In the first blog of this series, I discussed the ways that trying to conform to gender roles is limiting and painful. In this next post, I will go further into detail about how we can lose ourselves by trying to conform to socially defined gender roles and ways we can reclaim our sense of self in a world that pushes us to fit into categories.
Gender Rolls Don’t Always Taste Good
For many of us, being a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ has seemed a way to have an identity. I sought to be accepted by being more ‘womanly’ as I got older and exchanged the frog tee shirts and Birkenstocks for flip flops (so feminine). But as I began to identify more with my ‘womanly’ traits, I felt praised for things that didn’t feel essential to who I was—my hair, my body, the way I could talk with girls around me about dating. We conform to gender roles in order to be accepted socially. As I aged I could relate more to other women but I felt disconnected from who I was.
Romantic relationships are another place where we feel like we have to perform in order to be accepted. Men often feel pressure to ‘make a move’ or play the dominant role during sex. Queer people are often labeled as being the more womanly or manly one in a relationship.
With sex and dating, we may feel the need to be passive or aggressive; we must be a vessel for pleasure or be the one who ‘takes.’ Are we supposed to be coy or forward; make the ‘first move’ or wait to be approached?
With all of this pressure, many of us don’t feel like we can simply ‘be’ when it comes to sex and dating. And dating can become so stressful that many completely give up, not wanting to perform the charade any longer.
Eleven years ago, for example, I went through a breakup and began dating. My brother and I used to tell each other jokingly to ‘eat your gender rolls.’ We both laughed but knew precisely the dark side of what our joke referred to.
For a young woman dating in the city, eating my gender roles meant that I had to act a part. In order to connect romantically I felt I had to dress in a somewhat ‘sexy’ way but couldn’t be too provocative, give coy replies to texts, and not be too forward or ‘overeager.’ Even at the time, I rejected all of these norms, but felt the pull of them.
Part of the reason that these norms are so compelling is that women receive subtle and overt messages about needing to partner up and have a family. Most movies involving a woman heroine (and these are rare) usually end with the heroine finding a man. Furthermore, this woman is always put together, white, thin, still eats pizza, is loyal to her family, allows herself to get drunk but is never an alcoholic, and eventually usually succeeds in an aspect of her career.
Even though I rationally knew that no partner I’d want to connect with would care about me fitting into the image of this woman, I didn’t entirely believe that in my core because the messages I received were so prevalent, so insidious and so powerful. They hit me in a way that logic could not.
How do we reject the pull of painful gender role expectations that run so deep inside of us? How do we get clearer on who we are and what our behaviors are responding to?
Steps To Spitting Out Gender Rolls
- Develop Awareness. The first step with all change is awareness. In order to get clear on where we’re going and how we’re getting there, we first have to know where we are and where we’ve been. This involves understanding the pull of social pressures and why we’re feeling pulled when we are. What are some ways to develop more awareness around ourselves and our behaviors?
- Seek counseling. Counseling can help you understand yourself, your subconscious beliefs, and your motivations better than most things I know. In counseling you might explore things like what childhood messages you received about what it meant to be a man or a woman, what it meant to be queer or non-binary, talking about emotions, relationships, and ‘fitting in.’ Your counselor may also recommend you read certain books and do journaling, spend time alone, meditate, do creative activities, or slowly challenge old behavioral patterns.
- Have Compassion. As we’re exploring our motivations and deeply held beliefs, we often beat ourselves up for past choices. We must realize that the old stories we’ve believed have served a purpose in our lives. Maybe conforming has allowed you to make friends, have a place in your family, or get into a relationship that helped you separate from a destructive family.
Changing our stories is a long, hard process and we can’t expect ourselves to be anywhere other than where we are. After all, our old stories usually emerged when we were very young and forming our ideas about the world. Our stories don’t change unless we actively try to change them.
Remember that you’re not alone. We’re social creatures who are all on the same journey, trying to understand ourselves and connect with one another. The journey is confusing, frightening and sad, but it’s also fascinating and beautiful. There’s no end to how much growth and evolution we can undergo. There’s no cap on how free you can be.
- Take Action. After understanding where we’ve been and where we want to go, we get to make a choice about our future. Sometimes we realize that we must make a choice that feels isolating. As you make choices, remember that it’s ok to identify with anything that feels comfortable and right to you. By being true to yourself you’ll attract people, careers, and relationships that are in line with you. By taking care of yourself first you’ll be happier and able to give back to the world from a place of abundance rather than a place of scarcity or fear.
- Connect with Community. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.’” Find other people who are on the same path and talk about your struggles and successes. Go to meet up groups, political gatherings, online forums, 12 step or therapy groups, spiritual meetings, improv class, or anywhere that you feel supported.
When we realize we’re not alone, we develop confidence. We feel safer to reveal our ‘inner mystery’ and to spit out the messages that have left us feeling small. Your inner mystery is needed and it is phenomenal. Do not give up on letting it emerge.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist women in their 20s and 30s practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.