One of the most important skills we can learn is the ability to manage uncertainty: to ask without knowing the outcome, apply for an opportunity we may not get, or raise our hand without knowing the right answer.
Yet when it comes to friendship, too many of us don’t say what we need because we worry we’ll hear the word no. The fear of getting rejected, or the certainty that “things will never change” are the most common explanations girls and women share about refusing to speak up.
When we are driven by the anticipated outcome – the word “no” – we allow fear and anxiety to make our decisions for us. We don’t develop the vital muscle of risk taking that allows us to take leaps, be surprised and discover new experiences we never would have had if we’d played it safe.
This is a missed opportunity, not only for our relationships, but for our leadership potential. Over time, what we learn in our friendships as girls can become the foundation for skills we use in all areas of our lives as women.
But we can interrupt that destructive arc. Check out this article from Slate’s Katherine Goldstein about her experience in a Lean In group. After three months together, three out of seven members asked for raises at work.
There are few requests more uncertain and anxiety provoking than asking for a raise. But what’s even more impressive is that one of Goldstein’s colleagues asked even when she was pretty sure her organization’s budget couldn’t afford it.
Even when she knew she’d most likely get rejected.
“I just wanted to voice that I expected to be paid more,” the woman explained. “So the lesson I learned was that even in an organization with limited resources, asking is a huge deal.”
Imagine if girls and women adopted the same attitude about confronting the friends who have let us down. Instead of giving up before saying a single word, we would choose to value our voices. We would privilege the importance of speaking up for ourselves over the outcome for the relationship.
I often say girls’ relationships are their most important classrooms. It’s in our first intimate relationships where we learn how to stand up for ourselves, negotiate to get what we want, and compromise.
But it’s also in friendship that many of us learn to value being liked over what we think and feel. It’s where we internalize the belief that preserving a connection – and someone else’s opinion of us — is more important than speaking our hearts.
Over time, as we choose not to speak up and tell that friend to stop bossing us around, or that she’s been neglecting us, or that we’d like her to stop asking us how much we paid for our clothes, two things happen: the muscles to assert our feelings atrophy. And our beliefs about conflict – namely, that we should avoid it if we don’t know what the outcome will be – start to direct our choices.
That girl who refuses, over and over again, to tell her friend how she feels because “what’s the point” and “she won’t care, anyway,” may become the woman who refuses to ask for a raise because “what’s the point” and “there’s no money, anyway.”
As I tell my undergraduate students, if you can’t tell your roommate that you need her to turn down the music at 1 am, you won’t magically be able to ask a colleague to stay later to help you meet a deadline.
If you’re parenting a girl, encourage her to advocate for herself just for the sake of using her voice and communicating her value. If you’re a recovering girl, these lessons apply to you, too. Speak up, for the sake of speaking up. Every day, all around us, we have the chance to practice.
Because we need to be able to deal with rejection if we want to ever hear the word “yes.”
In my online course Enough As We Are, we tackle all types of “recovering girl” issues, including navigating conflict and expressing our big feelings. If you’re interested in knowing when the next session opens, click here to join the advanced registration list.