My New Year’s Resolution!
My New Year’s Resolution!
By Kelly Valen
To Open Up, Reach Out, and Tread More Gently with My Fellow Women....
For the past two years, I’ve spent the bulk of my days putting together my new book, The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships. An outgrowth of a piece I wrote for The New York Times in 2007, the book explores the fallout from intra-female negativity and urges girls and women to proactively practice a more mindful civility in their day-to-day relationships.
In constructing Twisted, I heard from over 3,000 women, ages 18-86, read thousands of pages of research and related material, and drew on the wisdom of psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, gender studies specialists, and even some icons of popular culture. My goal? To increase awareness about the profound influence we females often have on one another (for better but sometimes, sadly, for worse) and about the hidden, lingering hurts and struggles that result from our inhumanity. I’ve hoped to prompt reflection, trigger new dialogues, and maybe, just maybe, inspire a little social change. Gratifying work. But in 2011 I’ll be shifting gears slightly and taking my own advice by focusing on the more positive aspects of all this—celebrating and nurturing my wonderful girlfriendships and renewing efforts to reach out and make some more.
Holding up a mirror to the dark side of humanity isn’t exactly fun or comfortable for anyone. I learned the hard way that when you write a book about intra-female conflict—even a serious, pro-woman book—you need a thick skin, maybe even a suit of armor. Because you’re going to ruffle some feathers. Issues of gender are inherently emotional and controversial, after all. Folks will invariably plug their ears and tune you out, disagree, debate, and take offense even before they’ve seen your book’s contents. Some will dismiss your message outright and make wild assumptions about you personally. They’ll figure you have no girlfriends or actively dislike women, that you have an axe to grind or some vengeful motivating spirit, or that you’re one of “those” bitter or antisocial women who favor men. Others will label you a dingbat, a PTSD wing-nut, an exploitative provocateur, an “obviously” bad mother, and a host of other un-printables.
I’m happy to report that none of those assumptions holds true or prompted me to spend all this time investigating female relationships. I’ve had my struggles on the female front, certainly. I let an ugly episode with a group of college gals impact my ability to trust and feel close to women for years. At the same time, though, I prize the women in my life and like many of you out there, I suspect, can’t imagine a world without them. Despite this happy truth, I’ve seen a lot of unnecessary hurt and nonsense within the gender. I want a healthier status quo for my three daughters and the next generation. I want to remind girls and women that fostering a broader, more consistently positive and peaceful female culture—while curbing the self-defeating negativity and petty sideshows—stands only to benefit us all.
I’m sure most of us would prefer to focus on the positive aspects of our girlfriendships and sweep the rest under the rug. Perhaps your own history with females has been nothing but lovely—fantastic news. Still, it’s worth tuning in to what’s going on within the greater gender. Truth is, girls and women all around you are experiencing gratuitous hostility, covert competition, and pointless aggression—at work, at school, online, and in their mothering and social circles. They’re taking hits to self-esteem and dealing with resulting wounds and ambivalence that undermine their ability to thrive, contribute, and reach full potential in life. And the frustrating part is this: our darker tendencies, more often than not, are completely unnecessary. They’re borne of habit, reflex, sport, boredom, plain old jealousy, and as a bonding ritual. They flow, undoubtedly, from our insecurities and lack of self-awareness.
I know we can’t generalize, stereotype, or paint females with too broad a brush. We’re complex; our mileage varies. Most of us, I suspect, move in shades of gray, capable of being champion, nurturing, altruistic angels in one context; petty, judgmental, insecure biddies in others—and everything in between. We’re human, after all. We’ve all had different experiences and boast varying levels of sensitivity and resilience. Not everyone has endured a Queen-Bee, watershed moment in life; not everyone is a judgmental gossip. At the same time, it’s important to validate others’ realities and recognize that not every woman has been blessed with consistently supportive, trouble-free girlfriendships. It’s not always just a matter of “toughening up” or “getting over” it.
It’s interesting that, despite our differences, experts seem to agree that female relationships are unique and do tend to yield an array of tangible benefits that don’t necessarily extend to all-male or male-female bonds. A growing pool of exciting research confirms that our positive, healthy female connections are, quite literally, the cheapest and most effective medicine we have for leading qualitatively better, longer lives. Those intimate friendships—the ones in which we confide, whine, vent, share confidences, and talk-talk-talk—can help our bodies release precious oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) and lend a host of other documented physical, emotional, and mental health dividends. Some studies even suggest that having a higher number of friendships boosts memory function and quality of life, food for thought for those of us who stress quality over quantity exclusively. The bottom line? This isn’t just the stuff of Hallmark or Lifetime TV. Forging and nurturing true, authentic, drama-free relationships with other females is one of the soundest investments we can make in life.
Now, I’m not saying men are immune from all this and don’t have their own issues. I’m not comparing men with women at all. Nor am I suggesting that we have to embrace every woman who crosses our path, and hire, promote, or vote women into office simply on the basis of gender. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be going out of our way to knock each other down, back, and sideways. We’re half of society. Given our shared history, a little kindness, respect, and support can go a long way. Most of us have enough challenges, hurdles, and obstacles in our day; sexism and other cultural forces “out there” still really do beat some of us back. Let’s not add to those burdens by holding each other back.
Being A Better Friend, Mother, Woman, and Human.
Acknowledging our flaws and considering the “twisted” aspects of our relationships even momentarily is, I’m convinced, the first essential step toward improving matters. As a result of this project, I know I’m a better friend, mother, woman, and human. And, in the new year, I vow to continue on this path. I’ll be more respectful of differences, more aware of the impact my words and actions might have on others, and more inclined to pause and think twice. I’ll polish off the superfluous tarnish by curbing the reflexive judging, comparing, and gossiping I’ve occasionally fallen into. I’ll take more social risks by reaching out, mixing it up, and meeting new women who lie beyond my safe, exclusive cluster of known-commodity girlfriends, women who might not normally appear on my social radar but might well surprise me. I’ll be more engaged in my existing friendships, too. I’ll show up, check in, and follow up. I’ll happily mentor and consult with women who flatter me by asking for bits of my time and insights. I’ll pay greater attention to my daughters’ relationships and proactively work to instill in them a greater sense of self-worth and inner confidence, the precise nourishment that will encourage them to follow their dreams, render them less vulnerable to negative drama, and more resilient and able to cope when the negativity is directed their way. I will try to behave myself and just plain be “better.”
As 2011 goes forward, I hope some of you will join me in resolving to tread more gently with one another (to the extent you aren’t already), to open up, reach out, and work toward a stronger and more connected, collaborative, and cooperative “sisterhood.” Mostly, I wish you all happy, healthy, and rewarding friendships.
Enjoyed this article? You would probably also enjoy these articles:But I'm Still "Me," Aren't I?
About the Author
Kelly Valen, author of The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships, hails from the prairie and remains, first and foremost, a proud Minnesota girl.
A lawyer, turned mom, turned researcher, Valen says that in the midst of all these transitions she “started pecking away at the computer here and there." Valen continues, "One thing led to another, and after hearing from hundreds of women in response to my December 2007 New York Times article, I decided to tackle my first book."
The book tracks the highs and lows of our female connections and explores the hidden fallout from our incivility, negativity, and other darker tendencies.