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Remembering Your Worth

Overcoming internalized sexism to be your authentic self.

I went to Miami for a two-day vacation recently, and it was a giant success. I didn’t experience anything tremendous or astonishing, and it wasn’t an exotic bucket-list location. But I count it as a victory simply because I got there. I got myself on the plane, and I went to the beach just for me. I stepped away from my roles and my jobs; I stepped away from mothering, working, tasking and tending. But the truth is, I almost didn’t make it. When my flight was cancelled and my trip shrank from three days to two, I struggled to give myself permission to be worth it. Can I really spend the money for just two days, just for me? Can I really activate the army of helpers it will take to cover my usual tasks just for me? Luckily, I heard the subtext in my self-talk in time to get my butt on the plane. I heard the implicit message that my value is in what I can provide to my kids, my clients, my partner; that it isn’t fair to inconvenience others “just for me;” that my own needs and desires should be on the bottom of the priority list.

If you struggle to give yourself permission to be worth your own time and attention and to feed your own desires, you are not alone. In my therapy practice, I see this is an epidemic problem, symptomatic of being female in a patriarchal culture that defines the female role as one of selflessness, sacrifice, and even martyrdom. In a patriarchy, power and resources belong to the men and are handed from male to male; thus the long line of male-only presidents in our country; thus the tradition of passing women as possessions from fathers to husbands; thus the historical recentness of women having a right to vote, and the ongoing struggle for equal pay for equal work and autonomous rights to our bodies.

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In a system that is designed to feed power from man to man, women are relegated to support roles, and the female gender role reflects this sociopolitical reality. Research has consistently documented that the female gender role is built on supporting others’ needs and desires. Traits typically categorized as “feminine” include nurturance, deference, and gentleness, and women populate care-based professions at alarmingly higher rates than men. According to recent statistics from the Unites States Census Bureau, for example, women make up roughly 90% of nurses and elementary school teachers.

So what does this mean for the interpersonal and intra-personal experiences of women? It means that the expectation, spoken and unspoken, is that being good at being female means not having needs of your own. It means that selflessness is touted, and the alternative of nourishing your own desires is seen as “selfish,” “high maintenance,” and “needy.”

Are these familiar words? Are these judgments that have been thrown at you or whispered in your ear by partners, parents, and the media? Is this a belief system that you have internalized and used against yourself? Maybe, for example, when it’s time to try to get yourself on a plane for a vacation just for you? Many of my clients report that they aren’t even sure how to identify their needs and desires, anymore. “If I had half a day, or even just an hour to devote to myself, I’m not even sure what I would do with it!” That’s no surprise. In the name of living up to expectations, many of the women I sit with have become selfless. If you just conjured up a lovely image of Mother Theresa, that’s not what I mean. Yes, let’s continue to praise compassionate helpers. Let’s continue to value caring about others and working to make others’ lives better. But the belief that we have to choose between selflessly caring for others or selfishly caring for ourselves is false. And this false dichotomy is not without destructive consequence.

As human beings, it is natural, healthy and unavoidable that we all have feelings, needs, desires, passions, longings, and limits. It’s part of the deal. To live up to the gendered expectation of selflessness, these healthy and natural aspects of self have to be suppressed, repressed, sublimated, and ignored. Authenticity is lost in the name of compassion, and with it, our vibrancy, our mental health, and often our physical health. Research in the fields of both medical and psychological science show abundant evidence that suppression of emotions and a lack of self-care lead to poor outcomes, including high blood pressure, lessened immune function resulting in higher rates of illness, and an increase in anxiety and depression.

But perhaps the most ironic consequence of this well-intentioned selflessness is the negative impact it has on our intimate relationships….the very ones women are encouraged to tend through their selflessness. As a therapist for women and couples, I bear witness to this everyday. When my clients stop honoring their own needs and desires, they begin to feel numbness where there once was creative and erotic connection. When they brew in repressed anger from unmet (natural and healthy) needs, they begin to feel resentment where there once was patience and gratitude. And when they ignore their own limits, they feel exhaustion where they once felt good humor and enjoyment. The last thing anyone can experience or offer to their partners in this selfless, depleted state is intimacy. In the name of taking care of and pleasing others, and living up to gender role expectations, we effectively erase ourselves from the relational equation.

If this sounds like a familiar story, then it’s time to give yourself permission to show up in your relationships as a fully present human being, ripe with needs and limits and desires, and with all your gifts in tact to share. Although the gender role expectations that encourage selflessness start out and are reinforced externally, like many women, you may have internalized those messages so that now you have an inner dialogue telling you to keep it small, to accommodate, and to sublimate in the name of compassion. This internalized voice that steers you away from your inner self is called internalized sexism. Your “self” is where your power resides. It’s no accident that a patriarchal culture would steer women away from their power; that way the patriarchy can remain in tact.

The first step to change is awareness. Once you recognize the voice of internalized sexism, you are empowered to make a new choice. So here is action step number one to stop holding yourself back: Keep your eyes peeled for the dictate to evaluate your worth solely by your service to others. Make note every time you hear yourself feel guilty for having needs. Listen for the internal shaming voice telling you that you’re “too much,” or “not enough.” Take a few minutes as many evenings as possible to journal about what you noticed that day. This helps concretize and encourage the awareness, and it helps move this limiting voice outside of yourself – out of your inner being and onto the page. Then your inner being has a little space to make new decisions. Maybe you want to simply reject that limiting voice. Or maybe you want to thank it for trying to keep you safe and connected, wrap your arms around it, and give it the best seat in the house while you unleash your shine. Because the truth is there is an alternative to being “selfish” or “selfless.” You can choose to bring your full self to the table, knowing that the most compassionate gift you can bring to your relationships is your authentic self. You are worth your own care. Your desires deserve attention. And the people in your life will be lucky to have rich and robust relationships with you…the full, compassionate, authentic you.

More from Lindsay B. Jernigan Ph.D.
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