Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
*Originally posted on PsychCentral as an expanded version of an earlier post.
A few months ago I was facing some tension with an acquaintance (caused entirely by his unwillingness to hear my very reasonable “no” to his request), when I caught myself in a dangerous thought.
The stress of having tension between us was really getting to me, and I found myself thinking, “maybe I should just compromise after all, to make it easier”.
In other words, maybe I should just say yes to his request, in order to escape the tension and stress that had resultantly arisen. And then, here comes the epiphany. I was about to say yes simply for the fact that someone I barely knew had guilt-tripped me about saying no. That wasn’t compromising. That was conceding.
My mind was blown. And I started to wonder - have I been using the wrong definition of compromise for my entire life? My thoughts started racing, and I actually had to look up the definition of compromise on the spot (or, Siri looked it up for me). As it turns out, a compromise is when both sides give a little in order to find a mutually acceptable arrangement. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – I would have gained from giving into this situation.
Conceding, which is what I was doing, involves losing so that the other person can win. It means to surrender or yield something to another. The first truth about conceding in the situation I just described is that it would have had zero benefit to me.
But was that a good enough reason to say no?
Many of us who’ve been socialized as female are taught to believe that other people’s needs and desires are more important than ours. We’re taught that our role is to keep things running smoothly, and make sure to do everything in our power to reduce tension.
For many women I work with, this means being the one to silently give up our own wants and desires, or never name them in the first place. Directly or indirectly, we might have been taught that talking about what we want is selfish, rude, or (*gasp!*) unladylike. And while some of us might not consciously think about it this way, those deep-seated beliefs often play out in our most important relationships. For example, in any intimate relationships, have you ever….
Of course, we all have experiences at times in our lives where we give up some of what we desire for the greater good of the relationship, or because it fits a larger, long-term goal. (In other words – compromise!) The difficulty is when we consistently concede within a relationship context that isn’t give and take. As women, we often do so because we’ve been socialized to think everyone else should come first. We’ve been taught to feel guilty when we say no, and made to feel as though just because we can do someone a favor, we should.
I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’ve recognized it’s okay to ask for what I need, and it’s okay to say no. I’m not going around creating unnecessary tension, but I’m not going to go out of my way and do myself a disservice just to make someone else happy.
Now, some people might be thinking, in the example I started with, I might not gain anything materially, but perhaps I would gain some goodwill with this person, and in the future they’ll be more likely to go out of their way to help me. It’s a nice thought, but it turns out to be rooted entirely in wishful thinking.
In my own life, this wishful thinking has mostly shown up in my relationships with men, both close to me and not so close. I remember as a teen and young woman giving a lot to relationships with men, with the very naïve belief that everything I gave would eventually be returned in kind, and that we were all working toward a reciprocal connection. It turned out what they really wanted was for me to keep giving in the way I was giving without question.
I think a lot of us can get caught up in the wishful thinking that eventually all our giving will be returned in kind. So let me reiterate something from above about the scenario I first described – he was guilt-tripping me for saying no. I was now dealing with tension and stress because I said no. Does that sound like the kind of person who is going to be appreciative if I make a sacrifice? Who is going to want to be generous in the future? I can tell you from experience both in my own life and in the lives of my clients, it isn’t. I’ve made sacrifices before, in the hopes of building a relationship of goodwill and reciprocity. It doesn’t work unless both people are willing to be generous, and make compromises that are mutually beneficial.
So the next time you catch yourself thinking of making a “compromise”, ask yourself, is there mutual give and take here? Is this a relationship of reciprocity? Or am I just giving in because I’ve been taught that other people’s needs are more important than mine?
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
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This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.
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