Disclaimer: The socialization of women as I talk about it here is based upon my experiences as a privileged, straight white, Anglo-saxon woman. I recognize that these experiences may not be true, or not entirely, true for women of color and/or GLBTQ women. However, in my conversations with a limited number of non-white, non-straight women, it seems that much of this is true for most women. And probably a lot of it is worse and/or more complicated for women of color and/or GLBTQ women.
In a post awhile back, I mentioned that the way girls and women are socialized mirrors the prototypical personality of a complex trauma survivor.
I know trauma is an understudied subject within the mental health field – which is unfortunate as most of us experience some level of trauma and in my opinion, most mental health conditions are brought on by traumatic experiences. That’s likely a controversial statement and I’ll talk more about it another time. But since trauma is largely unfamiliar to most people, let’s start with a definition. According to Merriam Webster, trauma is “a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time.” While simplistic, I actually like this definition a lot. Labeling trauma as a difficult or unpleasant experience creates the understanding that traumatic experiences are diverse and varying. In other words what is traumatic to one person may not be for another person. A more specific definition would say that trauma is experiencing or witnessing a situation in which one fears for their own life and/or serious injury and/or that of another person. Something along those lines. But the truth of the matter is many traumatic situations don’t make the survivor fear for their lives or physical safety. For instance, growing up with an alcoholic parent may or may not make you fear for your or his/her life. But it still can be very traumatizing.
So what is complex trauma then? Within the mental health/trauma community, complex trauma refers to people who are repeatedly exposed to the same trauma (i.e., witnessing your father abuse your mother throughout childhood) and/or different traumas (i.e., witnessing DV as a child and having an alcoholic mother and surviving date rape). If a survivor has experienced complex trauma since childhood, the trauma will have likely impacted her brain development, physical health and mental health. Her self-esteem and sense of the world will likely vary significantly from someone whose had a relatively peaceful life experience. The impact of trauma can be undone or healed. But, I think, it can only be undone if a survivor works with a therapist who is a good match for her and who practices trauma-informed care.
But until that happens (if it ever happens), the survivor will present in a way that’s indicative of a complex trauma history. In my experience this means a survivor typically has an excessive eagerness to please others, a disregard for one’s own needs and a hyper regard to the needs of others, a downplaying of one’s own opinions and skills and a strong need for perfection. There are other typical qualities of trauma survivors but let’s focus on those, as they’re the ones most bothering me now. Think about those traits a moment and it makes sense, right? If you grow up with or endure repeated abuse and/or neglect, you’re going to try to never make mistakes and to make everyone else happy. Because overall, these behaviors will make you feel safer and like you have some control over this chaos.
Imagine living your life that way? Sounds like a lot of pressure, right? Or maybe it sounds all too familiar? Maybe you’re a trauma survivor and/or a woman with much self-awareness. Because the truth is most women I know think that female socialization involves many of these traits. I mean, what does it mean to be a woman or ladylike? While many of us may scoff at the term “ladylike”, how many of us also heard, “Hey, that’s not ladylike behavior!” while growing up? I know I did! And according to good, ol’ Merriam-Webster, ladylike is “polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman” and “lacking in strength, force, or virility.”
So does that definition bring to mind someone who would stand up for herself or someone who would take credit for her accomplishments? Nope. And as a personal anecdote, I also notice women who try to do everything and do it all perfectly. As if we’re somehow failures if we’re not perfect moms and wives with perfect careers (though some would argue we’re bad mothers if we have careers and some would argue we’re not real adult women unless we’re married off with children). So in sum, we’re perfect, polite and lacking in strength. If someone tends to act this way, wouldn’t they be more easily taken advantage of? Or more easily abused?
So it’s a sad, sad cycle forced upon us. Women are taught to behave in a way that makes them easier to control and victimize. And the more you’re victimized (aka traumatized), the more you’re likely to act this way.
So how do we feel empowered? Most importantly, let’s not blame ourselves for this mess we’re in. This isn’t what we asked for and it’s most certainly not what we want. Try not to feel bad for sticking up for yourself. Prioritizing your needs doesn’t make you a “bad” person, woman, wife and/or mother. And remember, it’s more than just telling yourself, “Nobody’s perfect.” Being a perfectionist is disempowering. It takes away your rights to meet your basic needs and to be human. We don’t deserve to be perfect. Perfectionism is an exacting, exhausting and oppressive burden put upon women (mostly) by a sexist society And nobody deserves that.
PS I’m not proofreading this post to make a point that it’s okay if it isn’t perfect! In your face, patriarchy!
PPS Don’t be this lady! Or, you don’t have to be her anyways.