My daughter is what I call an emotional martyr. She sacrifices her own feelings, her own wants, to make other people happy or to avoid conflict. Granted, she doesn’t do this all the time. If we’re trying to decide where to go to eat, and she wants pasta and everybody else wants wings, we will probably end up at Olive Garden.
But her assertiveness ends with her love of carbs. Her willingness to subvert her own wants and needs shows up most in her interactions with her older brother. He has ADHD, and, because of his impulsivity, he’s often reprimanded. If we’re running late because he’s dragging his feet, if he forgets to do chores or doesn’t complete them the way they’re supposed to be completed, if the kids get in a fight, somehow my daughter always ends up being the one apologizing. She hears me yelling or lecturing, becomes anxious, and makes excuses for him or tries to take the blame onto herself. She’ll say we’re running late because of something she was doing, she was going too slow, she couldn’t find her shoes — even when it’s not true.
And sometimes when the kids have a list of chores, they’ll announce to me that they have finished, and I’ll come to check over their work, like I always do. One time recently I lavished praise on them because they’d done such a good job completing their chores. Even the family room had been set up as if we had company coming over, the blankets folded, the pillows in place, the MP3 remotes charging in their docks. I hadn’t even asked them to do those things. And when I checked under my son’s desk in his room, which is usually a mess of dirty socks and guitar picks and food wrappers, I discovered it was perfectly clean — a first. I gave my son a huge hug because I was so proud of him.
But a couple of days later, it somehow came out that my daughter had been the one to clean underneath my son’s desk. She was worried he would get in trouble if it wasn’t clean, and she saw he wasn’t doing it, so she did it for him. She’d also cleaned the living room by herself. In fact, she had done most of the work for my son because she was worried he would get in trouble. He did clean the bathroom by himself, which my daughter hates doing, but it was clear to me she’d done way more than half the chores.
I had to have a long talk with both of them, with my daughter about not doing other people’s work for them, and with my son about how awful it is to take advantage of his sister that way. I grounded him for a day over it and gave him extra chores to do on his own. But then, of course, my daughter felt guilty. I feel like I can’t win.
My daughter’s emotional martyrdom goes beyond that of a sister sticking up for her brother. I’ve witnessed her doing this in other environments too. If we’re trying to decide what game to play for a family game night, she often gives up what she wants to avoid conflict. She has told me stories about how she avoids conflict on the playground too. Her friends will be trying to decide what to play and she abdicates to avoid confrontation. If an argument breaks out, my daughter will often give up what she wants to keep the peace, and she’ll try to smooth over any disagreements within the group. I’ve witnessed this happen a few times — I see the panic in her eyes, the tension in her shoulders. She really doesn’t want to witness conflict, much less be a part of it. She just wants everybody to be happy. Which wouldn’t be so awful if she didn’t subvert her own wishes in order to make that happen.
Her behavior tips just past the point of people pleasing. I wouldn’t want her to be a people pleaser either, but this propensity she has to give up what she wants, or even to take blame when she shouldn’t, worries me. In a culture where women still aren’t quite seen as equals, where we’re still told we look prettier when we smile, where we’re seen as aggressive if we speak directly, where a wage gap still exists, where women so frequently carry the bulk of the emotional labor in their families, I want my daughter to let go of this inclination she has to avoid conflict. Or at least, to channel it in a way that doesn’t put her own needs last.
But how do you convince a kid not to take the blame when that’s her knee-jerk reaction? I try to build her up as much as I can, to make it clear that her wants and needs are as important as anyone else’s. I tell her not to apologize when she hasn’t done anything wrong. When I see her being quiet, I ask her to speak up, assert herself, make her voice heard. I’ve bought her books about strong women, and I try to model what strong looks like, even though I worry her anxiety over confrontation was inherited directly from me. I’ve struggled with avoiding conflict for much of my life, and my anxiety still shoots through the roof anytime I think I’m going to have to face confrontation.
I don’t want this for my daughter. I want her to stand up for what she wants and what she believes in. I don’t want her to apologize when she hasn’t done anything wrong. I don’t want her to smile just because it makes other people more comfortable. I don’t want her to take on the emotional burdens of others simply to keep the peace.
I do see her starting to absorb these lessons. I see her showing strength in little ways, when she feels safe enough to do so. I’m trying to be stronger and more assertive, too. I suppose the two of us will just have to grow together.