7 Ways You’re Selling Yourself Short — and What to Do Instead

woman speaking up for herself in a meeting

Adobe Stock

Profile Picture
writer, editor, semicolon lover.
April 12, 2024 at 7:12PM UTC
We’ve all done it: someone compliments us on something we’ve worked days and nights on, slaved our skills away doing, and have even come to be proud of. The kind words register in our consciousness, and we can only think to reply with something self-deprecating. We undersell not only our efforts but also the final product. We sell ourselves short.

What does it mean when someone says you sell yourself short?

If you sell yourself short, you’re not considering yourself, your work or your effort to be as valuable as it is. In reality, your achievements and personality deserve much more credit than you’re giving yourself. Instead of being proud of yourself and sharing what you’ve done confidently, you diminish yourself and your capabilities.
Modest people often sell themselves short, but confidence in yourself doesn’t necessarily equate to arrogance. There’s a happy medium between bashing your talents and bragging about them. When you stop selling yourself short and are confident in what you do, you aren’t showing off; you’re being honest and giving credit where credit is due.

7 ways you’re selling yourself short — and things to do instead.

1. You downplay your achievements.

When someone asks you about what you’ve accomplished, you tend to take mountains and smush them into molehills. Even if you put weeks' worth of work into a short-term project, you play it off as if it took you no effort. When someone asks about your skills, you say you’re “fine” or “okay” when you’re really a qualified, capable person.
What to do instead: Own up to how much effort you've put in and the capacity you have instead of diminishing all that you’ve done and can do. To make this easier, focus on the quantifiable aspects of your work. This will keep you honest and factual — making you feel humble instead of arrogant. If a project took you weeks of overtime, tell your coworkers just that. Talk about what you’ve done and what you can do rather than what you’re worried you can’t.

2. You deny compliments and praise.

When someone tells you you’ve done an amazing job or they like your new portfolio piece or even shares your latest project, you shut them down immediately. When you close off yourself from compliments and praise, you’re denying that you deserve it. You’re sending a message to others that you’re unworthy of their best wishes — and if you don’t accept it, why should they (or anyone else) want to praise you again?
What to Do Instead: Accepting someone else’s praise or kind words can be uncomfortable. In fear of being considered bigheaded or braggy, we tend to deny compliments before accepting them. Yet when we deny praise, we deny others the right to give it. If someone is complimenting you, it’s likely they’re doing so because they mean it—they want to uplift you. Even a simple “thank you” can do the trick. Be genuine and you can still accept their words humbly.

3. You avoid talking about yourself.

Do you say “enough about me” when you’ve barely made headway in conversation? Do you always turn the discussion around and ask someone to tell you more about themselves? A respectful conversation should value what someone else has to say, but that doesn’t mean they need to monopolize the conversation. If you don’t get more than a word in, it’s difficult to foster a deeper, meaningful relationship—or even leave a lasting impact.
What to do instead: While it’s important to listen to others and hear their stories, you shouldn’t let all conversations revolve around other people. You deserve to be heard and respected, just like everyone else. To ease into this, start by making connections to the words of those around you. How has what they said related to something you’ve done? Even if there’s no immediate connection to your own life that comes to mind, is there’s something you’ve read or seen that does? Building bridges between what others discuss and your own life can help shift the conversation to yourself without aggressively snagging the spotlight.

4. You don’t take advantage of new opportunities.

When you’ve finally found something you’re comfortable with, it can be hard to break the barriers and try something new. Yet being comfortable doesn’t mean being happy. New opportunities provide ways to grow, learn and improve. If you sell yourself short, you let your nerves and lack of confidence get in the way of these opportunities.
What to do instead: Say “yes” to things you might not be 100% comfortable with. This doesn’t mean that everything has to be completely unprecedented and out of your comfort zone; just dare yourself to try something you’re unfamiliar with. Even if you’re not the best or the opportunity doesn’t work out, you’re guaranteed to learn something from the experience.

5. You don’t value your own skills and accomplishments.

Are you at a total loss when someone asks you what you’re good at? When someone tells you to list your strengths, do you find it challenging and difficult? Do you hesitate when you’re asked to discuss your accomplishments? If so, you’re selling yourself short despite your incredible skills and talents. There’s no way you can be confident in your own abilities if you don’t even know what to be confident about.
What to do instead: Start being proud of what you’ve done by getting your story straight. First, make a list of your professional and personal skills. What makes you as successful as you are? Then, think about all that you’ve accomplished. Finally, write down what you dream of achieving. Mix all of that together, and you create your own confident narrative. What you’re good at, what you’ve done, and what you want to do are unique to you — own it and make it known.

6. You over-qualify your achievements.

When talking about your work, you find that you use numerous adjectives to explain what you’re working on — and most of them aren’t positive. Your statements are doubtful and shy rather than confident. You use the word “just” or “nearly” to qualify something you’ve worked hard on. You make excuses like “Well, I haven’t thought this through that much” or “This idea is probably just okay.”
What to do instead: First, remove the word “just” from your vocabulary. The word immediately scales back your statements instead of empowering them. Next, try removing those negative qualifiers. Your idea is your idea, not something “okay” or “terrible” or “not thought through.” If you’re having trouble, try focusing your statements on the facts. When did you come up with this idea, and exactly how far along is your project? Giving concrete measurements of your work takes your focus away from underselling it and gives you credit where it’s due.

7. You aren't sure of yourself.

If you’re constantly worried about your personal success, it’s hard to sell yourself confidently. Nerves are perfectly normal, but we shouldn’t be consumed with fears of failure. Even if you aren’t 100% happy with where you are right now, that doesn’t mean that your present self isn’t wonderful. You should be constantly looking for ways to grow and improve, but appreciating who you are now at the same time.
What to do instead: Remember that everyone, even your role models, is a work in progress. Instead of worrying that you’ve missed out on your big goals in life, set smaller, more achievable goals on your way to your big dream. It doesn’t take one big leap to reach for the stars; small amounts of progress are much more valuable. Own where you are in life now; if you’re intentional about how you live moving forward, you’ll be much more sure of yourself and much more confident too.
Selling ourselves short not only hurts us but also the others around us. No matter where we are in life, we have valuable skills and accomplishments to share with others. If we sell these short, we miss out on the opportunity to connect with people who will want to praise and share our work. Gain confidence by accepting and loving what you’ve done and who you are. If you’re genuine and passionate, you’ll never be bragging — you’ll simply be selling yourself for what you’re worth.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.

Don’t miss out on articles like these. Sign up!

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always