Controlling The Narrative…

… How We as Women Can Reaffirm Our Credibility By Refusing To Justify Our Actions

by Erin L. Cody

This is a call to arms for women everywhere – stop explaining yourselves.

As women, we spend an inordinate amount of time justifying our life choices and allowing ourselves to be questioned over every decision we make, as if we need to convince the world that we are capable of independent thought. We let ourselves be “mansplained” to on subjects in which we are clearly the experts because we don’t want to look rude. We willingly submit to interrogations from friends, family, and even complete strangers over why we wore that dress, how we could possibly enjoy that reality television show, and when we are going to start that family. And to what end – when was it decided that anyone who identifies as female needs to stand before the tribunal of “other people” and successfully prove that she is an adult?

Indulge me a personal example to elaborate. Recently, I’ve come under some pressure (well-intended as it is) from several fellow adults because I don’t want to own real estate right now. (Notice that I’m not explaining why I choose not to own – I don’t want to buy a house because reasons, and the entire point of this article is that “because reasons” is the only justification that we as women need to give.) It started innocuously enough – a tip about a good real estate agent here, a mention of a move-in-ready house in a desirable neighborhood there. None of these interested me in the slightest, because I’m not in the market for a house. When those little nibbles failed to get a rise out of me, though, the inquiries came on with more force – don’t you know that interest rates are going to skyrocket soon? When are you going to settle down? Aren’t you aware of what a great investment a house can be? (For the record, I work in consumer collections law, which involves a fair amount of delinquent mortgages and home equity loans, so I have seen how bad that “great investment” can be.) Before I knew it, I was being hit on all sides by real estate cheerleaders who were intent on convincing me to be aggressive, be-be aggressive about a 30-year mortgage and a white picket fence.   For those who are more partial to football, I was deep in the pocket of Team Home Ownership’s defensive line, desperately searching for an open receiver.

My initial reaction was to try to explain all of the reasons why I didn’t want to buy real estate right now – a 30-year commitment, the time and energy required for home upkeep, and a lack of anything in my neighborhood below a $250K asking price among them – but explaining only invited more questions. The more I tried to justify my choices, the more I seemed to open myself up to having my thought process, my maturity, and my very status as a credible adult be questioned. Try as I might, my Team Renter quarterback was perpetually being sacked.

What was a girl to do? Should I have kept searching for justifications for my choice not to buy real estate, hoping to find one that placated the masses? Should I try to redirect the conversation to something related to my career, my stock portfolio, or some other traditional harbinger of adulthood in order to “prove” that I was worthy of the privilege of making my own choices? Or should I have plugged my ears with my fingers, shut my eyes, and pretended not to see or hear anyone who questioned my judgment? (That option was by far my favorite, but it wouldn’t have done much to support me as a credible adult.) Finally it hit me – why did I need to respond to these questions at all?

One of the first concepts taught in media-relations training is the art of “controlling the narrative.” In short, if you want to be perceived as a strong, capable, and credible individual, you don’t limit yourself by answering the questions that you are asked; instead, you talk about the questions that you want to answer. In my earlier example, I lost control of the narrative by continuously answering questions to justify my choice, when I should have simply said, “this is what I want, so I’m doing it.” In the case of women in general, we willingly cede control of the narrative on a regular basis. Every time we agonize over explaining our choices, we lend credence to the position that others should be allowed to question our judgment ad nauseum. In turn, the more we allow others to question our judgment, the more credibility we lose as human beings capable of independent thought.

If you’re thinking right now that my experience is unique, just take a minute to be honest with yourself. Chances are, you’ll remember some point in your life (or some point within the past 24 hours) when you have gone out of your way to explain choices that should, as an adult, be rightfully your own. “I bought those expensive shoes, but don’t worry, they were on sale.” “I know the commute is longer, but I live in the suburbs because I like the open space.” “I really want that 7-layer chocolate cake, but it’s okay because I did two hours of CrossFit this morning.” These statements come out of our mouths every day, and all of them play into the idea that women need to justify every action we take to any family member, friend, or total stranger who decides that they have an opinion about us. We’re giving away the narrative, and with it our credibility, without even realizing it.

Unfortunately, it will be a while before the rest of the world stops providing us with their sage commentary on our life choices. So, ladies, it’s up to us to regain control of the narrative by abandoning the urge to justify everything we want, need, say, or do. We’re adults, we have brains in our heads, and we have free will in our hearts – thus, we have the right to think, say and do what we want without having to endure the scrutiny of the peanut gallery.

What does controlling the narrative look like, you ask? How about, “I bought really expensive shoes today and they are awesome.” Or, “My fabulous suburban home has a huge open-concept floor plan and an acre of backyard space.” And of course, “I really want that 7-layer chocolate cake, and I’m going to have it because forget you, that’s why.” It won’t be easy. You’ll get some strange looks from people who are accustomed to being able to question your life choices with impunity. You might be accused of being rude, of being unladylike, or of being on a quest to fully clog your arteries before age 30. But by refusing to justify your own choices, you’ll be reclaiming your right to make them. By shutting down the peanut gallery when they question your judgment or try to exert undue influence your decisions, you’ll be reaffirming your own credibility as someone who thinks for herself and acts accordingly. So please, for the love of credible and capable adult women everywhere, stop explaining yourself.

Erin is a local attorney and unapologetic feminist, whose favorite justification for anything is “because reasons.”

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