I had been a life-long people-pleaser. Maybe it was societal conditioning. Maybe it was my desire to be accepted and fear that I was not enough. Probably, it was a bit of both.
Even though my mother was a successful business executive, when she crossed the threshold into our home, she assumed the manner of a subservient servant in many ways. I thought it may have been her Asian upbringing that taught her to behave that way, and I adopted some of her behaviour. I see similar scenarios playing out among my American friends.
Our society seems to condition women to be submissive. I definitely notice a change, though, especially in the younger generations. We are teaching our daughters to be strong and to pursue their dreams. A modicum of progress is evident in younger couples sharing parenting responsibilities, for example. My daughter does not assume that she will have primary responsibilities for all things relating to her children. She seeks a partner who will co-parent equally with her. I applaud her egalitarian beliefs. On the other hand, I would ask my husband if he would babysit our then-young children when I wanted to go out with friends. A friend pointed out that it is not babysitting. It is parenting.
When I was a university student, a male classmate commented that he had never seen a woman be so vocal in the classroom. So I shut up. I stopped contributing in my classes unless asked to do so. I regret that choice now. It took years for me to find my voice again.
I used to apologize incessantly, and not just for things that were my fault. I was chameleon-like, often subjugating my desires and needs for those of others. It wasn’t until I turned 50, got divorced and sober, and allowed myself to seek help for my life’s traumas, that I was able to accept myself and live a life authentic to me and my values. I stopped trying to get people to like me and focused on whether I liked myself. I realized that not everyone would like me and that trying to make it so would be an exercise in futility. The only person I can control is myself. I internalized the lesson of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
My apologizing unnecessarily has dissipated in this new chapter of my life. Of course, when I am wrong, I promptly admit it. But with self-acceptance has come self-esteem. A gift of ageing is acceptance. This does not mean resignation. It means recognizing things as they are, with a clear vision as to what we can and cannot control, and letting go of what really does not matter in the grand scheme of life.
As we age, we gain perspective. Remember how much we fretted as teens about our appearance? We don’t do that in middle age, because we grow comfortable in our own skin. We uncover and own who we are. We stop giving away our power.
So as I learned to accept myself and my own worth, in midlife, I was able to stop peppering my conversation with “Sorry.” I still always yield to others on sidewalks, however, and usually apologize for being in someone else’s way. At least now, I am aware of the fact that moving out of someone’s way on a public sidewalk I am traversing is not something for which I need to apologize. I have as much a right to take up space as anyone else does. So do you.
This awareness is helping me change my tendencies to submit and apologize. We can change the script sold to our generation that we women are to be, in some ways, submissive. Because we don’t.