I was enjoying an early morning swim last weekend. The pool was quiet with only 3 other people. The sun was glistening on the water. Life was looking pretty good. The next thing I knew my peace was shattered as huge waves of water came my way leaving me coughing and spluttering. When I finally regained my composure, I saw that the only man in a (relatively small) pool, had decided to butterfly down the length of it. I thought how inconsiderate and then got on with my swim, determined to keep the positive mindset I had started the day with.
A while later, with the pool a little fuller, I spotted a lady on the side hesitating before she got in, She was in her 30’s and looked like a very competent swimmer. As I swam towards her, I was surprised to hear her ask ‘where will I be least trouble…?’ and then apologise for taking up space in an already busy pool.
On the surface, maybe not particularly significant events. Yet the contrast in the two behaviours is indicative of a wider issue that we, as women, need to be aware of and start addressing. Consideration is one thing, self-effacement is quite another.
As Tara Mohr points out in her brilliant book ‘Playing Big‘, centuries of inequality have left their mark. Women’s place in the world was once very different than what it is right now but the legacy remains. We developed coping strategies in order to survive. Those strategies stood us in good stead at one time but today they can serve to undermine us, often without us realising.
It is deep-rooted in our psyche to put the needs of others before our own. Keeping the peace is often our default reaction, and it does not necessarily come naturally to speak out and say what we really think. Sadly, in so doing, we are supressing our own needs as if they are secondary to everyone else’s. Why should they be? I understand that it is often about the path of least resistance and, probably, it takes less energy, but the cumulative effect can be one of frustration, unworthiness and self-doubt. At worst, it means a life of compromise and unfulfilled potential.
Recognising the behaviour is the first step towards changing it. How many times could you have done with some help but did not want to ask? When have you accepted something that is sub-standard because you felt bad about complaining? Do you allow others to take control (albeit very subtly) of how you spend your time? How many times have you said ‘yes’ when you really wanted to say ‘NO’?!
Assertiveness is often associated with being aggressive but in fact it is anything but. It is simply the ability to be clear on what you want and need, and not being afraid to communicate it. It is not a negative but rather a very big positive. It is also usually a revelation to those around you who will feel much clearer about what you are thinking and feeling, and therefore more able to help and support. Prioritising your own needs brings a sense of control, improved self-esteem and quality of life. It also brings respect: something we all deserve but which needs to be earned.
I wish I could have spoken to the lady in the pool. I wanted to encourage her to have what was just as much hers as anyone else’s. I wanted her to stand proud, to make her presence felt, not by butterflying down the pool but simply by taking her place with confidence and self-assurance. Why shouldn’t she? Why shouldn’t any of us?
Remember the immortal line ‘nobody puts baby in the corner…’ Let’s get out of the corner, get clear on what we want and go for it. Life’s too short not to!