I’ve been trying to write about ways to cultivate sisterhood, but it occurred to me this morning that it might be helpful to call out some of the ways we block or inhibit connecting with other women and how we can move past them.
1. Holding Yourself to Unrealistic Standards
The phenomenon of wanting to appear as accomplished and “together” as the people (and especially the women) around you is not a new one. I’d assume that it has always been a part of human nature and will always continue to be. And if there is something you are particularly insecure about, even the most casual comment can send you into a spiral of doubt, let alone a picture perfect post on Facebook. The problem is that when we’re too concerned about covering up our insecurities, it’s almost impossible to be open and honest with people. And without openness and honesty, it’s pretty much impossible to create an authentic connection.
Imagine being at a fun gathering of women. You’re having a good time, but life has been a little on the rough side lately. You and your husband have been struggling, and it’s hard not to worry about how you’re going to resolve these conflicts in your marriage. And now one of the women in the group is talking about the romantic date her husband planned for her. When the conversation turns to you, you have some options: 1) Smile as big as you possibly can and say, “Yes, everything is great!” 2) Lie or stretch the truth: “Oh, John loves to do romantic things like that for me, too!” or 3) Be honest: “Wow, that sounds really amazing. My husband and I have been at odds lately. How do you and your husband stay so well connected?”
Option 1 is probably the most common. It feels vulnerable to open up about struggling, whether it’s at work, mothering, or your marriage. Some of us (raises hand) have also been raised to feel like it’s rude or selfish to “unload” on other people. Our struggles are personal, private business and we don’t need to burden other people with them.
Option 2 isn’t honest. It doesn’t let people know who you are or what your life is like. How can your sisters support you if they don’t even know you?
Option 3 opens the door to genuinely connecting with the women around you. It offers an opportunity for other women who can identify with your situation to open up, too, and it also makes it possible for women who’ve been in your shoes to share how they overcame the challenges you’re going through now. If nothing else, it’s a chance for them to listen and hold space for you as you talk.
While “keeping up with the Joneses” has always been around, I think most people feel like social media has exacerbated this mindset. Our lives are just so freaking public now, and most people – understandably, I might add – don’t want to air all their dirty laundry on Facebook. And quite frankly, it would be really stressful on all of your relationships if you were posting every conflict as a Facebook update. But the result is that the majority of our social interactions are highly edited, polished versions of our lives. There is just no way to live up to that! Unless someone can create a filter for real life that edits out my kids’ toys I guess.
Solution: Be honest. Be authentic. Be brave.
When you’re socializing with your sisters, check yourself. Are you being honest? Are you being real? If not, you have some work to do.
Just for the record, that level of vulnerability is scary! It takes a lot of courage to open up to people like that, especially if you’ve been conditioned to keep your challenges secret. However, sometimes you have to put on your big girl panties and do something even though it’s terrifying. Developing honesty with your sisters is one of those things. The payoff is totally worth it.
2. Operating from a Scarcity Mindset
Grrrrrr. If there’s something that makes me angry when it comes to how women interact, it’s the idea that there’s not enough (fill in the blank) to go around, so you must compete with the women around you to get your share. This mindset is so damaging because it sets us up to see other women as competition rather than sisters, and we lose our power when we give into that fear.
Unfortunately, this is something I’ve seen recently on a professional level. The great news is that most women in my field are great about supporting each other, but I also have too many examples of women resorting to dishonesty as a means of competing for clients. A few months ago, I went to an interview with a couple, only to find out that another doula told them, completely inaccurately, that the organization I’m certified through as a birth doula “only supports natural birth.” This was simply a lie, and given that the doula who told them this also trained through the same organization as I, she knew this was not true when she said it.
The saddest part about this scenario is that right now in my community, probably between 2-5% of women are utilizing doula services for their births. That means that 95-98% of women are not using doulas! The competition is not with other doulas. It’s simply a matter of educating people and getting the word out there to all of the people who don’t know about doulas or don’t understand what we do. The answer is not lying about the “competition” to dishonestly acquire what you can from the 2-5% who are going to hire a doula already. This type of behavior has created a rift in my work community and thrown a wrench in what could otherwise be a more cohesive community.
Solution: Operate from an abundance mindset.
Honestly, there are very few situations in our lives as Americans that qualify as genuine scarcity. Obviously, there are people who do not have enough food or adequate shelter – and we should be doing what we can to help – but these tend to be issues of access. I had high school students going hungry on the weekends when they couldn’t get breakfast and lunch at school, but there were always grocery stores with shelves full of food. This was a social problem; not an issue of everyone getting to the food before they could.
The fact of the matter is that for most things, there is enough. Are you focusing on competing for the one guy you both like? Or are you focusing on the 99% of guys you haven’t even met yet? Are you focusing on competing for one particular client? Or are you focusing on building a positive work culture that appeals to the 95% of people who aren’t even utilizing your services?
Do you see women as competition? Or do you see them as sisters, collaborators, and co-adventurers?
If you catch yourself feeling like there’s not enough (fill in the blank), stop. Even a simple meditation or mantra can reshape your thinking. Train your brain to recognize a scarcity thought pattern and put yourself on time out. Take a few seconds to close your eyes, clear your mind, and think: “There is enough. I’m grateful for what I have, and there is enough for everybody.” It sounds corny, but even a simple practice like that can do a lot to shift your energy.
Also, as a side note, I think it’s interesting that the culture where I personally saw the strongest sisterhood – in Kenya – was in a place with a lot more material scarcity than the U.S. It’s food for thought. If the women there can come together and focus on helping each other, I think that we can do it here.
3. Judging (Yourself and Others)
If you’re listening to a sister talk about X, Y, or Z and catch yourself judging her, it’s going to be next to impossible to connect with her. Even if you keep your judgments – “She’s only struggling because she’s lazy, unorganized, selfish, etc.” – to yourself, I believe that those things are communicated subtly anyways, whether it’s by facial expressions or a well-timed silence.
And just think about this. Think about number 1 on this list, and think about how scary it is to be open and vulnerable about something that you feel insecure about. And then think about working up the courage to share that vulnerability with a fellow sister and her facial expression says, “Ugh, how could you do that?” That could do irreparable damage to your relationship, and she very rightly might not open up to you again.
And now I would push you a step further, because we most often are the harshest judges of ourselves. Are you constantly thinking, “How could I be this lazy? How could I be so selfish? How could I be so inadequate?” If so, how could you stand to even have an honest relationship with yourself? And if you can’t have an honest relationship with yourself, how can you be authentic with your husband, or your sisters, or your children? The answer is that you can’t.
Solution: Be kind.
The easiest way to catch onto judginess is often to look for negative labels: selfish, lazy, or our culture’s favorite label for women, slutty. If you catch yourself using these words to describe yourself or others, step back. What purpose are your judgments serving? What could you think, say, or do instead to actually help the situation? Or identify when the situation doesn’t need help at all and simply listen.
Judging is an attempt to control people through shame, but shame very rarely helps anybody. Be available, be kind, and if the situation necessitates it, be constructive. Work together to find a solution and then move on.
4. Only Focusing on Yourself
Yes, it’s important to be open, honest, and vulnerable. But connection is a two-way street. If you’re always so busy complaining about what’s going wrong in your life – or even constantly celebrating your own successes – to the point that your sisters don’t have the opportunity to share about their lives, you’re going to have a very shallow relationship. Sisterhood comes from the give-and-take of a healthy relationship. It’s a balance.
Solution: Be a good listener.
Listen. Watch your sisters while they talk. Women don’t just listen with their ears, they listen by watching gestures and facial expressions. Don’t interrupt. Make connections between your sisters’ experiences and your own, but don’t take over their opportunities to speak and process.
This can be really difficult. We often want to offer suggestions and solutions – and you’ll sometimes get the chance to do that later on – but what most women need first and foremost is to feel like their words are being heard. It’s validating to have someone actively listen to you. It gives you the space to work things out and process what you’re experiencing.
Actively listening is a gift that you can give the women you care about. If you’ve ever had someone gift you with really, really good listening, then you know what I’m talking about. And the wonderful thing about holding space is that you don’t need to have the answers. You just need to be present, available, and non-judgmental.
5. Putting Your Energy Into Relationships that No Longer Serve You
This one can be a struggle. Especially if you’ve been working on being less judgmental, it can feel mean or small to let certain relationships go. However, it doesn’t serve you or your friend to maintain a relationship that’s built on having to compromise who you are. That’s not an authentic connection – it’s an obligation.
Letting go of a relationship does not mean that you dislike the other person. It just means that you have different values or priorities and that the relationship no longer serves you or her. It means that you both would grow more if you could direct your energy and efforts to other people.
It can be scary to let go of established relationships, but I think you’ll find that if you create the space for healthier, more authentic connections, those relationship will find you. I know that when I started prioritizing the friendships that made me feel fulfilled, my social life drastically improved. I now find myself surrounded by positive, uplifting women who genuinely help me as I learn and grow. And my circle of sisters continues to expand.
Solution: Put your energy into friendships that leave you feeling WONDERFUL.
Focus on this issue in a positive way. You don’t need to think about it as “cutting people out” so much as “focusing up the positive.” If you give your time and energy to the sisters who fill your cup, your social circles will resettle into a more productive pattern.
What habits have you found to stand in the way of sisterhood? How did you overcome them?
I’d love to hear your stories and perspectives.