No one tells you that the moment you start standing up for yourself, you also start disappointing other people. Or at least, no one told me. But I see now that’s the inevitable truth. Start taking up space, and you’ll start disappointing others at the exact same time.
In this journey of putting myself first, I’m distinguishing between two different kinds of discomfort. One is the discomfort of not getting what I want because I’m pleasing someone else. It feels like getting smaller, becoming concave. This has been a lifetime companion; I’m quite familiar with its presence. So familiar, in fact, that for a long time I didn’t even realize I was shrinking myself.
The second is more novel. This is the discomfort of asking for what I want, maybe even getting it, and disappointing or inconveniencing or upsetting someone else in the process. This discomfort sends me out of my mind. I’m so uneasy asking others to sacrifice that I want to physically flee. Take it all back. Crawl into a hole.
But when that urge arises to take it all back and relent, a small part of me floats to the surface with a question: “Is that what you really want?” When I’m honest with myself, the answer is no. What I want is what I asked for in the first place. This discomfort is simply the necessary cost of getting it.
Putting myself first is so difficult because it flies in the face of all the conditioning I’ve received as a woman. I was taught to be “nice” my whole life, above all else. Above intelligent or strong or accomplished, be nice. I needed to be a nice girl, a good girl. Make people feel comfortable. Remind them of the order of the world and their place in it. This necessarily requires sacrificing my own desires, because my desires will be at odds with those around me eventually. I was taught to accept this sacrifice, so I did. I played the role honorably.
And by doing so, I became a Karen-in-the-making. You see, I have a theory.
When I think about the phenomenon of Karens, I think this conditioning of never putting ourselves first is the first brick laid. Women are taught to toe the line and put everyone else before ourselves. We internalize that martyrdom and eventually stop asking for what we want in the big ways, the ways that really matter. It’s a deeply unsatisfying experience.
Throw systemic racism into the mix, and it’s a powder keg. In the case of a Karen moment, a white woman might see a BIPOC person doing something she considers unsightly—maybe something she herself wants but doesn’t allow herself. Her racial biases kick in. Whether conscious or not, they tell her she inherently deserves more than this Black or brown person. Their needs are being met in some way hers are not, and this is infuriating. Something snaps. She erupts with angry entitlement.
This is an oversimplification and a theory at best, and I am not asking for this kind of behavior to be let off the hook because women are oppressed. What I seek is understanding.
I genuinely believe that if women—all women, and non-binary people, and trans people—were taught to take up more space and speak up for our needs, we’d be better to one another. Because when the big needs are met, it’s easier to compromise on the little things. When you’re craving a pizza and it comes with unwanted mushrooms on top, they’re easy enough to pick off. But when you only allow yourself a salad, unwelcome mushrooms might feel like the ultimate disappointment. The deeper hunger isn’t fed. You might snap at the restaurant staff for the mistake.
If we as women can stand up for ourselves and take up more space in the moments that matter, we benefit in the long run. So does everyone around us.
That means we need to start welcoming in that second kind of discomfort.
Even in the little time I’ve had practicing, I can see it gets easier. The first time I had to fire someone, I was a wreck. I spent most of the conversation desperately explaining why I was letting them go—as if I needed to apologize for doing what was best for me, as if I needed to apologize that they didn’t support me in the way I needed. I ended up thanking them profusely for their contributions and not fully explaining the shortcomings that led to my decision. The conversation was not an accurate reflection of how I felt. I just wanted them to feel good. (And honestly, I wasn't successful in that either.)
The second time was much smoother. I still felt an awful bubbling of anxiety until it was over, and I still ended the conversation shaking, but I was strong. Level-headed. I explained myself in a concise, clear way that got the point across without being mean or petty. I didn’t mention several of the little things that went wrong because that wasn’t the point. The point was, “This isn’t working out.”
And after that second conversation, I felt infinitely better than I felt after the first. I had stood up for myself and communicated the things most important to address. That made me feel strong, empowered. I learned an important distinction to carry forward: Making people feel good doesn’t make me feel good. Standing up for myself does.
So I’m willing to live with the discomfort it brings.