Of Boundaries and Bitchiness: Why You Need To Stand Up And Speak Up

2009 September 14

I count myself lucky in that I’ve always had a good relationship with my mother. I never gave my parents any trouble growing up (unless being a chronic know-it-all counts) and she repays the favor by rarely nagging me about my career, when I’m going to get married, how I dress, etc. The most intrusive she gets is floating the notion once or twice a year that I should go to law school or recommending that I apply for jobs for which I’m wildly misqualified. There was also the time she suggested that I get my hair cut like Kate Gosselin’s, but I’m pretty sure that was meant as a joke.

2615981495_1a266872aaPhoto by SarahR89

Although we don’t look alike at all, I’ve inherited several of my mother’s hallmark features – the world’s tiniest bladder, an odd physical reaction that causes my eyes to water when I get stressed out (apparently, my grandfather suffered the same quirk) and most importantly, the ability to stand up for my own best interests and directly challenge those who would try to impinge on them. As I grow older, this is the legacy that I appreciate more and more (the bladder thing not so much).

Young women are neither taught to develop nor trust their instincts when it comes to reading and reacting to people. Instead, we learn how to cultivate a positive (read likeable, desirable) impression, to diagnose why we’re not making such an impression and to tinker incessantly with our approach in order to achieve this end.  And we rarely consider whether or not the person(s) in question is remotely worthy of such an effort. We are not schooled in identifying our own best interests and being staunch guardians of them. We are taught to prioritize our hearts over our guts, to value propriety and to avoid making a scene. And sadly, as a sex, we police each other to ensure that we toe the line and mete out the punishment (rarely as overt as outright ostracism, but more the inculcating of a subtle sense of failure, of deviance, of being unlovable) for violating this code of conduct.

If you look like a doormat and act like a doormat, it should come as no surprise that people walk all over you.

We are taught to fear being bitches. Bitches are women who can’t make their way in the world according to the acceptable standards of female conduct ( old, ugly, angry, sexually undesirable), so they play dirty, they bully, they terrorize, they nag. Or so we’re told.  Behavior that doesn’t conform to the cult of winsome likeability is fair game to be tagged with the bitch label. And sadly, somewhere along the line, standing up for yourself, asserting your rights, your autonomy and setting the parameters for how you will be treated has been stealthily positioned under the bitch umbrella. We all want to be liked, but the false dichotomy between being liked and being respected is just that – false (ditto, the dichotomy between being smart and attractive or funny and feminine). We learn that you can be desirable or you can be respected, but you can’t have both. And since being desirable comes with better fringe benefits and being respected is just code for being a frigid bitch, well which one is any right-thinking good girl going to choose? This is gender policing at its finest and most erroneously obtuse. Respect is a good thing. Respect is something that is earned. And standing up for yourself is precisely what will lead to other people respecting you. We teach people how to treat us. If you wanted to be treated with courtesy, respect and kindness, you have to act as if you deserve and expect it. Conversely, if you look like a doormat and act like a doormat, it should come as no surprise that people walk all over you.

I’ve learned this lesson multiple times in my professional life. I remember a particularly vivid incident that involved a yelling match with a coworker in the town square of picturesque Eastern European village. As the foreign interloper, I had tried to bite my tongue and to be as ingratiating as possible in service of making the all-important first impression, but as the trip dragged on, suppressing resentment at being talked at (not to), having my input dismissed and being stonewalled when it came to engaging the staff in any sort of cooperation just got to be too much. So I exploded. We went toe-to-toe, shouting each other down until another member of the party (a natural peacemaker) inserted himself into the scene and suggested we go have some tea and collect ourselves. The coworker and I avoided so much as eye contact for the rest of the day. But a funny thing happened the next morning. He greeted me at the door of the office with a big smile and a cup of coffee. I was in. By refusing to back down, to play the propriety game, I had demonstrated that I wasn’t intimidated by his bluster. And he liked that. And more importantly, he respected that. The rest of my business trip went dramatically more smoothly and every time I’ve crossed paths with this colleague (either at home or abroad) since, he and I greet each other as great old friends. I kid him about his self-importance, he tells me that I look like I need more sleep and we swap obscure music recs. This is but one (rather dramatic) example out of many. The truth is, I’m so used to living my life this way, that asserting myself and calling others on their BS has long since stopped registering as a novelty. But I do remember from time to time (usually when a particularly epic smackdown is warranted) to pick up the phone and thank my mother for imbuing me with both the capacity to assert myself and the understanding of the absolute necessity of doing so when it’s warranted. Whether it’s nature or nurture, I don’t care, but I’m profoundly grateful that I inherited this trait and that it has manifested itself comparatively early in my life.

But even if such an approach doesn’t come naturally to you, as a woman, it is one of the single most important behaviors you can cultivate. It will be uncomfortable at first. It will feel counterintuitive and alienating. You will hold your breath as you wait for someone to slap you in the face with the bitch tag (let ’em;  the dread hurts more than the actual epithet), but the more you practice drawing these lines, the easier it becomes. Eventually it will be second nature and you will thank me for prodding you along this path. And I will pass along the props to my mother.

Tune in tomorrow for concrete (and unisex!) tips on exactly how to go about asserting yourself.

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