“Well behaved women seldom make history” – Book title by Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
So what does that mean for well-behaved women, such as myself?
I’ve been pondering the concepts of being well behaved (read: non-assertive).
My mother raised me to be well behaved. A good girl. Someone who doesn’t rock the boat. Someone who goes with the status quo. Someone who avoids conflict like the plague.
I’ve also been thinking lately about the notions of assertiveness and aggression. It’s helpful to consult Merriam-Webster to parse out the meaning of both words:
Aggressive: ready and willing to fight, argue, etc. : feeling or showing aggression: using forceful methods to succeed or to do something
Assertive: disposed to or characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior
When you’ve been raised to be a good, well-behaved girl, one who doesn’t show her anger and irritation towards others, it leaves you in a quandary on how to be assertive without, say, coming out of the gate like a rabid pit bull, ready to rip someone’s head off should they tread on your boundaries.
My modus operandi in the past was to be passive aggressive when someone ticked me off. Don’t tell anyone how you feel. Just fume and sulk.
Not a good way to communicate.
Pit bull mode is sort of where I am right now in embracing my assertive side. When someone shows what I perceive to be disrespect, I find it hard to show my sweet, temperate side. I may very well come off as rude (or aggressive) to others when I’m just trying to be assertive.
I wish in earnest that my mother would have taught me that it’s OK to be assertive when my needs and wants are at stake. Now that I’m mature, it’s hard for me to bear in mind that my needs and wants are just as important as other people’s needs and wants.
I wished I had learned the art of creative compromise early on. It would have been so much easier than trying to learn it as an adult. It’s sort of like learning a foreign language or a musical instrument. Not so easy for an adult.
When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you learn certain (mal)adaptive roles. Mine was to be the good girl, the invisible child, the caretaker. I learned that from my Mom. She was the consummate caretaker. As a result, she took care of me, my sister and everybody else except herself and her own needs. She taught me it’s OK (nay, obligatory) to give everything to everyone else and to have nothing left over. That’s the way it should be.
Well, that’s NOT the way it should be.
Nice people are taken advantage of. Nice people are doormats (sometimes). Nice people become exhausted from giving and giving and giving. And sometimes nice people turn into people who do nice things with the expectation of payback. That’s not so nice.
Right now, I’m in recovery from being a nice person. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not my goal to be a bitch. But I’m learning that it’s OK to have needs and wants and to take care of myself first before I take care of others.
I’ve learned to be assertive … which sometimes comes off as being aggressive. It’s sometimes hard for me to be nice now that I’ve located my boundaries and discover people are trampling all over them. Perhaps it’s the culture: women aren’t encouraged to be assertive. We’re encouraged to be caretakers, to build rapport with others, to soothe. I know I was. That was a huge part of my own sense of self: The nice, well-behaved caretaker. I needed to be needed.
Now that I’ve shed my caretaker role, I focus on myself. I identify my wants and needs and ask for them to be satisfied. That’s uncomfortable. Sometimes I don’t get what I want. But when I do, it’s wonderful. Sometimes, it’s wonderful just to know your wants and to have the confidence to ask for them to be met. Having some of those wants and needs met has made me a happier, more content person.
I’ve also learned to take care of those needs and wants myself — that that’s basically MY job a lot of times. And here’s the irony: Now that I take care of myself, I feel a lot of more willing to care of others.
Funny how that works.