“If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”
As a 14 year old, I remember my best friend’s dad landing this one-liner on us when we asked to do something with the classic plea of “buuuutttt Daddddd, everyone else is doing it!” Most of us eventually learned that reflexively following others’ behaviors and expectations hurts us in the long term, if not immediately.
I remembered this one-liner when I read president of Barnard, Debora Spar’s interview commenting, “despite all the gains women have made in the past 30 years, they simply ‘can’t have it all.’” Spar argues that movements to empower women were “meant to remove a fixed set of expectations; instead, we now interpret it as a route to personal perfection.”
Is it true we have misplaced our focus by “wanting to have it all?” “All” has come to elicit a standard image of “personal perfection” to include a high-earning job, multiple children, a harmonious and romantic relationship, a house decorated to perfection, a 300-person holiday card list, triathlon-level fitness…
The challenge with this image is not that it is difficult, if not impossible, to attain- much less maintain- but that it is very unlikely that it is aligned with what is most important to you personally. It is not very probable that the one cultural image that has been set for women is identical and fits perfectly with the kaleidescope of individual and completely unique versions of a personal heaven.
The challenge with this pursuit of a universal “personal perfection” is that you will be fighting tooth and nail to achieve something that is not what you truly desire. Thus begins a cycle of personal misalignment- rather than aligning our actions and words with what is most important to us personally, we align with what is expected of us culturally.
This is especially relevant for women today- though it applies to all humans- because we live in a time when old and new cultural expectations- images of what women should do- co-exist. The “perfection” that Spar alludes to is a combination of expectations, old and new, and many of us internalize these, losing contact with our authentic values and aspirations.
It is hard to resist that temptation and stay clear to the core of what matters personally. At a time of shifting roles and norms, we are especially attuned to messaging around what we “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing. Amidst mixed messages about whether you’re supposed to be volunteering at your kid’s school at 10:00 AM or working it in a power suit, the temptation is high to keep looking for more cues about what to do.
Truth be told, it’s far more effective to get clear on what matters to you personally and let the “shoulds” go by the wayside, along with all the guilt and exhaustion. It is possible to have it all, if “all” means your personal “all.”
The more we can free ourselves of those layers of expectations to get at the core of what is important, the more we can release our full potential and work towards a one-of-a-kind personal heaven. Because living a life that someone else dreamt up is kind of like… jumping off a bridge because your friends did.