As I celebrated news of my promotion with my friends I was oddly scared of sharing it with my boyfriend. He had been hunting for a job that could at least pay his bills for the past four weeks now and his crank level was next level.
But this wasn’t a new feeling for me. I had been scared of sharing news of a scholarship with my friends who had also applied for it and hadn’t gotten it.
As a woman in her twenties, the number of times I had second-guessed my urge to revel in my success was insane. I couldn’t get it then but with time I realized I was embarrassed of my success.
But why? Why was I embarrassed of my success? It was always the fruit of my hard work and sacrifice. Why was I afraid to enjoy my success and more importantly, own it?
The answer didn’t come to me easily.
I was watching The Devil Wears Prada and saw how patriarchy painted a woman’s success as the reason why she couldn’t have a healthy and successful relationship with her boyfriend. It all started to piece together then. In the same movie, Meryl Streep is the woman with repeated divorces because she had a most fabulous career. How two women, one starting her career and the other at the pinnacle of it, have the same portrayal of their personal lives was ironic and probably not intentional. It’s just an assumption that we have that seeped into the writing of both characters. Funnier still is the fact that both these characters are based on real women.
I grew up as a millennial. Yes the “you can have it all generation”. Which automatically put a lot of pressure on me.
How I translated “you can have it all” was that I leaned in as much as I could. While leaning in at life opportunities was certainly an expectation because of the millennial culture, leaning in emotionally was also an expectation because social norms don’t change just because a woman is trying to have it all.
So I leaned in. Academically I decided to target the most coveted professions.
Career wise I leaned in. Choosing to not let any opportunities slide by me.
Emotionally I leaned in. I couldn’t feel or do or say anything that made others feel like they didn’t have it all. I had to always have the right emotion for every relationship. One expectation of the emotional leaning in was to own my success with an apology, like I didn’t deserve it, like it belonged to someone else and I got it just because I was smarter or more hardworking. That’s stupid, right? My intelligence and grit should’ve been cherished by me, flaunted by me and even, envied by others. Instead I was ashamed of them.
I leaned in so far that I lost touch with reality.
But as with everything else, my leaning in caused some emotional exhaustion. I started to become afraid of getting a well-deserved accolade. I had anxiety about someone else failing at something because in my mind it highlighted my success to me and others and my success was a perverse pleasure that I could only celebrate with other successful people.
Does society do a number on women or what!
I found myself becoming afraid of people finding out if I had had a promotion. This boyfriend or that acquaintance, in a fit of jealousy or misplaced rage, would unleash their biased opinion of some supposed favoritism that probably came my way and made it all easier for me.
I wore my non-designer outfits with people who I knew were making less than me. I stopped discussing work with friends who were struggling to get a job that they had always hoped for. I never let people know that I was smart or smarter. I played dumb to deflect the narrowed gazes that came my way for being myself.
This caused me to have a preconceived notion of most people in my life. I just assumed that I had to be dumb, ugly, poor and boring. That if I was anything else, I wouldn’t fit in with my friends who weren’t doing that great. For my friends who were where they had always wanted to be, I was more myself. But if truth be said, I lost myself in the constant switching off.
At this juncture, I got married.
Getting married and starting a relationship with a man who had traveled half the world and was ten years older than me was a significant experience for me.
I realized that my husband didn’t have much insecurity around my career or the money that I made. He was secure in his choice of profession and loved what he did. I realized that sharing myself with him was easier because he took pride in me. That’s a huge thing in a relationship.
I also realized that the same people who lauded my husband for being so gritty and tenacious that he would spend most of his adult life away from parents and family to build a career, got defensive and insecure when I mentioned the same things about myself .
I slowly realized that the problem wasn’t me. It wasn’t my success. It wasn’t my independence. It wasn’t my pride in my career. It wasn’t my love and respect for my own self. It was my gender. It had always been my gender.
Women are given a lot of grief for being successful. Many women are made to feel bad about kicking ass in primarily male-dominated fields. They are frequently asked and expected to play second fiddle to their colleagues but they are also second tier to their significant others and even their brothers.
This type of “grooming” that women are subjected to from the beginning makes it difficult for them to enjoy success. Their success comes with anxiety. It loses its joy.
Whereas success for a man comes with a party. Some women hide bonuses from their significant others because it reminds their husbands or boyfriends about how much these women contribute to the financial stability of the family. For an insecure or egotistical person, or a man who may have some skewed sense of being more important than others around him, this can be a trigger and lead to circumstances that are detrimental to the relationship.
So here’s my wish for 2020! That we never apologize for being more successful than the men in our lives. Because really our success is only adding to the wind beneath our wings. It doesn’t take anything away from anyone else. It doesn’t slow anyone else down.