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.