I’ve been mulling over this post for a while, especially since Sady Doyle posted her amazing response to Clay Shirky over at Tiger Beatdown, “Girl Culture and The Race to the Bottom: About That Rant About Women.” After having ideas of this sort jangling in my head for months, it was refreshing to see someone else put them into words:

What girls learn to do, in order to survive in this particular dynamic, is to race each other to the bottom. It lasts for a lifetime. They maneuver, hiding the urge to matter and succeed under an appropriately self-loathing demeanor, so that they can get ahead and climb up without ever appearing to do it.”

Her description of the ways in which young girls put each other through “Patriarchy Boot Camp” by living in a constant and vocal state of criticism and self-denigration is right on, and I definitely had a light bulb moment when I read,

A girl who doesn’t feel like shit is a threat to the entire social order, the extensively complicated and crappy system whereby women have to earn their way into a pretense of self-esteem by getting enough approval from other girls or from other outside sources in general.

Oh, dear god yes. Hello, my childhood! Ah, the Complinsult! If it were an Olympic sport, I’ve known several women who would be in the running for the gold medal. Yes, and the Fat Talk! I’ve been guilty of partaking in this particular ritual *even when* hearing that crap from a slim person like me probably made other people around me feel terrible. (I’m so so very sorry for this, by the way. I was young and I was completely un-self-aware.)

But Sady doesn’t stop there – she doesn’t just put a spotlight on girl culture and all its absurdity. She goes on to talk about how if permeates women’s friendships and how it can result in some seriously toxic relationships. And boy, have I been there.

You see, I never wanted to be the confident girl. I was all about being the most flawed, the most ugly, the most in need of sympathy in the room. I glorified my confident friends, I worshipped in their shadows, I was lucky to be graced by their presence. I knew at any moment one of them could turn on me, but hey, I probably deserved it; I’d probably screwed up and maybe, if I take it well, swallow that abuse like a selfless martyr, then MAYBE they’ll be gracious and take me back. Building on the puppy analogy Sady made:

If a dog has an issue with another dog, and is reasonably convinced that it can attain dominance over that dog, it will get scrappy and start a fight. Or, it will participate in a fight with the dog that’s picking on it. But if a dog is picked on, and it feels for whatever reason that it will lose, what it does is to roll over and expose its throat and belly. It’s a gesture that says, here: you can kill me if you want to, here are all the soft vulnerable parts. It’s intended to appease the aggressor in the exchange, make it feel that there is no challenge or danger coming from this direction, so that they won’t escalate the violence.

I have spent a lot of time showing my metaphorical underbelly to the alpha women in my life. To be fair, I do this with men as well. I am extremely conflict averse, and have been known to take responsibility for all manner of things that are not my fault simply to keep the peace. Quel surprise that I have found my way into any number of toxic, unbalanced relationships in the course of my life so far.

Do you remember that old question about superpowers? The one you asked people at camp, or during all-night bonding sessions at college wherein you could determine profound things about one’s character depending upon their preference for flight or invisibility? I always chose invisibility, partly because it was something I already excelled in. It has been the greatest paradox of my life, this urge to be completely invisible (and therefore hidden from scrutiny) competing with an equally strong desire to be seen and admired.

In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach talks about the ‘wanting self’ and how it seeks substitutes whenever basic emotional needs go unmet. Her story of a patient she calls Chris really resonated with me: frequently ignored by his parents as a child, he grew up with an imperative to stand out or excel in everything he did, demanding to be the center of attention or else he would feel overlooked or rejected. “The intensity of his unfulfilled desires,” she narrates, “made him feel that he was unappealing and deserved to be rejected.”

When we want loving attention, like Chris, we are feeling certain sensations in our body – perhaps the aching of longing around the heart, as well as excitement and openness. When the answer to our need and desire is no, the physical sensations of contraction we experience are intense. We feel shame – the desire to hide – and the danger of fear. When we experience this wanting and not getting over and over , we make an enduring association: Our wanting leads to fear and shame.

One of the first things I remember telling my therapist several years ago is that I feared more than anything to be needy. I was so worried that therapy would lead me to being classified as “co-dependent” and that I would have to accept the reality that I was pathologically doomed to be a complete imposition on everyone around me. (Obviously, the very fact that I feared this meant that I already saw myself that way – I just didn’t want it to be confirmed by a professional! You know, ’cause then it would be official.) It was all part of that illusion I carried (and still fight to this day) that I was a deeply, fundamentally flawed human being.

A dozen or so times in the past year at work, I’ve encountered alpha women who were quick to put me in place. It used to make me fume. Honestly I think that my anger after the first of those encounters was so primal, so infantile, that all I could think was “it’s not fair!” I’ve gotten to the point now that I don’t engage – I remember that I’m doing the best job I can and I’m not perfect, but it does me no good to get into petty competitions, either. But socially this equanimity has proven to be a lot harder to achieve. What do you do when you run into someone who makes it clear they want nothing more than for you to just disappear? They despise you and your very presence ruins their day? My first impulse is to stay out of their way – there’s no need to cause a fuss, and besides, maybe deep down I do deserve some of their anger even if I don’t really know why. But then again, I have a right to exist, too. I take up space on this planet even though that fact doesn’t please every single person who deals with me.  Isn’t it time to stop apologizing for that? Should I really re-arrange my life so that they don’t have to be bothered by my presence?

Lo and behold, in the comments section of her most recent post, Harriet Jacobs takes on this very problem! In response to a commenter who wants to ask for advice, but doesn’t want to be thought of as “a drain out to lean on a new victim,” Harriet says,

That is some seriously mean shit to say about yourself.
Years ago, there was one day that I was talking to my therapist about why I had to say certain things to certain people, or do certain things a certain way. She asked me why, and I said, “Because if I don’t, everybody will think I’m an attention whore.” She corrected me and said, “That’s what you think about yourself. You have no idea if other people think that way; you just assume they do, because that’s how you think.”
When somebody hits you below the belt, attacks your fundamental personality or beliefs or sanity, that is devastating. It hurts deeply. But you have to realize, somebody who would hit you that hard and in such a vulnerable place, that’s because they have a problem with themselves. Not you. They have a problem with what your presence means to them; there is nothing wrong with you, but something wrong with their ability to deal with you. Only you get to decide if there’s something wrong with you, and only you get to decide if it’s worth fixing; other people only get to decide if there’s something wrong with them that makes them unable to deal with you, and if that’s worth fixing. Nobody gets to decide what’s wrong with other people; those that try are only projecting their own fears and failures.
That says it all, doesn’t it?