Thursday, 7 March 2019

You Can't Please Everyone

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been deeply crippled by a need for approval. I hate to admit it, because I like to carry on as though I’m possessed of an indifferent, laissez-faire demeanor, but that’s never really been the case. In fact, probably since the first time I ever tumbled as a baby I’ve struggled with feeling like life is a competition, and I’m an underdog eagerly working my ass off to earn the points I need to catch up. To please the right people, and achieve that approving pat on the head that might give me permission to pause for a minute.

I don’t know if this is a female thing or a very Sydney-specific illness; I’m not sure if it comes from societal conditioning or familial conditioning, or more likely some combination of both that mixed disastrously with my temperament. And maybe it’s all wrapped up in a virgin/whore complex, for which there are many who deserve a share of the blame. Or perhaps I’m just a perfectionist, and that’s no one’s fault (except for parents and their genetics− thanks a lot).   

But I suspect there are many of us out there; I see these same seeds planted, the roots of them in my female friends and acquaintances. I recognize this desperation to be accepted for their body, or sexual orientation, or style, or career, or socio-economic status, or marital status, or home. I see the way their conscience demands freedom from a diet of shame and guilt. I see the way they, like me, crave with every cell in their body to feel as though they deserve a place− in this world, and in their society− exactly as they are.

I see how many of them try to do the “right” things and be a “good girl”; I see those who feel incapable of reaching that bar and so punish themselves, becoming a “bad girl” by rebuffing social norms entirely, coveting disapproval but depriving themselves in the meantime of their own unique completeness. Both are a rejection of the self. Sometimes, as I’ve done, they’ll even close themselves off from certain desires or opportunities, self-flagellating with the belief that they don’t truly deserve the things that they want− that by being different from the standard they’ve relinquished the right to respect, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s like a quote I heard the other day that said, “Beauty is defined as one thing, and however close you are to that thing is how attractive you’re considered.” And I think not only is that more true now than ever, but that it also applies to so many areas if you’re a woman in my world. Success is defined as one thing, integrity is defined as one thing, value is defined as one thing, and that one thing rarely includes an acceptance of reasonable missteps or failures. In fact, for every time you make a choice that falls contrary to one of those definitions, you lose communal esteem points; like an investment, your stock drops.

We do this to ourselves and others all the time, defining our right to take up space by how high or low we perceive our stock to be. But there is no flexibility in these definitions; no room for a healthy person to grow, emotionally or physically. They are The Rules and as such they demand consistency and rigidity− the very opposite of what beauty, nature, and art require. And when you deprive the soul of this ability to breathe, stretch and embrace an innate ebb and flow, you cripple it or turn it to stone.

Which is exactly what it feels like we need to become sometimes to be acceptable: a flat, soulless statue who can be held up on a podium of public approval, erected before a sea of nodding, smiling heads. Cowed on the inside, but shiny marble on the outside, never jarring the eye or causing distress to those pleased observers. Indeed, like many women I recognize that I am more comfortable giving myself discomfort than I am with causing it in anyone else; we wear our shame rather than recognize that costume belongs on those who’ve long forced us into it.

And this is essentially the crux of the issue, because when you feel so pressured to meet so many expectations, but those expectations are contradictory, or upsetting, or unnatural, or genuinely unreachable, you’re left with an overwhelming sense of failure.  And not just failure, but inadequacy too− perhaps the plague of modern women. How many sisters, friends, wives and mothers do you know who constantly feel as though they’re never enough and yet they’re simultaneously too much; that they’re perpetually falling short of the standard?

I’m often one of them, and it’s a habit of thinking that’s deeply ingrained. But I’m not sure how to stop doing it, how to stop checking off boxes, or fitting neatly into the plan on someone else’s Excel spreadsheet. Sometimes, it’s so much easier to just surrender, because moving forward and making decisions− AKA refusing to become a static character in your own story− is difficult enough without feeling like you’re distressing people.

And while phrases like, “you can’t please everyone” sound reasonable, they are deeply insufficient at explaining what comes before or after that conclusion. There are missing premises here; no, you can’t please everyone, but what if you think you should try? What if you were raised hearing or feeling as though pleasing everyone WAS possible, and life would be so much simpler if you could reach that attainable goal? What if, in the attempt to follow your own path and trust yourself, your inability to satisfy those perceived standards leads to rejection from the people whose support you crave the most?

But maybe that’s the part that’s missing from that mantra− an assumption that’s so obvious, it’s not necessary to declaim. “You can’t please everyone, because trying to will make you crazy, and trying not to will always result in some rejection and pain.” It occurs to me then that love, and self-love, are not a paycheque to be earned after a certain number of sacrificial hours have been completed. That regardless of our personal choices, we still retain a fixed value; opinions are not strong enough to reduce us, and the scale we inhabit will remain balanced despite how much disapproval gets stacked on the opposing side. And if as women we can’t accept this, if we continue to remain safely in the space our communities have allowed us to occupy, we forever deprive ourselves (and our children) of our true potential, power, and freedom.  

For me, that ultimately means that at a very basic level I’m going to stop assuring others of what I will or won’t do, hoping to placate their expectations, emotions, or concerns. We don’t even know what the next minute will hold, let alone days, months, or years; no one, least of all me can predict what path they might choose in the pursuit of peace and self-actualization. And at some point I need to learn that whatever is flourishing internally does not need to align with what’s expected externally− that I am free to exist within and make decisions that are right for my family, my body, my home, and my journey outside of what anyone thinks of it.

We all are, even if we don’t know it yet.

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