Recently, a female friend of mine told me something that I found difficult to wrap my mind around: her boyfriend of several months had been using a timer whenever they hung out together, so that he would know when to send her on her way and get back to his “busy” life.
I was at a loss for words. Not simply because of the level of callousness he had to possess in order to do something like that, but also—mostly—because the rest of the conversation had focused on the fact that he’d been MIA for the past several weeks, and she’d been holding back her anger because she didn’t want to hurt him or seem needy.
Let that sink in for a moment. She was worried about hurting or inconveniencing him, when he had long since decided that she wasn’t worth such consideration.
I was sad—but not surprised. In fact, her words were quite familiar, because I’ve heard the same words in my own mind and from the lips of others. Women suffer from a pervasive fear of asserting ourselves. Being assertive, which often involves crossing wills, goes against everything we’re taught about what it means to be a “good girl”: we should comfort, not confront; we should be understanding, not skeptical. As we grow older, the lesson that we have less right to stand up for ourselves is reinforced by all kinds of negative stereotypes: the “needy” girlfriend, the “irrational” feminist, the “difficult” classmate or co-worker. Society does not look kindly on women it can push into these descriptions. The sting of social punishment when we come close to them can be enough to make us dread them.
But keeping the peace has a high price: when we compromise our opinions, feelings, and desires, we end up internalizing society’s devaluation of ourselves. And if we don’t value ourselves, we don’t stand a chance at self-fulfillment.
Talking about why assertiveness is important is the easy part. The hard part is putting that into action. It’ll take major social changes to fix the root cause of the problem—sexist oppression—but the good news is that you can resist these habits. This is the challenge I’ve given myself, and here’s what I’ve learned:
Don’t doubt your gut instincts just because someone questions you. Whether it’s in a classroom debate, a discussion with a friend, or an argument with a romantic partner, trust that your perceptions are valid—don’t immediately assume that you must be wrong if you get pushback. I don’t mean that you should never admit to being wrong, but being confident in your instincts is one of the best defenses against emotional manipulation, gaslighting, and bullying.
Rather than “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” in a conflict, take an outsider’s role. Being empathetic is great, but it works best when tempered with objectivity. If you were an unbiased observer, would you think the situation was fair? If one of your friends described it to you, how would you react?
Your feelings are just as valid as anyone else’s. In my experience, one of the biggest things keeping women from being assertive is the fear of hurting people’s feelings, especially the people they love. But what about the fact that your feelings are being hurt? Prioritizing your own feelings and desires isn’t being selfish; it’s affirming that you matter.
If someone is worth keeping in your life, they’ll get over the sting. Nobody likes to be criticized and told they are being selfish/incorrect/manipulative, and with folks that aren’t used to receiving such criticism (*cough* cis men), the reaction can be pretty nasty. But if someone is serious about maintaining a healthy relationship with you or facing the truth, they won’t hold it against you. They’ll understand that you’re trying to look out for your well-being and keep them from repeating crappy behaviors. If you think that you have reason to believe that this person won’t take it in stride, it may be time to rethink the relationship.
Don’t feel weak for “giving in.” There will be times when you capitulate to something just to keep the peace, and you might feel angry with yourself for not being able to stand your ground. Don’t accept these self-hating feelings. Besides the fact that socializing as a woman makes it extremely difficult to comfortably and confidently assert yourself, don’t forget that tact, consideration and compromise are essential skills for defusing conflict—they’re just undervalued. It’s easy to absorb the idea that these traits are signs of weakness, but that’s a false perception deeply rooted in sexism.
Celebrate yourself when you successfully defend your opinions and choices. Facing the backlash from your assertiveness can be deeply painful. So take strength in what you’re accomplishing. You are honoring your personhood and sticking up for your intellect. You’re telling the world (and yourself) that you matter. And that, no matter how small it seems, is a revolutionary act.