Stick to Your Guns
It seems an odd thing, to be writing about not needing to be nice under the subject of “happiness.” But I think, as women, we often receive this unspoken message that anything other than being nice is considered just plain rude or nasty. The irony is that smothering our honest thoughts, repressing anything that doesn’t fit into the smallness that “nice” often implies, can often lead to anything but happiness.
My own experience certainly bears this out. I have a history of people-pleasing. I’ve heard those closest to me point it out, and have recognized it in my own behavior. But I never looked closely at why. Turns out, people pleasing is rooted in our childhood experiences. It begins when we find pleasing others is tantamount to our survival, our ability to thrive in our family and our community in general. For a period of time during my childhood, my family was in upheaval. There was little stability. In the midst of that, I learned how pleasing others ensured I would get by more easily.
Of course, people pleasing is not simply relegated to those who have endured childhood instability. It casts a wide net, influencing many, if not most, women.
What can be so challenging for us is that we often feel that if we aren’t nice, we’ll come across as “bitchy.” Indeed, often standing up for ourselves can easily be misconstrued. And even though in theory we know speaking up for ourselves and setting boundaries is the right thing to do, the loving thing to do, making that a practice can be much more challenging.
This happened to me recently. My daughter and her two friends were goofing off while waiting in line for a bounce house. The two friends were pushing my daughter against this hole in the corner of the bounce house. I had asked them to stop but they were continuing. Still, no one seemed to mind, and they weren’t affecting any other kids who were either waiting in line or inside the bounce house. I was watching, just to make sure they weren’t going too far, when I saw another mom reach out and grab my daughter. Instinctually, this just felt wrong to me. I would never touch another child I didn’t know well unless they were in danger. While this mother knew my daughter, we were acquaintances, not close friends.
I walked over and told her in a very firm (and yes, angry) voice that I would parent my own daughter. Her immediate response was to generalize my behavior, as she replied that I had this general bad “attitude” towards her. I of course, immediately felt as though I had gone too far.
Later that day, replaying the events, I decided that I had done the right thing. What was hard was standing up for my beliefs, and for my daughter, who should not have been grabbed.
Stepping out and speaking out is a powerful way to begin changing the “always be nice” mindset.
But changing can begin much earlier, by becoming aware of moments when we are in “people-pleasing” mode. And that comes from turning inward, and listening to that inner voice, the one that says you should have said “no” when you said “yes.”
The next is developing self-compassion, which builds self esteem and the recognition that every human being has an intrinsic worth, including ourselves. And if self-compassion seems insurmountable, remember that it is a habit. A practice. Begin small, with small acts of self-care. Those small acts will inevitably build, and over time, grow into larger changes in mindsets and behaviors.
Moments like the one I went through serve as a powerful reminder that stepping up for what is right for me can be hard.
But what it also tells me is that doing so is a practice. It may not feel comfortable the first or second times. And I might “mess it up” (in the case above, I was clearly angry and emotional, not always a good combination for effective communication). But with practice comes improvement. Until, one day, standing up will be second nature. Being OK with not always being “nice” will be a habit, one that will serve me well for the rest of my life.
And not just my life: my daughter benefits, too. When our children see us stand up for ourselves, we are setting a powerful example for them. An example of how to also say “no” when something doesn’t feel right. Because, in spite of all the ways we may approach the subject with them (books, telling them) nothing is as powerful as witnessed behavior.
May we all move them a little further along, raising a generation of women who can walk even prouder, stronger. We certainly need that now, as much or more than ever.