LOUISE O'NEILL: Pretence as an art form results in women accepting ill-treatment by others

I refuse to pretend to be different to my true self in a misguided attempt to please others.

SHONDA RHIMES, the creator and producer of such TV shows as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, was recently asked in an interview about the experience of being a single mother to three daughters aged three to 14.

The interviewer was curious as to how she was encouraging them to become confident young women and Rhimes replied by saying: “They [her daughters] couldn’t be more different from another, but they’re all stubborn — and I mean that in the best way... It’s so much better than having a nice, pliable child who can be easily manipulated. I don’t want to have a nice girl. I’d rather have a stubborn girl.”

I don’t have children, but I can imagine that the qualities we value in adults — determination, tenacity, and ruthless decisiveness — might be slightly tiresome in small children when you’re trying to get them to go to bed early or asking them to brush their teeth or convincing them to finish their vegetables.

Successful adults are usually strong-willed and stubborn and have an unwavering sense of purpose from which they refuse to be sidetracked, and yet, all too often, these are the characteristics that our teachers and our families and our communities will attempt to control when we are young because it makes their lives easier.

I wonder how different things would be if every child was inspired to follow Franz Kafka’s advice and told “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your own most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

When I was a child, I was loud and brash.

(One of my mother’s least favourite memories of the early nineties is when we were staying in a very expensive hotel in London and over breakfast I shouted at her to pass me the newspaper because ‘I want to hear about the IRA’s latest carry- on’ and every person in the dining room turned to stare at the pintsized republican.)

I couldn’t accept a ‘no’ from my parents just because they had said so.

I had to have the reasoning behind their decision explained in great detail and woe betide them if that reason didn’t seem logical to me.

I was self-sufficient, excruciatingly blunt — I’ll take this opportunity to apologise to my first cousin for telling her that her haircut was a catastrophic mistake 10 minutes after she left the salon — and far too keen to point out to both my teachers and my fellow students if their spelling/grammar was incorrect.

I didn’t care what anyone thought of me, I was completely unable to tell a lie, and I was far happier in the company of my books than with other people.

In short, I was remarkably similar to the adult that I would eventually become.

But that youthful sense of comfort in my own skin wasn’t unassailable.

In my teens, I could tell that something about me simply annoyed other people; that my belief in my abilities and my confidence in myself were misconstrued as arrogance and egotism.

As a child, I hadn’t cared about their opinions, but suddenly, it became essential that I was accepted.

It didn’t feel safe to be my true self anymore and I decided that in order to survive, I would have to adapt, to change; mould myself into something more palatable.

Someone more likeable. And so, I started to pretend.

I was almost aggressively nice, cloyingly sweet.

I never got angry; I was quick to apologise and quick to outwardly forgive others for being cruel or thoughtless.

I smiled and I smiled and I smiled while on the inside it felt like I was cracking in two, into the part of me that other people were allowed to see, and the real me, the me I had to keep locked away for fear that I would seem needy or annoying or overly intense.

I think this was exacerbated by the fact that I was a young woman and society informed me, in no uncertain terms, that there were boundaries I had to adhere to, parameters of acceptable behaviour that seemed to become increasingly more stringent.

In her TED talk on feminism, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie declared: “We teach girls shame. ‘Close your legs. Cover yourself.’

“We make them feel as though being born female, they’re already guilty of something.

“And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves.

“They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up — and this is the worst thing we do to girls — they grow up to be women who have turned pretence into an art form.”

This pretence as an art form results in women accepting ill-treatment by our friends or our partners or our colleagues; we act like we’re not bothered because we are so afraid of being accused of being a bitch.

We fear confrontation.

We are so terrified of being direct and asking for what we want that we can spend a lifetime attempting to guilt or indirectly manipulate people into giving us what we need.

As I’ve gotten older, I have found my propensity for stage-managing other people in this way has deteriorated exponentially.

I refuse to pretend to be different to my true self in a misguided attempt to please others.

I try to be as straightforward and honest as I possibly can be in relationships and if someone reacts badly to that, I remind myself that their behaviour is not my responsibility.

There are people who like me and there are people who decidedly do not, but the most important thing in the end is how I feel about myself.

I have made a lifelong commitment to liking myself.

Every day, I try to remember these lines from a Nayyirah Waheed poem.

“No might make them angry, but it will make you free.

“If no one has ever told you, your freedom is more important than their anger.”


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