The Patriarchy in Your Head
Patriarchy’s most dangerous power might be the one we carry inside.
About a year ago, I saw a post on social media from my friend and fellow coach, Brigid Dineen, on Facebook. She posed the question “What if your inner critic is really the patriarchy in disguise?”
This question acted as a lightning rod for a pattern of questions swirling around in my own head about how women can overcome self-criticism and gender-based social conditioning. Feminine conditioning — what women learn throughout our lives about what it means to be a woman — is mostly unconscious and often triggers shame, leaving women with the overwhelming feeling that they can never be enough. It drives us to think and act and behave in a variety of ways, most of which are against our own interests. It’s also a form of internalized oppression. (If you want to learn more about this, Brigid and I discussed it on her podcast this summer)
What this means for women is that it’s coded into our social conditioning to uphold and defend the patriarchy, whether we intend to or not. I can see you shaking your head and declaring that you’d never do this but hear me out. Consider these stories of real women (names and some details have been changed):
Sally works as an engineer for a software company. She’s the only woman on her team and though she often gets left out of the communication loop by the men she works with, she’s very good at her job. Her boss gets promoted and tells Sally that he’d like to recommend her as his replacement and that he thinks she has a good chance, but she will have to interview for the job. Although she wants to advance, Sally is worried that she isn’t ready and that she might not be able to handle the role. Even though she’s performing well at work, she fears that she might not be qualified for the job she’s in, much less the next rung up the ladder. Ultimately, she decides not to apply.
Kayla is an artist, but she doesn’t sell her work. She gives it away to friends and family who are always telling her how talented she is. A local gallery has taken an interest, and a friend has offered to help her build a website, but she hasn’t called either of them back. When she scrolls through the Instagram feeds of artists she admires, she worries that her own work is childish or somehow not enough. Plus, she cringes at the thought of a picture of her on the website or the thought of being the center of attention at the art show because she’s uncomfortable about her weight.
What do these situations have in common? These women weren’t technically shut down by patriarchal systems, but they shut themselves down rather than challenge patriarchal ideas and culture. These are difficult situations with real-life consequences and they are just two examples of how women shut themselves down because we’ve been taught that anything less than perfection is not good enough. The stories above dealt with women that held themselves back professionally, but they just as easily could have been about any area of life. Most women push themselves to be perfect at everything they do — work, parenting, fitness, relationships — and then become their own worst critics when they fall short.
We don’t come by these beliefs about our culture — and more importantly about ourselves — by chance. By definition, our patriarchy is a cultural system where power and resources are concentrated and held by a mostly white, male demographic. The system is dependent on the other groups, the ones who hold almost no power, to do two things: fight each other for the leftover scraps of power and self-police to keep themselves in line with patriarchal beliefs through internalized oppression. Both of these are crappy scenarios, but the second one is so insidious because it happens in our own heads.
Internalized oppression affects all marginalized groups, but for now, let’s take a look at how it affects women. In order for internalized oppression to exist, we have to start with legitimizing myths about a particular group. These are the things that the culture believes to be true about this group. In the case of women, many of these myths revolve around what we should be.
For example: Women should be pretty and thin and strive for a beauty ideal that is only actually achievable by less than five percent of the female population. We should be quiet and uncomplicated and keep our opinions to ourselves. We should kind and selfless and giving. We should take care of those around us by doing most of the emotional labor at work and at home. We should be modest and allow others to take credit for our ideas. Sounds pretty simple, right? (Are you exhausted yet? — I know I am)
But wait, we haven’t even gotten to the Catch-22s yet. Many of our cultural myths about how to be the perfect woman (and don’t kid yourself — there’s no way we’ll settle for less than perfection) have us walking a moving tightrope. Be pretty and sexy, but not slutty. Be compassionate, but not too emotional. Be assertive, but not bossy, bitchy or opinionated. Speak up, but don’t be shrill. All of this should look as effortless as possible, natch.
It seems almost laughable when you put it all together this way, but in actuality, a majority of women are trying to meet these standards some or all of the time, whether they realize it or not. No individual is completely immune to the culture that surrounds them and we’ve been selling the myth of the perfect woman for a long, long time. The flavor may change as the decades pass, but now we just sell perfection in the guise of liberation. (Instagram — you know I’m talking to you, right?)
What makes it so difficult for us to get out of this spiral is that the mechanism of enforcement for all of this internal conflict is one of our most damaging emotions: shame. Shame is possibly the most damaging human emotion; it disconnects us from others and from ourselves. Nothing triggers our shame quicker than feeling like we don’t measure up and that we’re not enough — even when the ideal is ridiculously unachievable. The only known antidote for shame is empathy and self-compassion.
The good news about all of this is that we can begin to dismantle patriarchy right inside our own heads. We can push back on and question cultural myths about how women should be. We can do it loud enough for other women and girls to hear us. If we all do it together, we can even create a roar too loud to be ignored.