The Protective Phrase Women Have Been Conditioned *Not* To Say

Why do three little words cause so much trouble?

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I need rest. I can’t take that on right now. No. What do all these phrases have in common? Well, they’re all simple in composition, they all establish a boundary for the person declaring them, and they all manage to ruffle a lot of feathers — to say the least. But why? Why is it often so difficult for a female to simply communicate their boundaries and what they need in a given moment and let that be the end of it? The answer is a complicated one, say experts.

“In my opinion, when women say, ‘I need help’ or ‘I need a break,’ we are viewed as weak or not as competent as our male counterparts,” says Dr. Tamika Lett, educator and founder of leadership development firm T. L. Payne Consulting. “Despite not taking care of ourselves, which can result in mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, women are also seen as a liability.”

Boundary-setting phrases like those mentioned above can also sometimes be interpreted as anti-feminist, says Emily Pardy, licensed therapist and founder of Ready Nest Counseling. “In a society where women have fought so hard to gain equality and opportunity, it can be seen as a step in the wrong direction when a woman acknowledges healthy boundaries and limitations. It’s ironic, truly, when the most feminist thing you can do is know yourself well and stand up for your needs.”

Therapist Amber Trueblood seconds this notion, adding that even a statement as benign as “I’ll need to think about that” is an uncomfortable response for many women. “As the culturally appointed ‘nurturing’ gender, women often feel pressured to place the needs of others ahead of their own,” says Trueblood. “Unfortunately, many interpret putting their own mental and emotional needs before the needs of others as unkind, not compassionate, or selfish.”

This sentiment is particularly prevalent in women of color. Dr. Lett explains that the stigma surrounding gender bias and race has been most recently evident in the sports field. Case in point: Simone Biles. Yes, the 2020 Summer Olympics brought with it plenty of headline-making moments, but the most prominent was the gymnast’s monumental decision to withdraw from several final competitions, citing mental health concerns. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” said Biles, who is the most decorated American gymnast of all time, in an Instagram. “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard — hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!” What resulted from this news was an internet storm of opinions on an otherwise simple and more than understandable decision.

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Just weeks before Biles’ headline-making decision, pro tennis player Naomi Osaka also caused a media stir by withdrawing from the 2021 French Open to prioritize her mental health. “Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety,” explained Osaka in her Instagram announcement. “The tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”

Dr. Lett explains that Osaka and Biles have both put a spotlight on the idea that health is holistic, and includes mind, body, and spirit. “[They’ve also exposed] that Black women have to work harder at demonstrating their worth and abilities, which makes them more susceptible to mental health concerns that are not often addressed due to stigmas surrounding women and the Black and brown community,” she says. “What these women have done is start the conversation about well-being and normalize asking for help and being in charge of your self-care.”

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Timing is also of the essence here. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, mental health and self-care have been prioritized and discussed like never before. “[The pandemic] has contributed to highlighting and addressing well-being and owning your ability to say ‘I need help’ and ‘I am not OK,’” says Dr. Lett. “We have to take steps now to normalize that working to your burnout does not mean you are resilient or you are a better worker. What it now demonstrates is that a person needs to address healthy boundaries surrounding work and your ability. Taking a break is not quitting.”

So how does one turn the tide for themselves? Well, for starters, pick up a new vocabulary that includes phrases like the ones suggested by Trueblood below:

  • “Let me think about that.”
  • “I’ll get back to you.”
  • “That won’t work for me.”
  • “I’m not going to take that on right now.”
  • “Thank you for asking, but no.”
  • “I need help with this.”
  • “I need a break.”
  • “Will you take care of dinner tonight?”
  • “I’m going to do ______ for myself.”
  • “I’ve changed my mind.”
  • “No, I don’t know where the scotch tape is.”
  • “Let’s talk about it next month.”
  • “I’m not comfortable with that.”

Trueblood suggests also observing others who use healthy phrases effectively and, without shame or guilt, to bolster your reserve and breed confidence. “Lastly, support those around you who prioritize their mental wellness,” she says. “We all benefit from members of our larger community prioritizing self-care and self-kindness. It’s far easier to have compassion for others when you first have compassion for yourself.”

Pardy agrees that engaging in dialogue surrounding self-care is key here to keep the momentum (sparked by public figures like Biles and Osaka) going. “When we ask for help we are exposing ourselves as human, which we can all relate to, and we’re saying it’s OK,” she says. “This permission is recursive, creating an open dialogue where women can lower their guards and support one another instead of compare themselves to each other. Instead of, ‘How do you do it all?’ we should be asking, ‘How do you find balance?’ Instead of, ‘You work so hard’ we should be asking, ‘What keeps you motivated?’ As we deconstruct the idea that ‘she has it all together, so should I’ we begin to shape a world where limitations are seen as progress instead of failure.”