “I did this!”, “I’m right” or “I’m worth this?”

For my part, I’m practicing some new behaviors. I’m nodding more as people share their experiences of me. Sounds like a simple thing, but I’m a blurter – I tend to sweep away the words of any compliments or praise while they are still being spoken. And before you catch me in a contradiction (about relying on others’ perceptions), let me assure you that my nodding technique is simply a trigger for me to ask myself, “is this true for me?” and then notice how it feels to recognize myself more clearly. To own myself – who I am, what I bring and how I show up in life – more fully. I am nodding myself into awareness.

I’m also saying “you’re welcome” more. As a mother, I am vigilant about teaching my children to acknowledge, receive and give thanks. But now I’m aware of the oft silent sibling of “thank you”….”you’re welcome”. Saying this gracious phrase signals to me that I have taken in and received more information about myself, for myself. Again, it may sound simple, but try it out. I wasn’t aware of how often I smooshed other words around that phrase, effectively burying it.

Finally, I’m practicing putting a period at the end of my statements. In my graduate program, I had the privilege of having this amazing professor who gifted me with the practice of putting a period after a statement. Up until that point, I was unaware of how often I would let my sentences straggle to a conclusion or taper off. Worse yet, I would diminish the impact of what I was saying by, once again, letting my message get lost in a cascade of other words. I remember watching her pinch her pointer finger and thumb together – as if she were literally picking up a period – and place it in front of her to signal she was done. Period. It got my attention then and I’m hoping to use that technique to get my own attention now.

My main message is this: fix your mirror. Don’t have one? Find one. Clean it off. Get one. Give yourself that much respect – you deserve to be seen by you. You are worthy of clear and enduring admiration, so be the first to get in line to witness yourself in all your glory. We owe that much to ourselves – and the world – as women. Period.