It's okay to say no; it's okay to put yourself first
We all want to come home to ourselves. We want to live as flourishing, alive, dreaming, doing, and expressive people. So, why is it so hard? And why might you find yourself caught in a toxic cycle of putting your needs and wellness last on the list?
Authentic self and adaptive strategies
As children we are born our core selves - coming into the world to be supported or suppressed by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If we are born into a family/society/community that nourishes us, loves us, and lovingly challenges us, we are able to hold onto many parts of ourselves. However, if we were raised in an environment of neglect, mis-attunement, violence, abuse, denial, or suppression, we have to send many authentic parts into hiding and develop adaptive strategies that are based on our strengths and cleverness, but are not who we are. I will say that again: you are not your adaptive strategies, but thank goodness you had them, because you had to survive.
Many of us abandoned ourselves, or parts of ourselves, as we adapted to a toxic and restrictive world. If we were raised in environments with love, solidarity, and attunement, we were able to hold onto greater pieces of ourselves. However, for some of us, large pieces had to go underground or be hidden in order to survive. Our self-splintering was not our fault - if being free was easy and possible for everyone, we would exist in no other state.
Adaptive strategies are the things we learned how to do to assert our rejection of harm and to get our needs met. This could look like: doing well in school, taking care of everyone in the family as a child, running away a lot, fighting with your family, running away from home, becoming violent to others, never complaining, learning to take care of yourself, always having problems, never having problems. As children, we learn quickly what will and won't work and we learn who we are and what we are capable of doing. For example, you might be successful socially, academically, physically strong or big, fast, clever, witty, or scary. We learn what we need to do and what strategies we have available and we survive. Then we take these adaptive strategies with us into adulthood and don't realize that sometimes we no longer need them.
Oppressive restraints to self-expression
As we seek to express our deepest selves, we will inevitably come up against the enforced restrictions of our culture, socialization, family expectations, gender roles, and more. We naturally desire to be whole and free. It is through subtle and overt systemic training that we learn to be anything less than our full human selves. For women, the core instruction is to disappear into the service and pleasure of others, specifically men and those in power. As author and activist Glennon Doyle pointed out, the greatest compliment a woman can receive is that she is "selfless" (aka does not exist). To not exist is a woman's highest achievement? I don't think so.
We are taught to abandon ourselves for the sake of everyone else. And most of us are terrified of what would happen if we did otherwise - if we added our truth, anger, grief, pleasure, and desire to the equation. Most of us need ample help to swim against the cultural current and endless examples of brave women to encourage us. We need to be seen and held and told we are brave and we can do it.
We are emerging from a period in history where women (especially women of color) were considered property and similar to children. Every modern liberated woman is a threat to a system of power that seeks to dominate. This is important to acknowledge, because until we understand that we were taught, trained, and threatened to be this way, we will blame ourselves for not being more brave, powerful, assertive, wise and self-respecting. When we believe that love and belonging hinge on being pleasing, submissive, and selfless, we will mold ourselves into this way of being. It is often only when we experience a relationship in which our authentic self (feelings, dreams, and all) is loved and accepted that we begin to believe there is a place for the real us to be loved. This is why cultivating community is so important, especially when the dominant discourse and dominant spaces consistently disrespect the group you belong to.
Our fears are rooted in history and witnessing/experiencing harm
Every act of violence or harm done to women reminds all women what could happen if she demands more, stands up for herself, claims her pleasure, asserts her dream, or talks back to acts of domination. In a domineering patriarchal society, the control of women is enforced. It is easy to forget that we carry invisible memory and binds of historical and present day violence used to keep us "in line." Liberating ourselves is not easy, rarely "cute," and comes with real consequence.
The challenge to return to your authentic self is even more challenging when you are carrying trauma in your body, mind, and spirit. We can carry individual trauma, group trauma, and inter-generational trauma, which are all coded and kept in our bodies. This is why reconnecting with our body and emotions can be so difficult and requires deep courage. Knowing this can call us into compassion around people who have less capacity for connecting with self. We cannot judge each other for the capacity to connect to body and emotions, because we never know what someone else is carrying; the degree of separation from self is the degree of trauma endured. With the right support, return to self is possible.
A moment of reflection
Take a moment to think about every message you have internalized about what a good and desirable woman is. What did your family teach you made a good woman? What did rom-coms, magazines, and other media teach you? What was the ideal woman supposed to look like, act like, do? Who was she in the narrative? What happens to women who do not comply? What are they called and accused of? What consequences did they experience?
Do your answers surprise you? Is it any wonder that you learned (and continue to be pressured) to conform and constrain yourself, dampen your dreams, accept the unacceptable, and give up on flourishing?
We are taught to abandon ourselves for the sake of everyone else. Every "yes" we say when we really mean 'no' sinks us further into despair. Saying no is an act of reclamation for women. It is a risk to say no. When we say no, we often risk disapproval, rejection, abandonment, or possibly violence. When we say no, we flex the muscle of our right to define and create our own lives. The truth sound like: that doesn't work for me, I don't want to date you, I don't want to have sex, I want to leave this job, that hurt my feelings, I'm not okay with this, I want you to touch me this way, I don't want this marriage, I like women, I don't want to have a baby, I do want to have a baby, or this is my vision for my life. It could look like: not answering the phone, taking time off of work, having someone watch your kids while you do something pleasurable, not having a third baby so you can balance life and work, having a third baby because it's what you want, engaging in relationships in a way that works for you, prioritizing your own healing and health. Saying no clears space for what we desire to commit to; our dream for our life and the world. To claim our life and our dream, we have to believe we are worthy, that it is possible, and that it is okay to be self-focused. It is not an easy path, but can be deeply gratifying. We need the right support, connection to women and ancestors who have trod the path, healing modalities, friendship, and resilience.
Women experience real consequences in the real world for acting authentically. It is often unwise to simply "be yourself" anywhere and everywhere, because you may end up losing opportunities that are aligned with your big life vision. In these cases, it is helpful to learn effective strategies to achieve your goal. Not the adaptive strategies from childhood (i.e. the family doesn't have enough attention for me, so I will never ask for help), but real strategies (i.e. my boss only responds to a certain type of communication, so I will use that with them because I want to work here and they have power over my career, even though it shouldn't have to be this way). I have listed some resources for support and strategy below:
Slay in Your Lane - The Black Girl Bible
My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies - Resmaa Menakem