I recently read The Nice Girl Syndrome: Stop Being Manipulated and Abused and Start Standing Up for Yourself by psychotherapist Beverly Engel. I keep thinking I should review it, but there’s one huge glaring lesson I got from it that keeps popping up in my life recently and thereby dominating my thoughts, and it actually came from Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons via Engel: it wasn’t my fault.
When I was a girl, I couldn’t maintain friendships with girls beyond a couple of years. Sooner or later, every girl friend decided she’d had enough of me and that was that – relationship canceled. I thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t maintain these intense BFF kinda friendships that everyone else seemed able to maintain for years and years. But it turns out there was a social force I wasn’t aware of.
Boys are taught ways to negotiate conflict. Many of these ways may be foolish, pointless or violent, but they are methods involving steps, and once the steps are completed, the conflict is declared over (whether or not it really is) and the friendship resumes. This is because it’s important for boys to work together to conquer the world, since that will be their job as men.
Girls, on the other hand, are typically taught two methods of dealing with conflict: if someone seems less than thrilled with you, give her the silent treatment for a while. That’ll teach her. If not, then give her the silent treatment forever – cancel that friendship. This is because girls aren’t supposed to have conflicts or even opinions. And we certainly aren’t supposed to think of ourselves as part of any team that ever existed. We get solitary, not solidarity.
(On a side note, you can see why men and women often have epic difficulties negotiating conflict with one another.)
Somehow, I learned conflict negotiation as a child. My mother taught me that conflict should be talked through and that we can’t control how we feel but can and should control how we behave. I tried to do that with female friends, and instead they canceled the relationship. We were all just doing as we’d been taught. Unfortunately, we weren’t on the same page. We weren’t even reading from the same rulebook.
Of course, over the years, I learned to think: “If she can’t handle me standing up for myself, she wasn’t really a friend.” But that’s a cop-out, because women are taught not to handle it; we’re taught to equate not being a doormat with being disloyal. That’s at the crux of this matter: when your role in life is defined as “supporting,” you’re understood not to be a full-on person with unique needs and drives. Therefore, any suggestion from you that you want or need something must just be a ploy for attention. That’s what men have been taught for centuries, isn’t it? “Oh, what’s she whining about now? Will some flowers shut her up? No, maybe I should just belt her one.” At no point does the option of listening to find out what the problem is and what would fix it occur to someone who’s bought into the idea that if a woman really loves you, she won’t ever have a problem with you, and if she does, that’s a betrayal.
And yes, thanks to what conditioning does to developing young minds, women and other oppressed groups can and often do buy right into our own oppression. Even those of us who learn better skills find they don’t work: for example, my choice to listen to friends’ complaints and see if they couldn’t be addressed in the interests of friendship signaled to many people (men as well as women) that I was submissive and happy to accept my role as a doormat or mirror in the relationship. When my natural assertiveness came out, it was a double betrayal – not only was I gender-transgressing, but I was doing it after having clearly signaled (in their minds) “I am nothing; use me.” Because in their minds, an assertive woman would have slapped them, cried, demanded some flowers, and then gotten over the great wrong of having tried to point out something amiss in the relationship, without ever having heard what it was.
That’s not assertive: it’s passive-aggressive. But again, it’s what we’ve taught women do. Even if our parents teach us differently, pop culture makes sure we get this message – and that so many others have bought into it, that even if we behave better than that, it’ll just be misinterpreted and lead to trouble.
Is it any wonder it’s taken us thousands of years and at least three “waves” of feminism to get anywhere near solidarity?