by Sofia Pereira
Running to serve in elected office is about being of service to your community and making a difference—and it's not easy. Having run for office myself I can tell you it's completely normal to have fears and insecurities when running for office. Women in the She Should Run community have shared stories from their journeys to elected office, including the biggest challenges that they've faced. I'm sharing their five most common fears, and suggestions for how to overcome them. Let's tackle these fears head on!
1. Fear of not being qualified
- Studies show that women don’t typically apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified. But here’s the good news: there’s no one path to elected office, and there’s not a clear job description that requires you to have certain types of experiences (although some elected offices like District Attorney or Auditor-Controller may have specific requirements). However, the fear of being under- or unqualified is a very real fear that women, myself included, have. Whether it’s because of imposter syndrome or some other reason, we are more likely to question our qualifications and our readiness.
- How to overcome it: Think broadly about how your skills and experiences translate into being an elected official. Ask your friends, family, and colleagues to share with you why they think you’re qualified. Think of the various elected positions in your area and figure out which ones may be a good fit for your level of experience. If you have some areas you want to work on, then go ahead and work on them. Just don’t undermine the experiences you already have under your belt. You are more ready than you realize.
- Why it’s worth it: We need diversity of perspective and experience in office and that means women breaking the mold of what a politician is “supposed” to have on their resume. Whether you’re a scientist, a nurse, a lawyer, or a stay-at-home mom, you have something to offer in public service. Help pave the way for future generations of women leaders behind you by showing your perspective deserves a seat at the decision-making table.
2. Fear of rejection
- Running for office requires asking for people’s votes, donations, and time. You may need to knock on hundreds of doors and call up hundreds of potential donors. The worst that can happen is someone saying “no,” but the fear of hearing “no” can keep us from asking for what we need.
- How to overcome it: When you’re asking for someone’s vote, money, or time, remember that you’re not just asking for yourself. You are asking on behalf of the people you want to represent. Not everyone is going to support your campaign or share your values. But, the more people you talk to, the more likely you are going to receive a positive response from folks. If you need help asking for donations or how to ask for someone’s support, practice with a friend or family member so you can get comfortable with receiving rejection or overcoming an objection. Facing rejection (and not internalizing it) just takes practice.
- Why it’s worth it: We can’t receive what we don’t ask for. Facing the risk of rejection means you are able to ask for not only what you need as a candidate, but eventually the needs of your community as an elected leader. Not letting the fear of rejection stop you from leading is powerful, and others will take notice!
3. Fear of criticism
- As a candidate, it’s inevitable that you will face criticism. Some of it will be valid, some of it may not be. There’s probably not one issue or action we can take that will be without criticism from someone (constituents, your opponent, the media, etc.). But we can’t let the fear of criticism keep us from leading or stepping up to serve our communities.
- How to overcome it:
- Focus on your values and why you’re running in the first place. If someone has valid concerns about your position on an issue or an action you took, listen to their concerns and work to understand their perspective. If you need to process the criticism, speak with a trusted ally or supporter who can give you some perspective or tough love (if you need it).
- It’s inevitable in the age of social media that some folks will say mean-spirited things online. One piece of advice is to not read online comments - have a friend read them so they can share with you any actual concerns. It’s not productive to get caught in the downward spiral with trolls. As our Executive Director, Clare Bresnahan English, told me, it’s not about having thick skin, but a filter so you can still receive the important information.
- Lastly, take care of yourself. If you need a digital detox or a day of rest to recover from some criticism, do it. We need you in this work for the long haul, so don’t force yourself to power through if you need some alone time or time with loved ones.
- Why it’s worth it: We can only grow as leaders if we learn from our mistakes and our experiences. Taking in and learning from constructive feedback will make you a stronger leader. Criticism can also be a reminder that we won’t agree with everyone. That is one of the challenges of being an elected leader: you represent an entire community with diverse opinions and values and you have to balance those perspectives with what you believe is right. The criticism you may receive can also help you better understand why you feel so strongly about an issue or what informs your decision-making and values. Healthy criticism challenges us to be better.
4. Fear of discrimination
- Discrimination, whether it’s based on gender, race, age, sexual orientation, abilities, or religion, is unacceptable. And yet, it is a reality for women running for office. Microaggressions and overt discrimination can take a toll, especially in the public eye as a candidate. For example, a recent article outlines the different questions two women candidates for governor received and how race may influence this. Another article describes the barriers that Latinas face. Ableism, homophobia, and racism create real challenges for women - not to mention the relentless mansplaining and condescension many women receive.
- How to overcome it: #NameItChangeIt. If you experience discrimination, call on your network to bring attention to it. Research shows that when women candidates experience sexism, if they call it out, and pivot back to the issues, they gain back any ground they may have lost with the sexist treatment. In the age of #MeToo, we are changing the conversation around what is acceptable on the campaign trail and beyond. Elected leaders like Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Senator Tammy Duckworth have fearlessly taken on discrimination. However, the emotional labor of enduring and fighting discrimination can be taxing. Rely on your network to support you and take time for yourself if a particular incident is wearing on you. You don’t have to do it alone!
- Why it’s worth it: Trailblazers like Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm have helped pave the way for others to run for office. Organizations like Higher Heights, LatinasRepresent, and The Representation Project can provide support and tools for you to address these real barriers. Senator Kamala Harris said recently, “My advice to Black girls everywhere: whenever you find yourself in a room where there aren't a lot of people who look like you — be it a classroom, or a boardroom, or a courtroom — remember that you have an entire community in that room with you, all of us cheering you on.” Regardless of your identity, there is a community of women supporting you. We need leaders like you in office and we got your back.
5. Fear of failure
- Running for office, assuming someone isn’t running unopposed, results in someone winning or losing. Of course you should run to win, but there’s always the risk that after months of hard work, you’ll lose. The fear of failure can keep us from pursuing something we feel strongly about, but it doesn’t have to.
- How to overcome it: Remember, even when you lose, you win. This isn’t just a baseless platitude - think back to why you want to run for office - the issues you want to work on. A campaign isn’t about one person, it is about the values we represent as a candidate or elected official. The very act of running for office gives you a platform for your ideas and values to be heard and debated - think of all the people who share those values who feel heard because of your candidacy. Those folks you want to represent and the values you hold are the reason why you’re running.
- Why it’s worth it: We all have experienced losses or failures, personally or professionally. Even if you lose the campaign, you will have still brought forward new ideas and a voice that may not have been heard otherwise. You will learn so much about yourself as a leader through running for office - and who knows, you may not win the first time around but new opportunities may arise!