When I lived in Los Angeles, I worked a lot of service jobs. Like…a lot of them. Personal assistant, dog walker, nanny, restaurant hostess, production assistant, catering, assistant stage manager, concessions; you name it, I was there. I excelled at these jobs because of a personality trait I had taken pride in my whole life: I was really, really good at following instructions. Shopping list? Great, you’ll get everything you want and then some. Directions on giving pets their medication? I was your girl. Chores, errands, inventory, filling party bags, filing documents, editing spreadsheets, transcribing video? Done, done, done, done, done, done, done.
Another, closely related trait I was proud of was avoiding confrontation. My trick was to defer to everyone who might disagree with me or tell me I was wrong. Deferring became my go-to method to dealing with anyone with the slightest bit of power, and it worked well. People loved me. The most common feedback I received from all of my employers was how easy I was to get along with, how calm I remained in the face of stress (this was absolutely not true, but I faked it like a champ), and how efficient I was at completing tasks. People-pleaser that I am, this feedback was music to my ears. I thrived on it. This is the way to do life, I thought to myself. Defer, smile, and never challenge. It’ll make everything easy.
And it did make everything easy - for everyone else. In the meantime, it helped me to obtain and keep jobs, but without without me realizing it, all of the deferring and smiling and not challenging became an entrenched habit that spread to all parts of my life. I didn’t know any other way to act. And for a very long time, it didn’t cross my mind that there was any other way to act. It’s just how I was.
When I was young, I used to gather people around me so I could perform. My family fondly tells a story about me making everyone in line at a restaurant stop what they were doing to watch me sing and dance. I used to put on shows for my parents. I was the loudest singer in the church choir. I vividly remember wanting to be the center of attention. I wasn’t afraid of taking up space. I craved the spotlight, even if it was just a small one in my living room, or in the waiting area of an Applebee’s.
Looking back, I can’t put my finger on when exactly that changed. I mentioned this during a recent conversation with a mentor of mine, and she said that it reminded her of her eldest daughter, who, after a childhood full of playfulness and zest, started school, and the spark just went out - like THAT! (She snapped her fingers to emphasize.) Her daughter became stressed about school at an early age, always wanting perfection, always making sure she followed the instructions to the letter and did everything right. Her younger daughter, on the other hand, seemed to take school and other experiences in stride, maintaining her spunky lightheartedness. It didn’t seem there was any explanation for it other than some kind of ingrained wiring, inherent to each girl. One was resilient, able to filter through what others thought and remain steadfast in who she was and how she carried herself through daily life; the other was sensitive, a sponge that soaked up others’ expectations and beliefs and emotions without easily being able to wring them out again.
I am that sponge.
I often wonder what I’d be like if I were a boy. What assumptions would I be making about myself and my place in the world? Would I be braver? More able to say what I think in any given moment? Or is who I am just who I am, all gender stereotypes aside? It’s hard to know. But as I think more about my spongeyness, and the both explicit and implicit cues our society feeds little girls, and then teenage girls, and then women, it’s hard for me to look at those defer-smile-don’t challenge habits I’ve developed and not see a connection.
My sponge awareness, along with the revelation that there might be a different way to interact with the world, is newfound. It’s like the opening story in David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, This is Water:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”.
In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know. We are the fish, and reality is our water. We know nothing else - unless. Unless we give thought, and then take the time, to pay attention.
I’ve had a lot of awakenings since the last quarter of 2016. When a certain orange, tiny-handed douchenozzle came to power, it rocked the boat. And I’m not just talking politics. Among so many other issues, the women’s movement, resulting in feminism reborn, has been an eye-opening thing for me to behold. Listening to stories of sexual assault, workplace discrimination, and general sexism these past two years has pushed me beyond blasé knowledge that those things exist and into the realm of actual awareness on a daily basis. I have started to notice how men talk to women in the workplace, and how women present themselves in those situations. I have started keeping tabs on my own interactions, and hearing the words that come out of my mouth; the assumptions that I’m making about myself and my worth, and how I’m communicating those ideas to the people around me. I observe my deferring, my smiling, my not challenging. I watch myself, as though through an out-of-body experience, emotionally manage everyone around me, men and women alike, to the detriment of my own well-being. I feel myself shrink, diminish my light, make myself small in order to make others more comfortable. And I finally see how these actions, though subtle and largely unnoticeable to anyone but myself, hold me back from flourishing and thriving and living the life I want to live.
A few weeks ago, I posted a little ditty about giving myself permission in 2019. This resolution (do we have to call it that? Fine, we can call it that…) was born out of all the thinking I’ve been doing on this topic. If there’s one thing I learned in my twenties, it’s that I am responsible for myself. I own my actions. No one else can save me or fix me. If I want to make a change, I have to do it myself. Painful, but true. And for me, Step One to breaking free of my habitual patterns and reconnecting with that little girl who knew how to shine means giving myself permission to even begin that process in the first place. And it’s real hard, guys. In each situation that presents itself, it would be so much easier in the short-term to shrink. But if we all thought short term, we’d all be Donald Trump. And no one wants that.
I often have the urge to end my blog posts with some kind of straightforward conclusion, because again: that’s how I was taught to write, and I am nothing if not a perfect student. I also never feel like I’ve said everything there is to say. Because I haven’t. I’m in the middle of it. The conversation is ongoing, and the growth never stops (dear god, make it stop). I don’t really know what to do with all of these realizations I’ve been having. What I do know is that I’d like to change. I’d like to be big instead of small. But for now, I’m giving myself permission to hit Publish on an imperfect, unfinished post. More to come.