Hermione Granger Problems...
May 21, 2013 5:45 AM   Subscribe

How can I inspire people and act strong and firm and smart without letting go of wanting to also be protected and vulnerable?

Lately I have been trying hard to become stronger and smarter and more assertive because I have dreams and goals and I need to be competent if I want them to come true!! But at the same time I think that this comes at the cost of being 'protectible' of people wanting to look after you. I don't know how to strike a balance between being COMPETENT and being vulnerable and feminine? Is even wanting to keep that vulnerability something I should be ashamed of as a feminist? What do you guys think?
posted by dinosaurprincess to Human Relations (17 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You want to be competent to everyone. You want to be "protectible" to a very small, select number of people. And they'll want to do that automatically, because they love you.

So focus on the confident and competent part.
posted by ook at 5:55 AM on May 21, 2013 [14 favorites]

Best answer: But at the same time I think that this comes at the cost of being 'protectible' of people wanting to look after you.

Do you have any specific evidence that this is the case?

No matter how rich or successful or strong and firm and smart you are, you will still find yourself with a need for personal support from friends and loved ones. The difference is that when you are strong and firm and smart, you will receive protection and be looked after by people who actually love and care about you, rather than people with a savior complex just looking around for someone, anyone to "rescue."
posted by deanc at 5:59 AM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: False dichotomy, because nobody is bulletproof. Being aware of the risks you're taking, thinking clearly about them and taking the ones that it makes sense to take doesn't require you to pretend invulnerability. Advancing your dreams and values against adversity and risk requires courage and intelligence. Acting as if the adversity and risk don't exist or are irrelevant just requires you to be nuts.
posted by jon1270 at 6:02 AM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I achieve this mostly by

1. Being as nice as possible to everyone
2. Being incredibly clueless and naive about some stuff. It helps if you're genuine. I've never pretended to be either of these things. I just am.
3. Speak with intelligence.
4. Speaking politely. Stick to politically correct terms.

You can be competent and naive. I promise. It's how you speak and the words you use.

Never being ashamed of who you are is a good step though.
posted by royalsong at 6:02 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There's nothing at odds between being competent and being feminine!

Part of the skillset of being successful (for men just as much) is learning how to build a support base of people who have your back and will go to bat for you when you need them to. I can't imagine there's many successful people who did it all on their own. You're allowed to ask for help!
posted by emilyw at 6:03 AM on May 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think you need to be ashamed of wanting to be vulnerable and protected (some of the time). I also don't think there's anything wrong with being both feminist and feminine. I do think you may find it easier if you stop conflating femininity and vulnerability. Vulnerability and femininity are orthogonal concepts -- yes, we're in a patriarchal culture where the two are conflated, but they don't have to be.

Some thoughts, which may just be me rephrasing one thought in different ways:

-Context matters. In a professional context, I'm much more assertive, confident, and in command. It's an appropriate context. In a personal context, I can be more vulnerable.

I am not all things to all people; it's appropriate to present different sides of myself in different contexts, and to different people.

-It's possible to be competent and still need help in some areas. I am competent at many things, but I don't have the skill to, say, install a new faucet. I could learn to do that, or I could let someone else take care of me by doing it. The fact that I'm not competent at faucet installation doesn't mean I'm incompetent overall.

-Protection (help, assistance) can be a two-way street. I feel like the patriarchal construct has it as a hierarchy, with protection flowing from the higher to the lower levels. That's bullshit. You can protect others in some situations, and be protected by them in others.
posted by pie ninja at 6:05 AM on May 21, 2013 [19 favorites]

You can be competent and naive

While that is theoretically true, being naive does not project an aura of competence to those around you. There are people who I know are brilliant and competent and high achievers, but their persona is of someone who is naive and playful, and I keep having to snap myself out of it to remind myself, "remember. this person is an accomplished, competent person." Basically, you shouldn't have to depend on someone to be as determined as I am to "break through barriers" to look at someone's inner soul and accomplishments. It should be projected.

Competent generally implies professional, worldly, streetwise--the exact opposite of naive.
posted by deanc at 6:12 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some people say that being able to show vulnerability is the ultimate strength in a leader. Bill Clinton is an oft-cited example of this.

I say embrace your faults and your strengths equally and the rest will come. Own it. Don't play naive, but don't try to be superhuman. Nthing others that this really has little to do with femininity.
posted by gohabsgo at 6:33 AM on May 21, 2013

In my experience, there are always people who want to protect and help the charismatic and highly competent - that whole "wounded hero" thing, which perhaps is less of a thing for women, but still seems to exist.

You may find it useful to separate "vulnerable" from "feminine" in your head. It's certainly an interesting topic of study, the idea that vulnerability is feminine; and certainly, it is a gendered thing when men elect to/become vulnerable in certain ways, but you'll be a happier adult if you can separate "feeling vulnerable"/ "feeling protected" from "feeling feminine". For women who find it important to "feel feminine", I have observed it to be a big problem to feel feminine primarily when you feel weak.

Also, consider illness. It sounds a bit as though you have not had a lot of experience with serious illness striking people you view as peers. Illness really shakes up a lot of notions about gender, vulnerability and the body. Between aging, accident, illness, childbirth, exhaustion and tragedy, it's pretty easy to see that being vulnerable or being [hopefully] protected has little to do with gender or even to do with choice - it's easy to think that you can "hold on to" or "let go of" the desire to be protected or to safely feel vulnerable, but life is going to push those states on you, will you or never so.
posted by Frowner at 7:18 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Being strong, assertive and competent frequently inspires loyalty and people who are loyal to you are people around whom you can be vulnerable because they want to protect you. Hillary Clinton had "Hillaryland," a group of staff members with whom she was very close who would probably take a bullet for her. The Clinton White House frequently experienced leaks but there were never leaks from Hillaryland because they were so determined to protect her.

While not comparable to Hillary, Girls producers Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow "have tried to protect Dunham 'like a special orchid,' says Konner." My sister is a badass who works in local government and she has a posse who would go to bat for her. Part of it is definitely that she would and has gone to bat for them but when there was recent turmoil, they all supported her.

More often than not, I've seen strength and assertiveness lead to loyalty which is a way that people demonstrate that they are willing to protect you and that you can be vulnerable around them. It's like the difference between wanting to protect a pit bull and a toy poodle puppy. I want to protect the toy poodle puppy because OMG ADORABLE but I want to protect the pit bull because I know that if the pit bull was my dog, it would probably put itself between me and a freight train. As an adult, I'd rather that people want to protect me because I would do the same for them than because I am pleasant to look at and I would rather be friends with someone who's got my back than someone who I enjoy looking at.
posted by kat518 at 7:20 AM on May 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Is the desire to be vulnerable an internal desire of yours? Or are people telling you you are not sufficiently vulnerable? Because sometimes, when you're young, "why can't you be more vulnerable" is code for "you have your shit together and it makes me feel bad about myself; why can't you be a fuckup too?"
posted by like_a_friend at 7:54 AM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

You know that cliche of some super rich powerful dude who likes dominatrices in his spare time? Where despite having so much power during the day sometimes he just wants to relax by having someone else tell him what to do? I feel like that's the patriarchy's analog to the super awesome feminist have-it-all powerful role model of everything who secretly likes to be the little spoon and who cries in the bathroom when they get upset at work and occasionally likes for a guy to be chivalrous to her. (cough)

There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Every powerful, smart person, male or female, has vulnerabilities. You don't have to show them off to the world. You only show them to the people you care about, who you want to care about you. Sometimes the best part of a relationship is the fact that a person loves you for what you present to the outside world, but also for what you are when you get home at night. You just have to be willing to let yourself relax and be vulnerable to those people. Sometimes that's hard. In my experience and opinions, though, I think it also just adds another filter on prospective life partners and friends: will they lose any respect for me if they know I cried in the bathroom after that difficult meeting? If not, then they're usually a wonderful addition to my small, tight circle of loyal friends and loved ones -- an extremely valuable thing to have.

People will be intimidated by you. One of my grandmothers was always intimidated by me, even from a young age, and wouldn't stay on the phone with me for more than 60 seconds. I had people I thought were perfectly happy causal acquaintances and peers throughout college inform me later on that I'd always scared the crap out of them. I hear that I appear unapproachable, or whatever. This is always a surprise to me -- I think I'm a friggin riot with wonderful hilarious jokes that make me appear friendly. Apparently not. I always feel a little bad, but not so much that I prefer to look more like a traditionally feminine vulnerable person. I'd rather err on the side of intimidation with the general public, and only really show any other side of myself to the people I trust.
posted by olinerd at 8:04 AM on May 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

The word vulnerable means "capable of being wounded" – are you sure this is an ideal to pursue?
posted by zadcat at 9:01 AM on May 21, 2013

Best answer: Look, I'm female, I work with lots of men, I generally come across as competent, I don't get challenged all that much,people generally do what I want them to and some people are scared of me. People also like to work for me. That does not mean that some of my colleagues, both male and female, are not very protective of me. Likewise I am very protective of my teams, my family and my friends. And my family loves to look after me. But there's a place for being vulnerable, a place for being assertive and a place for scaring the crap out of people. And sometimes you can be all these things with the same people at different times.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:19 AM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A big part of vulnerability is being open about yourself and your life and your goals and desires. Being vulnerable isn't at odds with being strong. For example, being open about your desire to grow and be a strong person is a vulnerable act because you are disclosing something that is important to you.

I wouldn't advocate being intentionally naive or dumbing yourself down intentionally on any front. That's being dishonest, which is like the opposite of vulnerable.
posted by mermily at 12:19 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Showing vulnerability will strengthen your professional ties. This is true regardless of gender or age. The tone is very important, e.g.

"The board meeting tomorrow is really making me worried. I'm nervous that Bob will become defensive like last time. I'm planning to contain it by skipping to the next agenda item and returning later to the controversial points, but I think there's a good chance he'll refuse to move on." --- You are calm, you're not expecting the listener to magically take over and solve your problems, you are being rational and resourceful. This makes you vulnerable & accessible, and makes people want to help you.

vs "I really need help with the board meeting tomorrow! I'm so nervous about Bob! He was so defensive last time. I've been eating all day out of nerves. This is so stressful!" --- You are not calm, you are focused on the problem and not suggesting any solutions, you are looking for someone to rescue you instead of just provide help. This will weaken your authority.
posted by cheesecake at 3:57 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreed that this is not an either-or thing. I'm a competent, independent adult with a graduate education, a good salary, and a lot of professional visibility. I travel on my own a fair amount and pursue my goals energetically. I don't think I project as the damsel in distress at all.

But if I ever get into trouble, personal or professional, a lot of people have my back, and I know exactly which people I can talk to when I'm upset about something or need resources or help of some kind. Sometimes that's payback from people I've helped in the past. Sometimes it's because they respect my vision and what I do. Sometimes it's personal affection. Sometimes it's because I have cultivated talented, competent, awesome friends. It's nothing to do with being "feminine" and everything to do with being an interdependent human in a community (or several communities). That's a good position to be in regardless of your gender.

So go ahead and be your most competent self, but also do your best for other people, as much as you can without screwing up your own time and boundaries. I think you'll find that they're usually there for you in turn.
posted by shattersock at 6:40 PM on May 21, 2013

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