Just (or, an insidious little word that I use too often)

27 Sep

I teach a regular yoga class on Sunday evenings. My friend Charlene, who is an amazing teacher that I respect like whoa, teaches the class right before mine. For a few weeks now she’s been threatening promising to take my class, the thought of which was basically vomit-inducing.

I mean, imagine this: you, a neophyte in your field, suddenly have someone with years of experience and training under their belt, someone who has been inspiring you with their amazingness for quite some time now, who wants to be your student. Pretty nerve-wracking, right?

Anyway, I was nervous, my voice quavered a little when giving instructions, and every time I looked at her I forgot everything I’d ever learned, but other than that it went pretty well. Afterwards she thanked me for the class and said she’d enjoyed it, so I asked if she would email me with some feedback and constructive criticism.

I received her (extremely lovely and thoughtful) email the other night, and one paragraph really jumped out at me:

I noticed that you say “just _________”  a lot, as in, “just reach your arm up, just step forward”.  I catch myself doing this as well sometimes and realise that it detracts from the impact of the practice and my presence. There are no “justs” in yoga, since every movement and breath should be linked with some degree of awareness and attention- everything we do matters. Saying “just” a lot also makes the class seem more casual than perhaps we want it to be, since after all, people come to class to learn….they need to trust that we are confident in our capabilities to guide them.

Having read this, I’ve been carefully monitoring my speech for the last few days, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: I say just a lot.

I don’t just say it in a yoga context, either. I use it quite often when I’m talking about myself, and about my accomplishments. This morning I was sitting in the cafe across the street from the studio, and a woman asked me what I did for a living. Oh, I just manage a yoga studio, I replied without thinking. The real kicker is, it’s NOT EVEN TRUE. I don’t just manage a yoga studio – for one thing, phrasing it that way makes it sound lesser or inferior to other jobs, and for another thing, I also teach yoga and write, but for some reason I never think to mention those.

I mean, I say some reason, but I totally know the reason. It’s because I am a woman and, as such, it makes my life easier to constantly diminish my own accomplishments and make myself appear less threatening.

Every time I say just, what I’m really saying is, This isn’t important. I’m not important. Please don’t question me on this.

Every time I say I think when I really mean I know, what I’m actually saying is, Please don’t think that I’m trying to show you how smart I am or how accomplished, I’m sure you’re very smart and accomplished too.

The dangerous thing is that I keep telling myself that if I just teach more often, or get more stuff published, or accumulate more successes, then I will stop feeling this way. I tell myself that I use this kind of demeaning language against myself because I’m just not good enough yet, but someday I’ll get there. Really, though, the truth is that if I don’t think I’m there yet, then I will never get there and I will never be good enough, because my desire to self-deprecate will continue to push my goals just out of reach.

Let’s go back to the basics here:

Men feel threatened by women, especially powerful, successful women. This is ground that’s been covered over and over, but it bears revisiting.

Women also feel threatened by the success of other women, because we’ve been set up by society to compete against each other. There’s some jealousy in there, of course, but I also get the feeling that women often feel like success is something finite, and if one woman uses up a big chunk of success, then there will be less for everyone else. And maybe that’s a even a bit true, because while society seems to tolerate plenty of successful men, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of room for women at the top.

So how do you react when you’re challenged by someone on your success? Do you get defensive, grow angry and maybe start to lose your temper as you try to prove your point? Some people do, and that’s not necessarily a bad or wrong reaction – but it is one that’s certainly far more accepted from men than it is from women. If a man becomes righteously angry, he’s often lauded for it. If a woman does the same thing, it’s frequently blamed on her menstrual cycle, or her lack of sex, or because, you know, ladies.

So what’s one way around this problem? To be nice and reasonable, because you catch more flies with honey? To be nice enough that you can convince men that sure, you’re smart and well-educated, but you’re not one of those women. To be reasonable enough to prove that not all feminists are hysterical and crazy, some are totally kind and thoughtful and soft-spoken.

To be so fucking nice and reasonable that you start to undermine yourself, to diminish yourself because you don’t want to cause conflict. To be so respectful of other people’s opinions, so concerned about not offending them, that it starts to become hard to stand up for what you yourself believe in.

I’m not saying don’t be nice and respectful, but what I am saying is that these are qualities that men have come to expect from what they think of as “reasonable” women. And every time you describe yourself as just being whatever, every time you back away from an argument by conceding that everyone’s allowed an opinion even though what the other person is saying is totally wrong and offensive to you, you are playing right into that expectation.

I’ve written here about being careful about the words we use when talking about other women, but we also need to watch the words we use when talking about ourselves. In order to be successful, we need to learn to talk ourselves up, to speak positively about our accomplishments, and not be afraid of a little conflict. We need to learn to be assertive, because society isn’t going to begin tolerating assertive until more women are comfortable in that role.

So I challenge you to spend a few days watching what you say, and taking stock of how often you use words like just or think or only when you’re talking about yourself or your opinions. Ask yourself what your speech would sound like without those words. Finally, try to make a few statements about yourself every day that celebrate your work, your life, or your accomplishments instead of demeaning them.

Because if you don’t take yourself seriously, probably no one else will.

13 Responses to “Just (or, an insidious little word that I use too often)”

  1. Margaret Kelly Pearson September 27, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    I agree! I’ve had to catch myself doing this in email, moreso than my speech. I find myself trying to make excuses for why I happen to be emailing someone. It’s a hard habit to break!

    • bellejarblog September 29, 2012 at 2:08 am #

      “I find myself trying to make excuses for why I happen to be emailing someone.”

      Yes, me too! Like it’s going to be SUCH an inconvenience for them to read an email from me, or like they’re going to be all, oh no, not an email from HER.

  2. empressnasigoreng September 27, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    Great post/point. I have to consciously eradicate the justs, onlys and a bits from my work emails.

    • bellejarblog September 29, 2012 at 2:09 am #

      Thanks! I really, really need to start doing that too.

  3. Leopard September 27, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    Yeah!! Other feminine-apologetic phrases I and many other women use are saying sorry a lot, using smiley faces in emails to seem less aggressive, saying ‘maybe’ as a qualifier, seeking affirmation by asking ‘does that make sense? I’m probably not making sense but do you see what I mean?’ and so on. It’s a very difficult line to tread, because if we’re seen as too assertive, we are hated (esp in the workplace); and if we fall into their expectations and be all feminine and self-deprecating, they’ll like us better but fail to take us seriously. Oh, what are we to do…

    • bellejarblog September 29, 2012 at 2:11 am #

      Ugh, yes to all of those! And Matt added that there’s a woman he works with who constantly says things like, “well, I’m just a blond, so what do I know?”

  4. shannon September 29, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    Oh, A, this is lovely. I think so many people can relate to this. I find myself saying “just” because I want to squish me before someone else can. It’s been my MO for years. And not only with “justs.” With most of my words.

    Let’s start believing that we deserve the space we occupy and more. I’m in agog over your introspection, your openness to change.

    • bellejarblog September 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

      “I find myself saying “just” because I want to squish me before someone else can”

      Yes, me too! It’s like beating them to the punch!

  5. shannon September 29, 2012 at 10:57 pm #

    “in agog” WTF?

    • bellejarblog September 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

      No, I like it! I’m going to start saying “in agog”!

      • shannon October 4, 2012 at 12:06 am #

        On second thought, it is pretty great. I am in agog of myself now.

  6. Lindsey Morningstar March 23, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    I needed to read this post this morning (probably every morning of my life actually). I say ‘just’ all the time when I’m speaking to colleagues or writing. “Oh I just write a blog,” “I just work out sometimes,” “I just do research for a University.” Meanwhile all these things are insanely important to me and I work my butt off on all of them. As you said, it comes back to never feeling good enough. Like my credentials and knowledge base pale in comparison to others so why should I stand tall and boast about my work and accomplishments? But we should, we all should. And more importantly we should all support one another while we toot our horns and stand proud.

    Thank you for your great posts. The blogosphere needs your authenticity.

  7. Ronni October 12, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    I realize this post is more than a year old, but I only found your blog today. As someone who received the same critique while teaching yoga–“You use ‘just’ too much”–this post really spoke to me! When you wrote this post, I was preparing for my video review during yoga teacher training. I wish I’d have found it last year–then maybe I wouldn’t have needed to get that critique. Also, it’s great that you mentioned the other words that cloud our vocabulary–words like “think” and I’d like to add in “feel”. “I just feel like blah blah blah.” Yes, it sounds uncertain and insecure, and I’m going to watch out for that… become more mindful about how I express myself. Thank you,

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