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Posts Tagged ‘guilt’

Be authentic. What does that even mean, anyway? Not a whole hell of a lot, according to Stephanie Rosenbloom in this Sunday’s New York Times. The word, she says, has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, like so many white wine spritzers. Everyone from Anderson Cooper to Sarah Ferguson to Katie Couric to Michelle Bachmann to the Pope have claimed the descriptor, generally while in the service of selling themselves. (Sales. What’s more inauthentic than that?)

And, as Rosenbloom’s piece points out and as we’ve written before, we’re complicit in this faux-thenticity, too. Think about your Facebook profile–and now imagine what it would look like if it were truly authentic. Take mine, for example: instead of that cute profile pic of me smiling broadly in New Orleans alongside a status update alluding to a highbrow day of writing, my pic might show me sitting at my computer, in the chair I’ve spent so much time in, I’ve literally worn the finish off of it. And if I were to be authentic about it, today’s status update–rather than being glamorous, pithy, or intelligent–might read: Unshowered. Writer’s block. Dining on a spoonful of peanut butter. Had I documented my status last night, I would have seemed the epitome of uncool, when my neighbor’s band practice inspired not my admiration of his creativity or his nascent musical skills, but a lengthy debate on whether or not to call the cops. (I didn’t. Score another one for inauthenticity. They were more terrible than they were loud–and they were window-rattlingly loud.)

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein once confessed that, while spending some glorious time with her little girl listening to E.B. White reading Trumpet of the Swan, a nasty thought intruded: How will I tweet this? She admits that the tweet she decided on (“Listening to E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan with Daisy. Slow and sweet.”) was “not really about my own impressions. It was about how I imagined—and wanted—others to react to them.”

Marketing folks might say we’re branding ourselves in our profile pictures, our status updates, our tweets. We say that maybe we’re feeding the iconic self, the self-image we’ve constructed, which, in ways big and small, is the face of our great expectations. (She’s kind of a tyrant, too.) So why do we do it? Are we so desperate for approval that we’d rather pretend to be someone else than our, ahem, authentic self? Women, after all, are raised to be pleasers. Do we feel guilty about veering off the pre-approved path? Where did we become convinced that the faux is any more acceptable than the real? And why, oh why, do we so readily buy into the idea that the images everyone else is presenting are any more real than our own?

Why is it so hard to embrace the idea that, as Wavy Gravy–he of LSD and ice cream fame–put it, we’re all just bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride?

…which is well and good in theory, but who wants to admit to being a bozo? We have images to uphold! And whatever your role, the performance is remarkably similar. Someone asks how you’re doing; you say fine. You ask her; she says fine. Fine, then! We worry what other people think (though we’d never admit it), and, of course, we want to be happy, confident, competent, and successful. So we pretend we are. And, compounding the issue is the fact that the happy, confident, competent, successful self is the self everyone else shows to us, too, which compels us to keep our dirty little secret under even deeper wraps. If she (and she and she) has it together, what the hell is the matter with me??

It’s the open secret Rumi wrote about (and to which Elizabeth Lesser makes beautiful reference here), yet, centuries later, we still feel compelled to keep. And that’s understandable. Who wants to admit to being afraid, uncertain, overwhelmed, clumsy, neurotic, or prone to saying the wrong thing? The thing is, though, all of those things are part of the human condition–and those things and the good things aren’t mutually exclusive. And so why should claiming them be a negative? On the contrary: I think there’s a promise of something pretty awesome that comes when we’re able to own it all. The sky doesn’t fall, but, like the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz, the blinders do.

And then what might we see? Well, for one thing, maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. With no one to impress, no images to uphold, we’ve got a lot less to factor in. There’s a freedom there. And power, too: because when we are willing to come out of the I’m Fine! closet, maybe our friends will join us. And that, I’d bet, would make for one hell of a party.

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A new study suggests that when boundaries blur between work and home, women feel guilty.  Men?  Nope.  Even when after-hours demands are the same.

Women?  Guilt? Well, duh, right?

But here’s what’s interesting. The findings held true whether the work demands actually interfered with home life or not.  And here’s what’s more interesting: The study also found that women didn’t even have to have families to feel distressed when work came home.

Call it the unintended consequences of the “always on” life:  the electronica that makes it so easy to bring work home that, you know, we bring work home.  But why should women feel the pressure of the phonecalls, emails, texts and tweets  more so than men?  The authors blame cultural conditioning.  Over at Jezebel, Irin Carmon does, too:

… there are several things at play here, including the obvious aspect that women are culturally conditioned to feel guilty about doing exactly what their male counterparts are doing: Earning a living. (Remember the moral of the story in The Devil Wears Prada, in which the protagonist becoming good at her demanding job is conflated with abandoning her values and her boyfriend and friends? In which she watches a woman at the top of her game lose her husband?) We’re also constantly expected to make it look effortless, with which a frantic late night call or email tends to interfere.

We’re also soft-wired — or maybe hard-wired — to please.  An urgent (aren’t they all?) text or email from a [student, client, editor, boss, insert one] shoots in just before we flop into bed?  We respond.  We’d feel bad if we didn’t — and feel bad when we do.

Now.  We could solve this angst by going off the grid the minute we walk inside the front door.  Thus, fixing ourselves.  But, that’s not going to happen, is it?  Especially given the above.  Not to mention the need for a paycheck.  So let’s work on the culture itself, shall we?   Both the culture of the workplace and the social culture, too.  And to change all  that, sisters, we need to fight for getting more of us in high places.  If that sounds like a call for quotas, as you might find in some Scandinavian countries — what the hell, let’s go there.  Because, guess what?  It’s even better for the bottom line.

More about the money below, but first, let’s go back to that study, which was published this month in the “Journal of Social Behavior and Health”:

“… these results suggest that work contact may not necessarily inhibit the performance of domestic roles, but they still can have health implications in the form of negative self-appraisals and the feelings of guilt that may arise when the boundary separating work and family life becomes blurred.

And for women, the authors write, even though “gendered role identities” have long since changed, we’re still stuck with the weight of the old expectations.  We’re caught in this shifting cultural landscape, one foot in the way things were, the other in the way things are.  And consequently, feel rotten. As the authors of the study told Science Daily:

“Initially, we thought women were more distressed by frequent work contact because it interfered with their family responsibilities more so than men,” says lead author Paul Glavin, a PhD candidate in sociology at [University of Toronto]. “However, this wasn’t the case. We found that women are able to juggle their work and family lives just as well as men, but they feel more guilty as a result of being contacted. This guilt seems to be at the heart of their distress.”

The study’s co-author, sociologist Scott Schieman, says it’s all about differing expectations:

“While women have increasingly taken on a central role as economic providers in today’s dual-earner households, strong cultural norms may still shape ideas about family responsibilities. These forces may lead some women to question or negatively evaluate their family role performance when they’re trying to navigate work issues at home.”

Sigh.  Now what?  Well, we can sit around and feel guilty for, uh, feeling guilty.  I was raised Irish Catholic, after all.  I can definitely go there.  But still, I vote for Door No. 2:  Changing the structures and cultural norms that leave us in this land of mea culpa.  And for that, we need more women at the top: women who themselves know what it is to feel this angst.  And then there’s this: if changing structures, revamping expectations, and redefining the whole concept of worklife don’t-call-it-balance isn’t enough to make us fight for more women in high places, let’s knock on the door of enlightened self-interest.  This is where the money comes in.

The WSJ reports that the two companies that had the best stock-market gains in 2010 were run by, you guessed it, women.   In the piece, consultant Ann de Jaeger says it’s crucial to get more women into the boardroom — simply to boost profits.  But she also says that one reason only 3 percent of the boards of the Fortune 500 are comprised of women is that women have had to fit into the male model — or not fit in at all. Asked why successful women often leave their companies before they can be promoted, she says:

Because at a particular point, they realize that they have been too busy being someone else instead of themselves and therefore cannot bring their best to the table. Women seem to adapt to the prevailing – male – culture as they rise on the corporate ladder. They are not even aware of the fact that they are doing this – they simply play along and adapt out of a sheer survival instinct.

And then, bow out. When asked what we need to do to get women upstairs, she edges ever closer to the Euro-idea of quotas:

It would be preferable if the drive to do something about gender balance came from within companies – from the strategic need to reflect the market and the talent pipeline in decision-making bodies.

On the other hand, we see every day that progress is very, very slow. Too many companies adopt a compliance approach, a “fix the women” strategy – as if they can tick a box, run a couple of events, provide amenities that make life a little easier, but they don’t allow for real inclusiveness.

Fix the women?  Or fix the structures?  I know what I choose.  Without the slightest trace of guilt.

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This ever-elusive work-life balance thing we’re all so fond of talking about? Well, what if the cold, hard truth is that there’s just no such thing?

I know, I know. Telling a woman who works and also has a life that there’s no such thing as work/life balance is pretty much on par with telling a little kid who’s foregone all manner of enjoyable mischief in the hopes of quality returns come Christmas morning that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Yet that’s just what author Fawn Germer suggests in a recent Huffington Post piece. And she might be onto something.

In “Work-Life Balance? The Mantra That Balances What Matters,” she tells us of her own experience:

Years ago, when I was still married and working as a newspaper reporter, I was drowning in an investigative project that stretched for ten brutal months. It was the most challenging and important work I’d ever done, but as that series became more consuming, I kept moving the mail and my junk to the guest bedroom where it amassed itself into a giant pile of unresolved clutter. One evening, friends gathered at our home before we all went out to dinner. Imagine my horror when my then-husband opened the door to the guest bedroom and said, “Look at this!” before exposing my secret mess.

Been there? Yeah, me too. Gerner continues:

In the midst of some of my greatest accomplishments as a journalist, I was exposed for the one failing that trumped everything. I’d failed in my traditional role as wife. I don’t think it was his intent to land that kind of blow on me, but I felt that, if I wasn’t a good housekeeper, I was not worthy. I was humiliated and I was crushed.

That, though, that one hits pretty close to home. The guilt she alludes to, the being judged, the need for approval, but even more: that “failure” on one scale can trump all our other successes. It’s a familiar feeling. And it makes me think. Is it a uniquely woman kind of a thing? How many men do you know who consider their successes at work irrelevant, or even slightly diminished, because they don’t vacuum as much as they should? Why are we so hard on ourselves?

I’ll get to that in a second. But first, back to Germer. She suggests that, ultimately, in our search for balance, what we find instead are choices.

Of course, if you come by my house today, you will see that my office doesn’t look much better than the guest room did on that particular occasion. I’ve grown into my identity and balanced myself out by making decisions that let me define success and failure, rather than tradition or guilt. That is how you achieve life balance. You do it consciously and on your own terms.

Though it seems so much easier said than done, I can see what she’s saying. And I think perhaps there’s a gem in her logic, a gem that should, in theory, help make our decisions easier: Do what you like; skip what you don’t. (For me, that means read, write, run, cook; as for making the bed and blow-drying my hair? Never, ever again.) All we need is to take an honest look at our lives, what we enjoy spending our time on and what we don’t; from that, we should be able to glean a little wisdom as to what really is most important to us. And then, we can use that to help us prioritize, to make our choices a little easier.

It’s a sweet idea in theory. But, it seems that, for women, often it just is not that simple. Suddenly opting to drop the balls that don’t matter as much to us as the others? That’s contrary to all the messaging we’ve heard for years: have it all, do it all. Be all things to all people. Friend, employee, wife, mother, daughter, office mom, domestic goddess, sexual superhero, kitchen queen, triathlete who can speak intelligently on any number of important subjects and tackle the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle in pen. On some level, we want to, we feel like we should be able to be superwoman, even while we call out that unholy icon as bullshit.

And so we keep those balls in the air. And we watch our sisters, with all their balls in the air, and think to ourselves: Well, if she can do it, I should be able to do it, too. What’s the matter with me? Rather than: I bet she’s as overwhelmed as I am. Why are we doing this to ourselves again?

(Not to mention the sad, not insignificant fact that if we were to blow off all the stuff we’re not so fond of doing, there is no bed-making, laundry-folding, hair-drying fairy waiting to swoop in and pick up our slack.)

But maybe, if we could decide to throw caution to the wind and let a few of those balls drop, maybe we’d find ourselves a little happier, our sisters a little less stressed out by the juggling act they’re trying to pull off, our lives perhaps a little less balanced, but tilted more in our favor?

Is such an idea way too good to be true?

I don’t know. But I’m going to mull it over in a minute. Just as soon as I make the bed.

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Yesterday I came across a post by Cindy Krischer Goodman on the Miami Herald‘s Web site, about a speech given by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Commonwealth Institute South Florida. The appearance featured tales from Albright’s recently published book, “Read My Pins,” as well as a little personal history: she was a journalist, researcher, full time (single) mom to three daughters, and later a professor… all before ever stepping foot on Capitol Hill.

Pretty amazing. So amazing you might think you’ve nothing in common with the Artist Formerly Known as Madame Secretary. But believe me, you do.

In regard to work/life balance, Albright said: ‘There are no easy choices. Every woman’s middle name is guilt.’

Told you.

Guilt. It’s truly a woman’s problem, isn’t it? Much like the need for approval, it’s almost a birthright.

And what is it good for, anyway? I mean, I’m sure Jiminy Cricket would insist it serves a certain purpose, helping that know-it-all goody two-shoes on our shoulder ensure we don’t actually beat up the idiot driver who cut us off or steal the shoes we can’t afford or get busy with the guy in the mailroom, no matter how tempted we might be. But it’s not the same as a conscience–and I think we’re quick to confuse the two.

Nor do I think there’s any doubt that guilt weighs heavily on our choices. To a certain extent, it drives them. And keeps us looking over our shoulders. And stresses us out. That wicked emotion can be downright paralyzing. We don’t want to hurt anyone, put anyone out, do the wrong thing. It hits us from both sides, too: Sometimes we make choices we don’t really want, strictly because we’d rather not deal with the guilt. And other times, we choose to go the other way–and then are left feeling guilty over it. It complicates things, loading each choice down with some additional–and not necessarily relevant–worry. In the same way that factoring others’ feelings and our own fear of being judged out of our decisions requires conscious work, so does eliminating the guilt factor. How often do we do things we don’t want to do? Say yes when we don’t mean it? And women, with our oversized To-Do lists and our underdeveloped sense of balance–well, I don’t think it’s too wild a stretch to suggest the two are related.

So, how do we get rid of it? Hell if I know. But perhaps a good place to start would be to take back our middle names and cut that Guilt Monster down to size. Are you with me?

Crickets…

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