I love writing, but until recently, I haven’t really been flexing those muscles. That’s why I’m taking a writing class and why I started this blog over a year ago. As you might notice by the scattered posts, this wasn’t as successful. It could be because this blog lacked focus*, but I also realized that it has to do with anxiety I have around making my very personal views public.
William Zinsser, the author of one of our required readings for the writing class (On Writing Well), notes that people often put up a fight when instructed to write in first person:
“Who am I to say what I think?” they ask. “Or what I feel?”
Yup, that’s pretty much exactly what I think when I publish a post. I have to remind myself exactly what Zinsser prompts his students and readers:
“Who are you not to say what you think?” I tell them. “There’s only one you. Nobody else thinks or feels in exactly the same way.”
This is the pep talk I need to give myself whenever I hit the “publish” button. To some, it might seem contrary to my personality because I’m a pretty outspoken person, always have been. But that doesn’t keep me from being cautious about what I say, how I say it, and especially what people will think about me when I say it. This is something I’ve lived with my whole life where I seek validation to ensure my expressed views will be amenable to others.
I definitely don’t think I’m alone in this, it’s how I – and most women – have been socialized. We like to think that we are getting close to gender equality, but this is something that still sets women and men apart. Women are socialized to want to be liked and men are socialized to achieve. I have the same drive to achieve, but I often feel that’s influenced by how much people like me. I don’t believe men have the same challenge.
There have been a couple instances when I post an article on Facebook, it prompts a discussion that requires me to explain or justify the posting. This is not an unreasonable thing, but oftentimes when it’s brought up, I dwell on it for several hours wondering if I overstepped my boundaries. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers, I think to myself. But I suppose deep down I do want to ruffle feathers because the thing I posted was important to me and I want to have a discussion. So why do I feel so self-conscious about it? Because I’m afraid of criticism and for not being liked. I don’t know many men that reflect on their actions that way, and I’m envious.
I know that Zinsser isn’t speaking just to women, but I feel that women need more convincing of the validity of their voice. Now that I pay attention to it, I notice that I apologize more often than I should or need to, and so do many of my women friends. I know so many amazing, smart, talented women that apologize for things that they don’t need to apologize for…like sending me a long email or for giving me a call before warning me with a text. I am GLAD to receive a long email or a call from those amazing people, and I tell them that. But I have a hard time giving myself that same feedback. These feelings are not unsubstantiated. Women are often judged more harshly than men. Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) highlighted this on the Daily Show this week (where she discusses her book Lean In).** I’ve read of this plenty, especially in Women Don’t Ask, and also felt it myself, but I see this most often in my own psyche. I have to check myself often when I start judging women on their actions or comments and reflect on whether I would be thinking the same thing about a man in this situation. And oftentimes, I would not.
Women Don’t Ask focuses a lot on women’s lack of confidence in advocating for themselves while feeling much more confident in advocating for others. This is consistent with other studies I’ve read about and I know from personal experience. I feel this in my writing too. I am very confident in writing academically and don’t hesitate to submit a proposal. Some of this is practice, but it also doesn’t require me to speak in first person and I have to back my assertions up with research and other resources. I’m good at that. However, when it comes to expressing how I feel and describing why I feel the way I do in a non-academic environment, I find it much more existentially challenging because it is based on personal experience, not research, and it makes me vulnerable.
This is largely the reason why I stopped expressing my views against international development after Peace Corps to people who had not had the experiences I had. As convinced as I was, I didn’t feel I had the validity to back it up. Backing your views up with research isn’t a bad thing at all – in fact it strengthens a personal conviction as it did with mine – but if it comes from personal experience, it put me in a much more vulnerable position. But that doesn’t mean that my convictions are any less valid.
The challenge I have putting myself out there makes me respect and admire the women who do that in their everyday work and lives even more. It’s an act of courage to be strong about your convictions and to confront how we were socialized and getting past those barriers. I will think of them every time I hit “publish” and remind myself that I am the only me and hopefully with each click I will believe that more and more.
* I did recently start another blog that had a much more specific focus: travel. So, check it out at www.thesearenottanlines.wordpress.org.
*If you watched the Daily Show clip, you’ll notice that EVEN in that section where Sheryl Sanberg was describing her experience being chastised by another mom for not dressing her son in green on St. Patrick’s Day, the point that got applause was her husband’s response. Oh my fucking God. It even happened THERE in that conversation about expectations. Did anyone else catch that? ugh.