I recently had a professional experience that can only be described as an adult “mean girls” situation and all because I had a professional disagreement and stood my ground.
A few days later I was called in by my colleagues and told that in a nutshell, “they felt tension” and wanted to resolve it… What they really meant was, “DeAnza, you need to be fixed, because you are not playing by our rules”.
After further reflection I realized that the real issue in my group wasn’t that I had a professional disagreement… The real issue was that I was not complying to some unspoken set of rules and expectations that the other group members had for me and I was vocal about my thoughts and feelings.
Standing firm and confident in one’s voice can be difficult. As women we are told all kinds of things when we use our voice…
“You’re too emotional”.
“You’re not a team player”.
“You’re the cause of conflict”.
We believe all this stuff, because we’ve been told this for a long time. It becomes so ingrained into our consciousness that sometimes we don’t even question it. Most women I talk to describe a set of “rules” that include:
Be polite and nice at all times.
Take care of those around you.
Do not be too direct. You don’t want to come off as opinionated or pushy.
Do not speak your mind— you are not the authority on anything.
Be soft and gentle.
Be the one that everyone can come to when they need to vent.
Take one for the team and when you get tired do not show it or you’ll look like you’re rebelling.
Be soft spoken.
Be careful as to not look stressed.
If you’re in physical or emotional pain suck it up or your competency, strength and capability will be questioned. More importantly, you can’t be a burden to others.
Make people feel good by smiling and laughing at their jokes even when they are offensive or inappropriate.
When you’re in a mixed gender situation be prepared to be the hostess—making sure that everyone present has refreshments and clean up after everyone.
Never get angry.
Recently I read an article in the LA times called Angry While Women. It reviewed the negative response to celebrity women’s expression of anger. Everyone from Beyonce, Kelly Ripa and Jada Pinkett Smith—women who have been vocal in the media about their disgust and anger at mistreatment in the workplace and their personal lives. These women went on to not only express their anger, but also to demand change—they put up a clear boundary— They said:
We deserve better.
We won’t accept anything less than respect.
We are no longer willing to compromise ourselves.
And to say these things and express the fact that we are fed up with anything less gets us all kinds of labels:
Women who raise their voices are shrill.
Women who are angry are controlling.
Women who speak their mind are the b-word.
Women who say enough is enough are crazy.
Women who establish boundaries are selfish.
There was a time in my 20’s and even in my early 30’s I would compromise far too often. I’d compromise my feelings, ideas and convictions—believing that I didn’t know what I was thinking anyway. In a way it was a means of survival, but in the end I slowly began seeing myself fold into the shadows. It was not a thriving, healthy existence and led to all kinds of complications like depression and isolation.
It was easy to turn on myself, because the idea that my existence mattered less than everyone else was reinforced by nearly everyone. In fact, I didn’t even hear that there was an alternative until I was in my women’s studies class in undergrad.
The characteristics that were reinforced to me as a child was that I was very gentle, sweet, quiet and cute. I was rewarded for these characteristics by nearly everyone. And so for a time it worked until it didn’t—until I realized that to be that person was to not be me. These reinforcements had me believing that I didn’t need to use my brain or my capacity to critically think because what mattered more was “how I made everyone else feel” not what I thought or valued. I started feeling very used up. This greatly impacted many of my adult life choices—my relationships, where I worked, the friends I had, etc.
When I made the conscious choice to reject this construct that I had inherited from all the women before me… I was told I was rebellious and asked what had happened to that ‘nice’ girl. Some went as far as to question my faith… My values as a mother… Whatever it would take to help me see the error of my ways.
Recently I established a boundary in a relationship where I was taken for granted, mistreated and abused and I was told by other family members that my behavior was rebellious.
Setting limits goes against everything we’re taught about what it means to be a woman in this society.
A book I had in undergrad was called Hard Ball for Women. While reading it in undergrad I wasn’t able to process it thoroughly, as there was an inner conflict of maintaining the “nice, sweet, pretty, girl” role and these new ideas. The following take aways have stuck with me and I’ve adapted them over time.
Women need to refrain from taking on more responsibility then is ours to own.
Something I practice in my personal and professional life is transparency. This includes being able to say when I’ve made a mistake. When I voice that I’ve made a mistake I find that it frees me from having to be perfect. When someone brings something to me about where I’ve messed up I can be less defensive and more open to the process of learning. However, there is a fine line in accepting one’s personal flaws and imperfections and taking ownership of other people’s behaviors and actions.
A former boss had dropped the ball on funding deadlines. He proceeded to place the blame on me for his oversight. As his employee, I internalized his complaint and took on the responsibility and vowed to never let it happen again. Taking his responsibility on had me questioning and doubting every decision I made in my job. This affected my work and my self-perception for years to come. It took many a- therapy sessions later to realize, “Ohhhhhhh yah! That wasn’t on me—that was on him”. I learned from there that I wasn’t willing to take on more then what was mine to own, because of the consequences it had on me. I set this as a boundary.
Women need to stop fearing conflict and tension.
True— conflict is not fun. Conflict doesn’t feel good. Conflict is stressful.
However, women describe to me that some of their greatest fears is ‘being the cause or instigator of conflict’. When women have shared mistreatment in their workplace and I’ve affirmed their feelings and interpretation of the mistreatment—I usually inquire further to find out what she may need to do to advocate for herself. The response to this usually has something to do with the fear that if she speaks up she’ll be viewed as the one ‘rocking the boat’. The overwhelming fear sometimes has women choosing to put up with the mistreatment.
Here’s the thing: conflict happens. We have been taught for so long that we are supposed to avoid conflict at all costs that we don’t even consider that maybe the conflict is present because of someone else’s choices and not our own. Standing up for ourselves and putting an end to mistreatment does not mean that we are the cause of conflict—it means that we are addressing the conflict and setting limitations for our own self-care and health. The conflict exists whether or not we say anything—the question is how long do you want to endure manipulative and bullying behavior? What’s the cost to you?
Women need to reject the notion that we exist to make everyone else happy.
Women often confuse compassion and kindness for the idea of ‘making everyone else happy’. When you set limitations for your life it does not mean that you are being unkind or unfair. The thing is your boundaries will likely not make other people happy with you. People do not like boundaries because it means that you are not going to flex to their whims and ideas of what they think you should do and who they think you should be. This doesn’t make people happy, but it’s also not your responsibility to make sure that people are happy.
I remember the first time I told this to my mom. She disagreed with a life decision I had made and she was trying with all her might to ‘get me back in line’. After trying every tactic from guilting, shaming, punishing… I looked at her and said, “Ma, my life doesn’t exist to make you feel fulfilled or complete or happy. I love you, but I recognize my choices will not always make you happy and I think we can agree to disagree”. I didn’t mean anything unkind or disrespectful by it, but I needed to vocalize that I recognized that we wouldn’t see eye to eye on this subject—oh and by the way we- need- not- ever- have- this- conversation- again. In that present moment it wasn’t necessarily appreciated, but over time my mom and I experienced a greater respect of one another.
Women need to stop apologizing.
I hear women apologizing for all sorts of things that they are not responsible for. All this apologizing has a deeper subtext– an apologetic posture for existing.
Women’s ideas and thoughts and values may not always fit the conventional mold and guess what– that’s okay– nothing to apologize for.
I catch myself apologizing and I realize that it has become an automatic response– a reflex to societal stimuli. I’ve recently taken on a mindful practice where I consciously practice being unapologetic.
- Whoops I forgot to sign my kid’s request form… Okay I’ll get that tomorrow.
- Oh I’m pitching a proposal that doesn’t fit your expectation– okay. Maybe we’ll get it next time.
- Oh I just posted something on Facebook that doesn’t match your politics… Okay… well it wasn’t personal to you and hope that we can continue a dialogue.
It takes a great deal of work to shift these beliefs about ourselves.
In the end, what I learned about this professional scuffle was that I wasn’t willing to give my power over to anyone and I’m not going to apologize for that.
I’m not proposing that if you follow these simple steps everything will be magical and conflict will dissolve into the cosmos… Many of my life experiences where I used my voice took years to resolve in my relationships and some still haven’t resolved and I don’t know that they ever will resolve. The thing is I am more at peace being true to me… And these days peace is something that can’t be taken for granted.