There are countless books about women’s inability to negotiate. I pass these books in the bookstore and scoff. I won’t be one of those women, I tell myself. I’ll know how to ask for what I want. I’ve always thought that I would have no trouble climbing that elusive ladder. I will not be afraid to ask for help because I know I’m worth it. Or so I thought.
I recently had a big paper due for English class. I was completely overworked and I dreaded writing the paper, so like all high school students (scratch that, like all people), I procrastinated. Three days before my paper was due, I had an epiphany. This was a serious, life-changing, see-a-light bulb-above-my-head epiphany. I could ask my teacher for an extension on the paper.
I prepared a list of reasons in case my teacher wanted to know why I needed more time. But my teacher never asked. She said it was fine and told me not to worry about it. I left her office thinking to myself, ‘That was so easy! Why don’t I do that more often?’
That’s when I realized, I am one of those women who doesn’t know how to ask for what she needs. I can count the number of extensions I have asked for over the past four years on one….finger. That was the first time I ever asked for an extension and, in retrospect, I understand why. I don’t ask for extensions on papers or projects because of the pressure to be effortlessly perfect and the glorification of stress.
Many bloggers and authors have addressed the notion of young women feeling like they have to be perfect and good at everything without looking like they’re trying. I love Courtney Martin’s re-interpretation of the “effortlessly perfect” phrase. In her amazing book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, she writes that girls who have been taught that they can do whatever they want to, by well-intentioned parents, often misinterpret the encouragement as the pressure to do everything.
In my case, I feel like I have to get amazing grades, run two organizations at school, juggle two internships, get into college (pretty please?) and make time for my friends and family. No big deal. Oh, and I have to look like I’m having the time of my life.
I feel like I can’t ask for help because I look around and it seems like all the girls around me are doing twice as much as me, thrice as well. It’s no wonder CoverGirl’s slogan is “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful CoverGirl.” Young women strive to be successful and beautiful without trying. I am waiting for the day when all of us overachieving girls can admit what Paulie Bleeker does in Juno and say, “I try really hard, actually.” But heck, I’m not going to be the first to say it.
So there you have it, the first reason I don’t like to ask for extensions: I can’t ask because then everyone would know I work hard on my papers. Writing an analytical essay is rarely easy, breezy or beautiful, but to admit that I need more time to work is to admit defeat.
Here’s another reason why I won’t ask: Our culture may value the effortless perfection of girls but it also, paradoxically, glorifies stress. At my school, if you are not sleep-deprived, constantly sick because your immune system is shot, and on the verge of a breakdown, you must be doing something wrong. A friend of mine was ridiculed by a mutual friend of ours after she confessed that she watches TV during the school week.
After listening to a lecture about the psychology of sleep, a classmate said that she goes to bed at midnight. Based on other students’ reactions, you would have thought she mentioned she was in a satanic cult.
Getting a full night of sleep is for sissies. Having blood-shot eyes, falling asleep at the wheel and becoming seriously ill is much cooler. Among high school students and among girls in particular, stress is a rite of passage. If you are not stressed you must not being doing well enough in school and you most certainly are not doing enough.
I forget that being stressed is not normal and should not be a teenager’s default emotion. I forget that I can accomplish things without prematurely balding in the process. But it’s hard to give yourself credit and recognize that you deserve a break when your classmates are accomplishing amazing things and have the symptoms of intense stress to prove it.
So let’s get back to those books about women’s difficulty negotiating. I have a theory. Perhaps women have difficulty asking for help because we don’t listen to ourselves. True, we listen to our critical (and Good Girl) voices that say we can’t break a sweat, we don’t deserve a break and everyone else is doing well under the pressure. But we don’t listen to our bodies’ SOS signals. And we don’t listen to the voice that tells us we can’t do it all at once.
By procrastinating, I was trying to tell myself that this paper was bad news bears and was going to be difficult to write. I had to stop listening to the voice that tells me I have to be perfect…and had to start focusing on what I realistically could and could not accomplish that week.
I got the paper back today. I got an A and the teacher never mentioned the extension. But today my pat on the back and victory dance isn’t for the grade. I’m more pleased that I was my own advocate. I didn’t have to pull an all-nighter to write the paper. I worked hard but I wasn’t stressed. I asked for help, admitted imperfection (shocking, I know) and the world didn’t end!