Here are some words that have been used to describe me: “too nice,” “shy,” “apologetic,” and “a people-pleaser.” And if I’m honest with myself, I know those descriptions aren’t necessarily wrong, either. They’re probably not the kindest, but they certainly have a basis in some level of truth.
I believe I have these characteristics for a variety of reasons. For example, as a sensitive person, I know what it’s like to have my feelings hurt, so I work hard to avoid causing that pain in others. I also struggle with social anxiety and feel more safe when people are happy with me.
But I think a major factor playing a role is the way I was socialized as a girl and as a woman to fit into the gender expectations set before me. Research shows that kids as young as 2 and 3 years old understand gender roles, associating certain behaviors and attributes with each gender. And when kids don’t conform the way they’re supposed to, their caregivers may get them in trouble or their peers may judge them.
Personally, I know that as a woman, I’m “supposed” to be agreeable, to never put anyone out of their way, and, essentially, to be perfect. I know it’s “my” job to keep myself safe 一 rather than the job of others to not hurt me 一 and that quietness is better than loudness. And I know that if I don’t abide by these, I’ll be chastised, unfairly blamed for my pain, or judged.
But adhering to these “rules” has burned me too, time and time again. I won’t speak up or set boundaries when someone hurts me, then I end up resenting them. When I get the wrong meal at a restaurant, I eat it anyway because I feel like I can’t tell the server it’s not what I ordered. I let people mistreat me because it feels easier, more bearable.
I struggle with assertiveness even internally. For example, I push myself to keep working when I know I need a break. I often give in to the voices of my depression and anxiety when they make me feel inadequate, and I end up crying.
Overall, I don’t take control of my life like I wish I did, and then I complain about the complications that result.
I don’t want to live this way anymore.
Over the past few years or so, I’ve worked on practicing firmness more often, slowly but surely. My therapist has supported me through this many times, teaching me interpersonal effectiveness tools and communication skills. My friends and partner have also played a crucial role, as well as therapist-influencers who create encouraging content on Instagram.
Thanks to their help, I don’t engage in those submissive behaviors as much anymore. I set boundaries and don’t feel guilt or worry about it. I ask for what I ordered. When I need a break, feel hurt, or know I deserve better, I advocate for myself. I don’t do this perfectly yet 一 I still act apologetically and nervously sometimes 一 but I’m making progress. I’m happier, and I know I deserve that. As the common saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. I’m learning it’s okay to take care of myself first.
While I’m proud of myself and grateful for the support I’ve had, I’m also frustrated. Women shouldn’t have to do all this work and experience all this anxiety about simply getting their needs met and being respected. It’s ridiculous, really, especially considering I struggle this much as a white, able-bodied woman. People in marginalized communities 一 like people of color and disabled people 一 face extra barriers and oppression that make assertiveness more complicated and difficult.
If I have girls in the future, I don’t want them to struggle in the ways I have. I want them to know they’re allowed to stand up for themselves, trust their gut, and be treated well. I want them to know they’re worthy of respect and are allowed to be themselves. I want them to know their voice matters.
So here’s to asking for what I need and want, knowing I’m worth more, and saying no to the socialization I’ve experienced. Girls in future generations depend on it.
Ashley Broadwater is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied Public Relations in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She’s passionate about mental health, body positivity, relationships, Halloween, and Dad jokes.