I am going to admit something here that I am not proud of. My feelings about other women over my lifespan have not always been positive. In fact I would even go further to say that they have often been negative. And it’s only been in the past two years that this has changed rather dramatically for me. This change has resulted in such a relief, such a freedom, such a truly mind blowing excitement, that it seems to me that it would be almost unethical for me not to think about and try to describe why it was that I felt the way I did before, and how such a shift came about.
First, we will start in the past. I try not to blame any of my personal shortcoming (I neither know how to play a musical instrument nor speak another language, AHEM) on my parents. I really do. My parents are uniquely awesome. But somehow, somewhere, I picked up on something of an anti-woman vibe. Maybe it was because my father is gay and my adolescent brain took that to mean something it didn’t. Or maybe it was because my mother didn’t have a terribly supportive relationship with her own mother and perhaps as a result of this only had one female friend, until recently, that she seemed to trust and feel close to.
Maybe it was that girl “Erica” in fourth grade, who exerted an influence over others that I cannot hope to understand and turned all my friends against me, convincing them to leave me bewildered and alone at the cafeteria lunch table for days. Or Simone in high school who stole my boyfriend and the guy I lost my virginity to (yes, I see the obvious error in placing full responsibility here on her). One of the only female supervisors I have had, who did her best to undermine any accomplishments or respect I had worked my ass off to achieve. The ex-wives of men I have dated post divorce who have seen me not as someone who could have a positive impact on the lives of their children and former husbands but as enemy #1. The countless women over my life who have viewed me as competition, sizing me up, making comparisons, determinations of who comes out on top.
It’s a bleak picture. I can see that. And I can also say without doubt that I had amazing female friends as well who provided strength and support through all of those tumultuous times. But something told me early on that women should not be immediately assumed to be friends, sisters, and allies. Be it said that of course I have had negative experiences with men as well. But there’s a different kind of dynamic that happens between women. And a different kind of sadness that comes as a result of it.
It would be naive of me to not address here that there are reasons that women do in fact, treat each other in a less than positive way when that is in fact happening and is not just a perception or spin off from my own stuff. I’m not going to delve into that abyss right now because it’s a deep one. But unfortunately there are certain truths about the nature of our society and it’s appendage, our media. There are set-ups built into our system and they are doubly effective because we simply don’t have the sense of community, female centered or otherwise, that other cultures have, which could mitigate some of the impact.
I’m not sure when I first became aware of my own hesitation regarding other women. But suffice to say that in my thirties it became more and more apparent and less and less something I felt any desire or willingness to hold on to. It felt awful, suffocating. And if it ever served a purpose, which I doubt it was, it certainly was doing me no good now.
In the typical “ask and you shall receive” fashion, therein entered some of the more influential women in my life. And like a damn breaking, all of a sudden I started to see them all around me. Women who had something to teach me, things to offer, love and unrestrained support to give. Women who were open and anxious to take in the same from me. Radical women, kind women, smart, smart women. And so it was that my walls started to break down. And nothing came in to bite me, to hurt me. Nothing was taken away. Nothing at all. I felt like I had discovered a beautiful secret. A river flowing under the city streets.
Nothing in life is ever simple. Even a catharsis, an epiphany such as this which causes a dramatic change in awareness and outlook, can stumble and back track a bit. I found myself feeling the familiar sense of poisonous threat just this week in New York while surrounded by talented and beautiful women. This time creating the scenario myself, falling back on old stand-by narratives, dismantling my own achievements in lieu of a hierarchical positioning of theirs. Determining myself as coming up short. But I caught it this time. The belief that in the past would have slipped through my fingers and landed, lodging itself in my gut, my heart. And what a relief it was.
Alyssa Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II, The Dance of Therapy
First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog on January 3, 2012.