the confident woman

“I have been conditioned to mistrust and dislike strong, confident, happy girls and women. We all have. Studies prove that the more powerful and happy a man becomes, the more people trust and like him. But the more powerful and happy a woman becomes, the less people like and trust her. So we proclaim: Women are entitled to take their rightful place! Then, when a woman does take her rightful place, our first reaction is: “She’s so…entitled.” We become people who say of confident women, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it—it’s just something about her. I just don’t like her. I can’t put my finger on why.” [But] I can put my finger on why: it’s because our training is kicking in through our subconscious. Strong, happy, confident girls and women are breaking our culture’s implicit rule that girls should be self-doubting, reserved, timid, and apologetic. Girls who are bold enough to break those rules “irk” us. Their brazen defiance and refusal to follow directions make us want to put them back in their cage.” —Untamed, Glennon Doyle

I cried, the first time I read this.

I cried for the school-aged girl who had been smart and intuitive, who had so often failed to “correctly” navigate the double-standard in small group projects where the project was supposed to be both successful (speak up and bring forth your best ideas!), and yet, those ideas were supposed to be presented in the right way (don’t speak up too loudly! If someone else proposes a mediocre idea, you can’t advocate for your idea; you have to go along with the group).

The message: You have to pretend your idea isn’t actually all that good, otherwise you’re “bossy”. Tone everything down.

I cried for the part of me that spent so many years feeling broken down and busted up and full of rage-grief, who had finally clawed her way to some semblance of happiness, only to hear people say conversationally, “Ugh, I just can’t stand those annoying HAPPY people,” or “People who can stick to things that they start are just so fake. They use to-do lists to pretend their lives have any meaning.” I cried for the friendship I’d lost 20 years ago where I’d been given this explanation for why she didn’t want to be friends, anymore: “Every time I talk to you, you’ve got some new and exciting thing going on, and then I just feel bad about myself. Every time I’m around you, I feel bad about myself.”

The message: Don’t let anyone see the things you’ve worked hard for, the strides you’ve made, the successes you’ve had in navigating your mental health. Continue to pretend that you are busted up and broken down in the same ways you were, or else no one will want to be around you.

The Confident Woman

By most societal standards, I’m considered a “confident woman.” I have heard people reflect this to me, my entire life. The reflection is based on what is seen outwardly: I share ideas, including political opinions. Faced with an external authority, I tend to ask forgiveness rather than permission. I trust what I feel in my body and speak and act on it. I get in front of cameras and on stages.

Yet, it has come at a cost, and those costs have always been relational, and it has always been with other women. Always.

I can think, easily, of twenty times I was in rooms with other women, and if I was in any way unrestrained—if the truth of my irritation with an issue was expressed through a story about something I was struggling with, or if the truth of my excitement and joy and passion for an idea surfaced—I would start to catch the little glances among them. The elevator-dropping sensation would hit my stomach: “Oh, shit, I’m doing it again.” The ‘it’ that I was ‘doing’ was being ‘too much.’ Being too passionate of an advocate for an idea, too righteous, too much of a problem-solver when I was supposed to “just listen.”

Also? Too angry. That has always been my Achilles heel. Even though the anger was never directed at those women or things those women did, simply talking about something about which I felt angry was enough to get me labeled as an “angry person.” I find myself wondering these days, in the “Me, too” era in which social justice and activism is suddenly in vogue, about some of those women who launched those ‘you’re too angry’ grenades at me 10 or 20 years ago. When I talked then about how a big reason systemic racism is kept in place has to do with how we structure property taxes in the United States, which directly fund schools, which then ensures that in richer neighborhoods with higher property values there’s always more money for education than in poorer areas—when that was the thing that made me ‘too angry,’ do you still think I was wrong? Or do you now loudly champion on behalf of social justice because it’s trending, and furiously denounce anyone who calls you out on your anger?

Sneaky way people get around this ‘too angry’ thing: telling you that it’s not what you said or the content of your ideas, it’s ‘how you said it.’ Translation: instead of facing my discomfort with this idea and how you feel about it, I’m going to blame you for how I feel by telling you that if you could just in essence ‘talk nicer’ about it, I’d accept you and we’d be cool. How often are women told that they should ‘smile’ and ‘be nice’?

Look around you. Think of any woman you’d describe as confident. Sit her down for coffee, sometime, and ask her what the costs of being that confident woman, have been. She’ll tell you stories. The cost is the groups of women who silently exchange glances and then talk about her behind her back when she’s left the room. The cost is the “friend” who is so uncomfortable with someone’s strength and happiness that she has to discontinue the friendship because “being around you makes me feel bad about myself.” The cost is the person who has to take her down a notch by claiming that the tenacity and grit and a tendency towards goal-orientation must be indicative of an empty inner life—in essence, that if the confident woman is performing well in one area, then she must be failing in another.

The cost is the way that women who are uncomfortable with themselves, mistake confident women as “arrogant” or “always needing to be right” or “thinking they have the solutions for everyone else.” The cost is that when you do make mistakes that are public, there is a feeding frenzy of women in private Facebook groups, text chains, and everywhere else, at the ready: “I never liked her,” “I always felt like there was something about her that just seemed off,” “I knew that she was fake.”

The Nuances

Always, of course, there are nuances. It’s not all, “confident woman, good,” while “everyone else, bad.” Here are a few of the nuances:

Yes, sometimes, it is hard to be around people who are confident. Yes, there have been times when it just was too hard, in that season of my life, to be around someone vastly more confident than me. Sometimes, when someone is struggling, when a bomb has gone off in the midst of their life, it’s just too damned hard to be around someone who isn’t struggling in the same ways.

Yes, sometimes, the confidence is a front and it is fake, and you can sense it. Yes, it’s good to be aware of when your intuition gets prickly and tells you something is up.

Yes, sometimes, it is hard to be around someone who is in their righteous anger. Yes, sometimes, I have had difficulty being around someone who was angry, snarky, complaining, or who has gone into such a depth of anger that it feels, on a somatic level, like too much for me to be around. Valiantly I have striven to be someone who could feel the “Wow, this is intense” from someone else, while also telling myself, “Look for the softness. This person is angry because they feel unheard or fear that an important idea will go unheard, and because their feelings are overflowing. You know this space. Just love them.” And yes, sometimes I have ultimately decided to spend less time with someone who was presenting that way, when I haven’t found a way to bridge the gap I felt.

Or, to give another nuance: Yes, sometimes I have absolutely expressed my opinions so righteously that when I look back, I realize was creating no room for anyone else to really feel like their opinions are equally as valid. It has been a hard lesson to learn that just because I feel comfortable claiming space for my opinions, doesn’t mean that someone else will be comfortable hearing them or expressing their own. From my comfort around claiming space for what I think and feel, my assumption is that someone else will respond—they’ll share what they think or feel, they’ll disagree, we’ll talk it out. But usually in such situations, when someone doesn’t feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions, their default is to distance or cut off rather than examine their own discomfort. And in hindsight, I see how because those people felt they had no room to claim their own space, they didn’t feel like they could be themselves. And because those people didn’t feel like they could be themselves (as a result of my actions, my inability to see that they didn’t have that room), they distanced or cut off.

From the part of me that just wants love and connection with other people, I’ve always wrung my hands at the distancing. Why wouldn’t they just talk to me? Why wouldn’t they share how they felt and give me the opportunity to do it better? Why was cutting off the only option? From the part of me that understands that people are where they are, I realize that…people are where they are. Someone who doesn’t have the skill-set of using their voice isn’t going to use their voice to talk to me about the impact of my behavior, until…they have the skill-set of using their voice, period. That’s why cutting off, for them, feels like the only option. Or, perhaps in ways that I can’t possibly see, they’ve tried to “bridge the gap” and make it work, and it just didn’t. There’s that, too. Relationships do or don’t work for all kinds of reasons.

All of these nuances are here, but there’s one thing that is not nuanced: women’s judgment of other women, women’s glee at dissecting the perceived downfalls of other women (either judging their weight gain or critiquing them for losing “too much weight,” gossiping about the popular best-selling author whose books always highlighted the strength of her marriage and whose marriage is now ending), women’s shit-talking when the woman who ‘irks’ them leaves the room or their exclusion of that woman from being included, women’s annoyance when they perceive another woman to “have their shit together” followed by dismissing her or pointing out the one area where she doesn’t have it all together—all of that behavior is rampant among women. It is rampant among women explicitly because of the conditioning that Glennon Doyle talks about.

Fight Like Hell

For as much as their have been costs to being a ‘confident woman,’ I’m here to ask that we all fight like hell to resist disappearing. If you relate to my personal story, please—fight like hell to stay connected to the parts of you that are confident, passionate, curious, full of life and vigor and vitality. Those are essential parts of you. They are parts that I’ve had to reclaim, personally, because after enough rejection in my 20s I spent most of my 30s literally going into rooms thinking to myself, “Okay, I need to watch the other women, watch what they do. Keep my tone of voice low, don’t get too excited. Make sure that you listen to everyone else speak, first. Even if someone directly asks you for your opinion, I need to make sure that I do that ‘up speak’ thing, where instead of saying, ‘I believe this is important,’ I say, ‘I believe that this is, you know, important?’”

Now in my 40s, and with the help of some great coaching and feeling buoyed by a renaissance sweeping through our culture that is starting to question itself and its assumptions about who women are supposed to be, who anyone with a marginalized identity is supposed to be, I feel the burgeoning of hope.

It’s the hope from the grade school child in me who had great ideas, but had to subvert them in order to be liked.

It’s the hope from the woman I’ve been who has watched so many other women with wild, free, unscripted potential constantly put their needs and priorities off in service to husbands who practically kept their time on a leash while subtly encouraging their wives to not be friends with me—because the husbands knew, in the way men always know, when a woman is free.

It’s the hope I have that when I meet a new woman, I can just be honest about what I do without her being intimidated by it. It’s the hope that she’ll think, “If she can do it, I can do it, too.”

It’s the hope I have that I can claim that I used to be a complete mess, and that through hard work and grit and tenacity I don’t usually feel that way anymore, and that that’s okay—that I don’t need to be a mess in order to be seen as relatable. And, it’s the hope that the times when I do feel like a mess—because of course, sometimes I do—don’t negate the most of the times when I don’t, in people’s perceptions. It’s the hope that people will stop thinking that anyone with an idea about how to improve one’s life means you don’t have problems, and stop taking glee in the downfall, failure, or difficulties of another.

It’s the hope that the person listening to this is able to decide, “Hey, let’s stop the madness. When I’m chalking up someone else’s goodness or worthiness or enoughness, that just reinforces how I do that to myself, internally. When I’m annoyed by someone else’s confidence, let me ask myself why that is, what I’m doing, what that’s about, what my conditioning has taught me about who other people are and aren’t allowed to be.”