Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rock the Boat, Don't Rock the Boat Baby...

The traditional view of women is of meek, submissive accommodation. We've certainly come a long way from that stereotypical role. But, many of us still struggle with the idea of conflict.

Some of this comes from the whole "sugar and spice and everything nice" mentality. Girls are always supposed to play nice and are rewarded with smiles and praise when they do so. Standing up for ourselves, voicing dissenting opinions can be labeled as "bitchy" and "confrontational."

Some conflict avoidance develops from the emphasis that female socialization places on relationships. We're taught to nurture and maintain relationships at all costs. That often translates into "don't do or say anything that might rock the boat."

And some of us avoid conflict because of how we viewed or experienced conflict in our families while growing up. I use to avoid conflict because I viewed it as frightening and synonomous with loss of control. I'm aware of the family dynamics that led to this view, but I still have to fight the urge to crawl up inside myself when I'm preparing to tell someone something that I don't think they're going to like or agree with.

So, we often end up swallowing our pride and keeping quiet so as not to upset anyone else or to "rock the boat." Some women avoid conflict so much that they feel stifled, voiceless, and resentful.

The truth is, conflict is not always bad. In fact, it is often good in many ways. If done right, it can bring people closer together. Good relationships can tolerate disagreement. Healthy disagreement that is honest and clear while still respectful of the other person can help you understand each other better and feel more intimate with each other.

Healthy self-expression begins just there...with the self. Statements should start with "I" and focus on your thoughts and feelings. "I feel frustrated when you..." "I felt disappointed that..." It's important that you own your feelings and reactions and that you present them in ways that are less likely to put the other person immediately on the defensive.

Opening up a potentially sensitive dialogue is most effective once the heat of the moment has passed. If you're in the throes of intense anger or hurt, it's best to take a time-out to experience and deal with the feelings before bringing them up. That way it's easier to express yourself in a way that you'll feel good about and that you're more likely to be heard.

Once you have expressed yourself firmly and clearly, be prepared to listen. Try to be open to the other person's reactions and views. But don't let their views invalidate your own. You have a right to your feelings and you have a right to express them. You may be able to use the different perspectives to explore options for change.

Healthy self-expression is good self-care. It prevents unpleasant feelings from tearing us down, creating walls between us and our loved ones, or building up until they become explosive. Rocking the boat does not have to cause it to tip over. Rocking upsets the old, stifled rhythm and replaces it with a new, more coordinated rhythm that makes the ride much more fulfilling.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saying "No" (Fairly) Gracefully

You have tons on your plate on a regular basis. Your days are packed with running from work to the market to home, where the second shift begins and you're taking care of everyone else around you. Why would you possibly take on more?

Yet, every week you're faced with requests to take on something else. Whether it's a general request sent out to multiple people or it's a specific request for you, these situations often put you in an uncomfortable position. Do you take on the additional task or not?

Of course there are times when it makes sense to say yes. When things are lighter at work or the kids are between sports. When the one organization that you are truly passionate about has a major event. And even under these circumstances, it's important to be aware of what you're agreeing to and what kind of commitment it will mean.

But how about when you're feeling slammed at work and each night the kids have an activity in addition to homework to finish? What is so difficult about saying no? Does it make you selfish? Ungrateful? Not a team player?

Sometimes we agree to do something in an effort to be sure that we are doing our share; to make certain that we're pulling our own weight. It's great to make sure that you're doing your part, but you may end up pulling others' weight as well. Which is okay once in a while, but constantly being the one who picks up the slack eventually leads to exhaustion and resentment.

Sometimes we agree to do things because we don't want to disappoint others. The fact is that people live with some disappointment all the time. They can tolerate it and it often has less impact than you think. It may stick with you for days, but the requestor has most likely moved on and taken the steps necessary to get what they needed.

Sometimes we say yes in order to avoid conflict. Most of the time our fears about how others will respond are out of proportion to their actual reaction. Basically, we build it up in our minds making it worse than it actually turns out to be.

But, there are people in our lives who don't take no graciously. They give us a hard time, pile on the guilt, or badger us with the hope of breaking us down. So, we say yes to avoid dealing with all of that. But, as unpleasant as it is to have to hear all of that for however long we choose to listen, is it really less work to do the task? Wouldn't it actually be simpler to say no, stick to our no, and end the conversation when the other person gets pushy?

And yes, I said how long we choose to listen. We do have some power over how long we allow ourselves to be badgered or harrassed by another person. Enough is enough. You have a right to look out for yourself and to conserve your energy for the people and tasks that mean the most to you.

Yes, it's flattering to be viewed as reliable and competent. But, that does not mean that you owe it to the world to use those qualities at every possible turn. There is such a thing as "too nice."

Always saying yes often leads to feeling overextended, underappreciated, and taken for granted. And a good rule of thumb is to never say yes to a request right away. Give yourself time to really think about what you would be getting yourself into.

Self-care means considering your time and energy as the valuable, limited resources that they are. It means thinking thoroughly about every request and asking yourself why you should say yes. It also means practicing saying no in a firm, respectful manner and staying strong if others do not treat you with the same respect.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Letting Go of "Mommy Guilt"

I recently did a Twitter search for "Mommy guilt" and was amazed at what I found. Mommy guilt is everywhere. It’s like an inescapable disease for which there is no vaccine or cure. As Moms, we carry around so much unnecessary guilt, it's a wonder that we're not bent over double. And when we feel the full weight of that burden, we really feel it.

As a Mom working outside of the home, I am basically gone from 8-6 five days a week, so I'm entitled to some guilt. I hate being away from my boys and missing the daily antics as well as some of the important milestones.

But sometimes undeserved Mommy guilt takes on a life of its own. A few weeks ago I took the afternoon off to attend my son’s end-of-school program. The train was timed perfectly, I arrived 15 minutes early, and I got a great seat. I was scoring pretty high on the Good Mommy Scale.

Then, as other mothers began to file in, it quickly became apparent that they all knew each other and the teacher well. They talked about their playdates together and the recent Parent Council meetings. Suddenly, I felt the weight of guilt like a lead box that nearly crushed me.
Why did that hit me so hard? Does that really make me a bad mother? The logical answer, of course, is no. But guilt does not bow to logic. Mommy guilt is the ultimate expression of our perfectionism, our constant comparison to others, and our Superwomen Syndromes, all rolled up into one.

Most of the time we know deep down that the guilt and shame are unwarranted. But, we still have such a difficult time letting go of it. It is challenging to absolve ourselves of these relatively minor lapses and to focus on the big picture of our children's lives. So, I’ve come up with a few guidelines to help begin the process of letting go of the guilt.
  • No more comparing. Comparisons are almost always unfair, unreasonable, or based on inaccurate perceptions of other Moms.
  • Avoid the trap of compensating. Usually guilt-ridden compensation leads to either overindulgence (kids do need rules and limits) or overcommitment (you don’t have to volunteer to do everything for Field Day just because it's the only event that you made it to this year).
  • Consider quality rather than quantity. When you’re with your children, look at how they behave and interact around you. If it's clear how loved they feel and how attached they are to you, then you are doing just fine. 
  • Aim for “Pretty Darned Good” Parenting. Many Moms take comfort in the resilience of children and the concept of “good enough” parenting. But, some hate the phrase “good enough” and their lingering perfectionism leads them to feel like for their standards it’s not, well...good enough. I like to think that “as a parent I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty darned good!”
Letting go of the useless burden of Mommy guilt is another form of self-care. It is about treating ourselves with the same kindness and forgiveness that we shower upon our children. It means focusing on and truly appreciating what we are doing rather than constantly dwelling on what we’re not doing.
*Modified version of my guest post originally posted on http://www.collectivelywise.com/ on 6/18/2010.