Women and Happiness — Part 1


I’m reading a book right now that came highly recommended from a counselor friend I admire, called Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul.

I’ll admit: I was (and, to a certain extent, still am) totally skeptical.

It’s a popular Christian book, and as such, I was afraid it would be full of platitudes and patronizing pep talks; or worse, rigid proscriptions of what a woman “should” be: domestic, demure, passive, well-dressed — none of which I am, of course, and which have always contributed to my feeling particularly inadequate as a woman.  (The book is not off the hook yet, by the way, because I’m only a chapter and a half in…but so far it’s managed to generally avoid those traps — though it has used some borderline cheesy language that had me rolling my eyes in a place or two.)

Still, last night, feeling a tiny bit discouraged, I picked it up and came across this passage:

I know I am not alone in this nagging sense of failing to measure up, a feeling of not being good enough as a woman. Every woman I’ve ever met feels it — something deeper than just the sense of failing at what she does.  An underlying, gut feeling of failing at who she is.  I am not enough, and, I am too much at the same time.  Not pretty enough, not thin enough, not kind enough, not gracious enough, not disciplined enough.  But too emotional, too needy, too sensitive, too strong, too opinionated, too messy.  The result is Shame, the universal companion of women.  It haunts us, nipping at our heels, feeding on our deepest fear that we will end up abandoned and alone.

I stopped reading for a moment, blinked, went back and re-read.  Because, I confess, that really resonated with me.  And not just the sense of being not enough and too much at the same time — which describes to a “T” some of the inner battles I’ve fought recently — but that almost off-hand comment at the beginning of the paragraph, the one that says: “Every woman I’ve ever met feels it.”

I thought, It can’t be that EVERY woman feels this.  Not EVERY woman! So I mentally ran down my list of female friends, those to whom I am close enough that we’ve dropped, at least to a certain extent, the brave smiles and polished exteriors.  And I realized that they’ve felt it too.  And I thought about my extended circle, at church and in my community, and I realized that I can sense it as an undercurrent there as well (perhaps in the brave smiles and polished exteriors?).

I thought about these graphs I saw in The Huffington Post which clearly depict that women’s happiness is on the decline, while men’s continues to rise:

And I thought: why? And: what can I do to make sure this trend is reversed in my life?

These are complicated questions, the answers to which have several dimensions, including social and spiritual — and I’m going to write at least two more posts featuring some of my completely-amateur-and-not-at-all-scholarly thoughts on these topics.  But for now I thought I’d open it up for discussion.  What do you think?  Just what the heck IS going on here…and what can we do to stop it?

This post is one in a series.  Get the rest of the series here.

About Katie L

A doubter by nature, a believer by grace.

Posted on August 31, 2010, in Mental Health, News and Current Events, Personal, Pop Culture, Women and Happiness and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I don’t have much to say (yet) except that I’ve tried to read “Captivating” twice and gagged too much both times. So props to you for persevering.

  2. Yeah, we’ll see how it shakes out. I’m already nervous because chapter two is all about Eve. As a Mormon, I don’t buy the whole “Eve fell and so we’re all miserable” framework for human suffering, so if that’s a core component of the message of the book, it’s not going to work for me.

  3. “So I mentally ran down of my list of female friends, those to whom I am close enough that we’ve dropped, at least to a certain extent, the brave smiles and polished exteriors.”

    Hopefully I’m one of them. 🙂 And if not, well, the failing to measure up thing is true for me too. Or should I say the feeling that I am failing to measure up?

    Using a broad brush to generalize all/most women, I think that it might be a chicken/egg cycle. Everyone’s heard about the kid who bullies other kids because he’s really insecure, right? Well, women get insecure about, for example, being a working mom. So they sneer at stay at home moms. And vice versa.

    How often is it that women’s issues are issues that can become so hot-button that we turn mean? I’ve been the recipient of a lot of women pushing me down, in many circumstances, where it would seem that what should happen would be to bolster each other up in our differences.

    When I was a working mom, the women that I worked with were the most critical (as compared to the men) of when I would leave work early (even though I was on a flexible work arrangement), or say things like, ‘who cares if you miss your kid’s first birthday? It’s not like she’ll remember!’ And some of the stay at home moms that I knew were often judge-y about my decision to BE a working mother.

    When I was pregnant with Hazel, I ran into so many women who found out that I was planning a C-section, and instead of trusting my (and my doctor’s) judgment on the matter, proceeded to tell me all the reasons why it was a bad idea.

    Through barbed comments to each other, for whatever reason we make them, we put doubt in each other’s minds. Women’s worst enemies are other women.

    Shouldn’t we celebrate that women have the option of working or staying home, and trust that families work it out such that they do what is best for them? Shouldn’t we support each other in our deliveries–through whatever method? Whether we decide to breastfeed or not–we are deciding based on our physical abilities, our desires, our priorities, our relationships, ourselves…

    I know I’m only really talking about motherhood issues, but the point could be extended to most things that we think we don’t measure up with.

    It probably isn’t avoidable that we feel this way… but maybe we can make headway so that our daughters don’t have to. Give them confidence in their decisions, compassion for people who experience difference issues and problems, and tolerance for people who make different decisions.

  4. Katy, OF COURSE you are one of those friends for me. I swear, at least once a week I have the thought that I wish we lived closer to one another. 🙂

    I really like what you’ve said about women being women’s worst enemies. I am still formulating future posts, but I think part of it will be suggestions for how we can form more supportive communities and relationships around each other.

    Here’s a question I just posed on Facebook, which I’d be interested in discussing here (or there) as I work on this series:

    Capitvating says that women are primarily relationship-driven, in that we derive our greatest sense of satisfaction and success from strong, intimate bonds with others. I find this to be true in my case, but am hesitant to ascribe it to gender as opposed to, say, personality. Anyone have any insights on this?

  5. So, looking at the question, I don’t think that the quote makes a lot of sense, unless I’m misunderstanding it. I mean, to some extent, isn’t that true for everybody? Aren’t people’s strong, intimate bonds (which I would assume would include your spouse, your kids, your family) generally held to be the most important aspect? Does the author(s?) of the book think that men would say otherwise? That their greatest sense of satisfaction comes from completing the audit that year or from drafting a super-hawt trust for some rich biddy?

    If it means outside of those obvious relationships, then I would disagree.

    I think we derive our greatest sense of satisfaction and success from the things that we individually believe make us the women (and men) that we are. For me, motherhood, being a good, supportive wife, and attempting to stay in touch with my creative sides are what does it for me. And because I am always on wifely and motherly duty with no clear progress reports, it is through other endeavors that I find the day-to-day feelings of success.

    I feel like I’m not expressing this well though.

  6. I think there is a tendency to arrange our worlds into “them” and “me”. It’s not necessarily a “versus” relationship, but I think there’s a separation. Folks who are open–or who become entrenched in rumors–about their “issues” (depression, eating disorders, promiscuity, addiction, etc.) are folks we wonder at and tread lightly around. Even if we share one or more frailties with such a person, admitting it would open us up to wondered at. This is a really simple example, maybe, but I think the need to appear to be–and damn it, just to BE–OKAY is what urges us to wear those brave smiles and polished exteriors.

    Going through my three years in the BFA acting program, I was shocked to find how utterly UN-alone I was in my own insecurities and self-harming attitudes and behaviors. It became such a safe place because I was no longer a secret oddity. Other women my age (and twice my age) hate their bodies and have precarious relationships with food because of it. Other women want more than the “domestic life” but somehow still yearn for security and companionship. Other women harbor shame for things well beyond their control (and for the things they could/did control, self-forgiveness is perhaps more difficult). Other women fear failure, and fear that’s where they’re ultimately headed.

    The beauty was that once we had begun revealing these “weaknesses” to each other over time, there was no knee-jerk attempt to FIX anyone. Somehow, acknowledging the humanity in others and having our own humanity validated, provided comfort. And confidence. It wasn’t a giant 3-year pity party for “the weaker sex”–though I’ve learned the value of ALLOWING oneself the occasional pity party. But it was a huge acknowledgement that life is confusing, and these are confusing times, specifically for women, and that it’s OKAY to not be perpetually okay. We can take up space and affect change (positively or negatively) and we don’t have to apologize.

    ………I’m not really sure where I was originally going with this. But I felt prompted to write. Hopefully you can glean something useful in my rambling. 🙂

  7. Katy, I think what you’re saying is that relationships are important to everyone, not just women, and that individual satisfaction comes from living authentically and in harmony with our personal strengths, values, and gifts. Yes?

    If so, this is the direction I am inclined to go as well. In general, I think it’s less useful to talk about “what women (or men) want / need” and more useful to discuss what drives individuals and how we can empower people to feel free to be who God made them to be, unapologetically and without hesitation.

    Crystal, thank you for stopping by! Here are a few useful things I gleaned from your comment…

    –Often, we’re afraid of, and shrink from, people who are open about their faults because we’re terrified of our own and don’t know what to do with people who don’t seem quite so terrified of theirs.

    –HOWEVER, creating a “safe space” where you *can* be open about your problems normalizes the fact that everyone has them, and empowers you to start facing them.

    –Part of creating that safe space is NOT “fixing” problems immediately (our own or others’), but simply being with them, allowing them to exist, and loving ourselves and others anyway.

    Lovely. Thank you. 🙂

  8. Book Update

    I’m now three chapters into the book, and I’ve gotten some interesting things out of it, but I’ve also found some ideas that are problematic for me.

    Ideas that appeal to me include: that God is both Masculine and Feminine; that God’s feminine qualities are just as important as the masculine ones; that God desires to be loved and sought after; that longing for deep, intimate connections is not a weakness but a Godlike strength; that God is a God of relationships.

    Problematic ideas include the assumption all of the above are exclusively, or even primarily, a “woman’s domain”; that a man at rest is somehow a failure, while a woman at rest is the way she should be; that women are primarily responsible for being and bringing the “beauty” in humanity; that women don’t have sex for pleasure; that a cold, heartless, controlling woman is somehow more frightening than a cold, heartless, controlling man.

    Here’s a quote that sums up what I’m finding difficult about this book so far:

    Radio talk-show host Dennis Prager reports that when the topic of the day on his show is a “macro issue” like politics or finance, his callers will be Ed, Jack, Bill, and Dave. But when the topic is a “micro issue” involving human relationships, issues like dating or faithfulness or children, his callers will be Jane, Joanne, Susan, and Karen.

    This is what I wrote in the margin of the book: As long as politics and finance are seen as “macro” issues and faith and children are seen as “micro” issues, we have a problem.

    After all, assuming that it’s true that women are, by nature, more concerned with relationships than systems, I think it speaks volumes that even in a book about how important women are, traditionally feminine issues are referred to as micro, or small-picture — while the masculine concerns are thought of as big picture. Perhaps one of our biggest problems is that we don’t value how utterly crucial and “big picture” those micro issues really are.

  9. I’m doing another drive-by comment (sorry, I promise to contribute more substance tomorrow!)…

    There’s a companion book written by these same people called “Wild at Heart” that’s targeted toward men…it focuses on the male’s desire to be the “warrior” in contrast to the female’s desire to be the “princess.” And, as I understand them, these two books play off each other in arguing that each gender has tried to adopt the other gender’s “role” too much, which has led to both being inherently unhappy (e.g., women are too obsessed with gaining control while men have just become too wimpy).

    The main problem I had with “Captivating” (well, the fraction of it that I got through) was that while certain parts resonated with me (such as the part you pointed out, Katie), I couldn’t connect with the idea that any discontent I feel stems from my ultimate desire to be Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. The authors simply don’t account for princesses like Belle, whose fulfillment came from both relationships AND embracing life on her own terms. What’s more, they seem to put a woman’s relationship with God in terms of a romance, and I just didn’t get it. I certainly don’t approach life as if I were in some rom-com, and my faith is much less about wanting a feeling that I’m being “pursued” and more about my inner hunger for peace and understanding.

    (But then, those books tend to favor the complimentarian perspective, and I am clearly in another camp.)

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts, but I thought the context of the book might help shed light on how the authors view the gender divide.

  10. Thanks for the context, Whitney. That does help. The part where it says that a boy’s Big Question is: “Do I have what it takes?” while a girl’s Big Question is: “Am I lovely?” was a bit difficult for me to swallow. I’m just not sure that’s what my Big Question is. I think my Big Question is more along the lines of: “Am I worthy of love?” or something like that.

    And yes, I tend to be in the same camp as you when it comes to complementarianism vs. egalitarianism, which probably helps explain why some of this isn’t resonating with me.

    There are some good things, though. I’ll keep you posted as I plug away on it. 🙂

  11. “As long as politics and finance are seen as “macro” issues and faith and children are seen as “micro” issues, we have a problem.”

    I know that technically ‘micro’ means small. But I always looked at the prefixes a little differently–I feel like micro means zoomed in. Like, microeconomics are about how an individual deals with their finances and stuff like that, and macroeconomics is about how a community, or a larger scale system does–so a zoomed out picture of how all the individual microeconomic systems worked together.

    It’s neither here nor there, because the problem isn’t the words used, but rather the fact that people are completely missing the point that the issues that women tend to call in about are faith and family and stuff.

    But isn’t that possibly because men feel more out-of-their-league calling in about that stuff? Not because they are any less competent, but because society tells them that they shouldn’t worry their handsome beefy heads about it.

    Just a thought.

  12. Thanks, Katy!

    Your last point is pretty important, I think, and it’s something I wrote in the margins of this book over and over: is this observation about “womankind” an inherent characteristic, or is it learned? I don’t have enough of a feel for the research to say one way or the other, but my instinct tells me that socialization impacts us far more than we realize.

    Still, I actually enjoyed the book and got some useful things out of it. I simply had to let the somewhat grating over-generalizations slide and see what there was for me personally. I also had to pretend like the authors never called me “dear heart,” because that made me want to puke. 🙂

    I’ve got another post in this series underway. I hope to put it up next week.

  13. I can still call you Dear Heart, though, right?

  14. Katy, you can call me anything you want. 🙂

  15. Wow,
    I’m interested in hearing the rest of your opinions on all of these matters, Katie, KatyJane, & Whitney…

  16. I’ve read the book a couple of times and re-read certain chapters 5 or 6 times. I agree with you that some of the terms of endearment used for the reader are a little unnecessary and sickly. I guess it depends on how ‘broken’ you are at the time of reading, it was given to me as a gift, not as an answer to an issue. As you read further the authors talk about meeting the world as a woman, more importantly meeting it as the woman that God called us to be. I guess that is the issue, who is the woman that God called us to be? What does she do in answer to His call? I’m still figuring it out….no answers here yet sorry!

  1. Pingback: Women and Happiness Part 2 — Guilt « Standing, Sitting, Lying Down

  2. Pingback: Women and Happiness Part 3 — That Insatiable Want « Standing, Sitting, Lying Down

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