There’s this phrase I hear a lot from my clients, friends, and colleagues. I hear it over coffee, on conference panels, and everywhere in between. And that phrase is “bad feminist.” “I feel like a bad feminist, but…” “Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but…”
And “bad feminist” is always followed by a confession that, in some way or another, the speaker’s feelings, actions, and beliefs don’t match up. “Maybe it makes me a bad feminist, but I just really want a boyfriend so I don’t have to go to family functions alone,” or “I feel like a bad feminist, but I don’t want to seem too pushy if I ask for more responsibility at work,” or “I worry I’m a bad feminist, but I never say anything when the director of my department makes sexist jokes, because I don’t want to get on his bad side,” or “Does it make me a bad feminist if I want to change my name when I get married?”
There are a lot of reasons women give for not always feeling empowered to act on their beliefs. Most of these are external circumstances, like what other people will think, professional consequences, social pressure, etc. However, ultimately the real conflict comes down to two mental processes: 1) what causes this disconnect? and 2) why do you feel bad about it?
As for #1, the reason your politics and actions don’t always match-up is because of the way you are thinking and feeling. It’s all very well to believe women should feel empowered to stand up to sexist comments, for instance. But in the moment, whatever you’re thinking and feeling about the situation will easily overpower your values. For example, if you have the thought “I should say something about that blonde joke, it’s sexist and demeaning,” you’ll want to say something. But if you also have the thought “If I say something, it’s going to be awkward, and people will think I’m a bitch,” it’s going to create the feeling of fear. And that fear is going to determine your actions. Most of the time, principles are no match for fear.
So if you want to be able to match your beliefs and actions more often, you have to learn how to recognize and change the thoughts that are causing this disconnect.
That brings me to #2. When you don’t understand what’s actually causing your conflict, it’s easy for your brain to make it mean something about you—like you’re not really principled, weak, or selfish. So then on top of feeling this disconnect between your beliefs and your actions, you also criticize yourself for it and make it mean something negative about you as a person.
So give yourself a break. You’re not a bad feminist, you’re not weak or unprincipled, and there’s nothing wrong with you. You just have two competing sets of thoughts, and no one has ever taught you how to stop thinking old thoughts and think new ones on purpose instead.
Learning to manage your mind doesn’t mean you have to give up your values or just accept what anyone else says or does. Instead, you can use thought work to retrain your brain not to be so scared of speaking up or taking action when something sexist is happening around you.
Let’s take an example: If your thought is that people might not like you if you speak up, it probably won’t work to just think “it’s important to stand up for my beliefs,” because you’ve already been thinking that, and it didn’t trump the fear.
But what if you could believe something like “Out of the other people there, I bet at least half of them are also uncomfortable and would be grateful that I spoke up.” That thought actually responds to the fear-creating thought and redirects your brain’s attention to the good you do by speaking up in more concrete terms, and away from the danger it thinks you need to be protected from.
As this example proves, if you want to be able to walk your talk, the key lies in changing your thoughts.