Are we sabotaging ourselves without even realising it? Life coach Felicity Morse examines our well-intended but ultimately unhelpful habits
As a woman brought up to be a “good girl” in a patriarchy, it often feels like I’m labouring under the psychic equivalent of being conditioned to repeatedly stab myself in the face.
Championing powerful womanhood isn’t something that’s knitted into our culture (yet). Knowing how to love and foster sisterhood is not automatic, even for a millennial feminist like me. Sure, I’ll shout slogans from the rooftops, and be angry about the right things online, but when it comes to supporting women in everyday life, my sneaky subconscious often turns saboteur, reverting back to habits that undermine female empowerment.
Even the most well-meaning of us can unknowingly harm ourselves and other women by engaging in certain behaviours, causing resentment and division that ultimately keeps us all small.
1. Refusing to acknowledge what’s good
I used to downplay my achievements, the way I looked or something going well in my life so I didn’t seem too arrogant to other women. Even if I got a compliment, I would find ways to undermine it (oh these jeans? I got them on sale), for fear that I would be singled out as “too big for my boots”. This behaviour just reinforced the poisonous trope of the “dangerous jealous woman” (think Snow White’s stepmother) and women’s admiration as something to fear. It was inauthentic behaviour from me (I was genuinely proud of things in my life), destroyed connection (if compliments were presents I was throwing them back in people’s faces) and demonising women unnecessarily.
2. Putting ourselves down to make others feel better
This is a bit like the one above, only on steroids. It’s when we engage in a kind of reverse boasting, sharing our terrible problems with perverse relish. Meeting up with friends, we exchange tales of woe in a kind of race to the bottom, each person beginning with a version of; “Oh you think that’s bad? Wait until you hear about my week…” It can be a kind of camaraderie - but both feeling less than confident together doesn’t help - it just means we’re all skidding along the bottom together, indulging in a negative worldview and refusing to inspire each other. Before long we start to believe our own stories - that our lives really are a mess, we aren’t attractive, lovable or successful, and there’s no hope for anyone.
3. Idolising self reliance
It’s great to be a strong independent woman, but sometimes we take on way too much and refuse to let people help us for the sake of some egoistic notion of self reliance. There’s nothing wrong with letting people help you, particularly if they are offering. Most people actually enjoy being of service to someone else. There’s also nothing wrong with asking for help too, especially if you’re struggling. You are not a burden, you’re a woman! However quite often we either passively aggressively complain no one helped us, tired, wired, and tearful, after a big event where we took on more than we could chew, or feel ignored when actually we are the ones who have been shutting people out, with some misplaced pride.
4. Blaming men for being men
The ultimate cheap shot that looks like feminism but isn’t; this is when we make it all his fault. Blaming sexism or “stupid men”, we simplistically frame a situation to suggest the problem is the very nature of maleness. Men are not women and that means sometimes understanding that they do things, say things and understand the world differently from us. There are times when men seem brutal and basic to us, but that doesn’t make us better, it just makes us different. We can be grateful for those differences and use them to grow as women.
5. Excluding other women
Maybe you’ve got an established female support network. A friendship group from school or a previous workplace. Maybe even just a group of you who go for lunch every Tuesday. You’re tight knit, hilarious and intimate. There’s in-jokes, shared memories and you all know each other inside out. Then someone suggests bringing another woman along. And the group goes silent, before one, then another in the group begins to offer reasons why inviting another woman just wouldn’t work.
This is BS. Sometimes, we are so happy to feel a sense of belonging with other women that a newcomer feels threatening. So instead of growing and expanding our fellowship, we constrict and form a clique, masking our insecurity with a brittle belief that we’re a special tribe. All this does is reinforce the idea that our bonds are fragile and other women aren’t to be trusted. In the end we just rob ourselves of being bigger people and forming stronger connections with even more women. There comes a point in life where in order to experience more joy, we have to share it with others.
6. Making our sexual pleasure someone else’s responsibility
It’s great to find someone who has done enough of their own inner work connecting with themselves and their body that they are able to read ours without any instruction. But most lovers are not mind readers. We have to communicate what we want, when we want it and how exactly we want it. So many of us know more about what we don’t want rather than what we do, and will happily label someone ‘terrible in bed’ but it’s hard to be pleased if we have no idea what pleases us.
Part of discovering that comes down to our own willingness to explore our body’s likes and dislikes, to be vulnerable with a partner once we know, and have those high intensity intimate communications for the sake of creating a strong sexual connection, and honouring our own capacity for sexual pleasure. It’s uncomfortable and hard at first. It means we have to speak up when we want to slow down, to adjust people kindly when they are off the spot, and show them where our spot is, and most of all to be patient, and not give up on them, or ourselves.
7. Withholding honesty
It’s hard to know if we should tell a friend an uncomfortable truth. Maybe we’re unsure about her partner’s behaviour. Perhaps we can see her locked in a destructive pattern at work. It’s tempting to listen tight-lipped, plaster a fake smile on, pepper out a few platitudes, and hope we won’t be in a position to say “I did think that….” six months down the line when it all comes crashing down. This isn’t always very kind.
Yes, it is her business, and no, she doesn’t have to take our advice, but it’s important that we speak up when we see our loved ones doing something that we suspect isn’t helping them. None of us are very good at seeing ourselves clearly, especially when our egos are involved. I’ve heard difficult truths from friends about my behaviour, and frankly it’s been unpleasant to digest what they are saying. I haven’t always agreed and I haven’t always received it well.
However I’m increasingly appreciating the bravery of my female friends who are willing to make themselves vulnerable and offer an outside perception that can help me see the truth. Sisters who take the time to tell me something uncomfortable in a kind way, in language that means I can hear it. This isn’t about being a busybody, wading into other people’s affairs without boundaries, but recognising that being an acolyte and letting a friend be harmed by their own delusions, pleasurable though that may be for them in the short term, is not really being a good sister at all.
Felicity Morse is a life coach, writer and the author of Give a F*ck: A brief inventory of the ways in which you can (Michael O’Mara, £12.99 hardback).
Follow Felicity on Twitter @FelicityMorse