I’m not good enough – How patriarchy blindness contributes to burnout in women

In their ground-breaking book Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain why women experience burnout differently than men - and provide a simple, science-based plan to minimize stress, manage emotions and live a more joyful life. In this extract, they discuss ‘patriarchy blindness’ and how its two components make women constantly feel like they’re not good enough.


Patriarchy Blindness #1: Human Giver Syndrome

At the heart of Human Giver Syndrome lies the deeply buried, unspoken assumption that women should give everything, every moment of their lives, every drop of energy, to the care of others. “Self- care” is, indeed, selfish because it uses personal resources to promote a giver’s well- being, rather than someone else’s.

Human Giver Syndrome is the framework on which the “second shift” hangs— the shrinking but ongoing inequality in the time and effort spent on childcare and housekeeping between men and women— forty hours per week for women versus an hour and a half for men, globally. Even in the most balanced nations— which include the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada— women still spend 50 percent more time in this unpaid labor. For example, the difference was twenty- six hours per week for women, versus sixteen hours for men in the United Kingdom, in 2016.

Worse, Human Giver Syndrome is the framework on which sexual violence hangs— the basic belief that men have a right to women’s bodies, and if a woman looks attractive to a man or puts herself in a position where a man can take control of her body, well, that’s what happens; men have a right to take what they can get. This isn’t just an emotional and cultural dynamic. It has been and still is a literal, legally sanctioned reality. For millennia in the United Kingdom, a woman and everything she possessed became the legal property of the man who married her. Only recently did a woman gain the right to keep her own property when she married (1882), to keep her name (1924), and to not be raped by her husband (1991).

Human Giver Syndrome is so deeply ingrained, it takes being confronted with statistics and dates to reveal the imbalances and injustice to us. Without large- scale, objective measurement and historical perspective, it’s all too easy to feel comfortable with the familiar inequalities: Human givers don’t own or control anything, not even their bodies, so when we hear about a woman being sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted by a man, we lament the ways an accusation of sexual assault or harassment will hinder the man’s promising career, and suggest that the woman doing the accusing brought it on herself. Accusers get death threats, and the accused is put on the Supreme Court.

In short, it’s easy to be blind. So how do we keep our eyes open, and help others to see? When we teach college students about human beings and human givers, we ask, “What’s the solution?” What do you think? The first answer students give is nearly always, “Raise everyone to be human beings!” Let’s think about that for a second. What would a world look like in which everyone was a human being, competitive, acquisitive, and entitled? One philosophy major, faced with this image, blurted out, “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” quoting Thomas Hobbes, who saw the “state of nature” as a “war of all against all,” because “man, whose joy consisteth in comparing himself

with other men,” is “continually in competition for honour and dignity.”

If we raise everyone to be “human beings,” the result is eternal war and/or, if we follow Hobbes, totalitarian government. Fun! And the fact that so many students automatically assume that the category “human beings”— that is, men— is the default and “human giver”— that is, women— is the alternative, is itself a symptom of Human Giver Syndrome. It is “patriarchy blindness.”

Now, what if . . . just what if . . . we raised everyone to be a version of a human giver? What if we assumed it was every person’s moral responsibility to be generous and attentive to the needs of others? What if we assumed no one was simply entitled to have what they wanted from another person, but everyone was supposed to try to help others whenever they could?

No one would sit watching television while the other cooked dinner and did the dishes, unless both had mutually agreed that what worked best for both of them was that one should rest while the other gave. No law would allow anyone to take control of another person’s body, because no one would expect that right. No one would feel the mess of doubt, betrayal, sadness, and rage that comes from being gaslit, because no one would gaslight. And when anyone dropped into the pit of despair, the givers who surround them would turn toward them with generous compassion, without judgment. The absence of the patriarchy (ugh) makes being a human giver safer.

Human Giver Syndrome is deeply entrenched and it takes time and practice to eradicate it. Even after spending decades working in sexual violence prevention and response, Emily still notices periodic twinges of Human Giver Syndrome, fleeting thoughts of “Why did she go into his room?” or “Why didn’t she leave?” The goal is not to eliminate these ideas entirely; it is to spot them earlier and earlier, because they’re easier to uproot when they’re small. To recognize when Human Giver Syndrome may be blinding her to the patriarchy, Emily uses a simple gut check. She asks herself, “How would I feel about this, if it were a man instead of a woman [or vice versa]?”

Or, “Am I assuming this woman has a moral obligation to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, or attentive to the needs of others?” and “Am I assuming this man has a moral right and obligation to be competitive and acquisitive, to take and have anything he can, regardless of the impact on others?”

Human Giver Syndrome blinds us to the patriarchy (ugh), because it constrains our ability to view gender- based inequalities, imbalances, and injustices as unfair. But it’s not the only reason a person might be blinded.

Patriarchy Blindness #2: Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry

In Emily’s long- distance-cycling days, she noticed that a flat part of her ride was flatter on the way home than on the way out. “Huh?” you ask. “How could the same road be flatter going south than it was going north?”

In fact, the “flat” road had a grade of less than 1 percent above horizontal. It looked flat, but if it were actually flat, it would have felt the same in both directions, or maybe more difficult on the way home, when her legs were fatigued from the twenty- plus miles she had just ridden. Yet it felt noticeably easier on the way home. The strangest part is that, because it looked flat, her brain and her legs interpreted the sensation of zipping over the southbound road as what flat was supposed to feel like, and the difficulty of the northbound ride as somehow more difficult than flat was supposed feel.

This sort of bias is called the “headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry,” because people tend to notice their adversarial headwinds and not their helpful tailwinds. It shows up in all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations. Researchers have found that Americans generally believe that the electoral college and campaign finance systems give unfair advantage to whichever political party they disagree with most, regardless of what the evidence says. People similarly believe their preferred sports team had more disadvantages going into a game than the other team. People even report that their parents were easier on their siblings than on themselves— no matter what their siblings have to say about it. In so many ways, most of us tend to ignore or forget about advantages we’ve received, but remember the obstacles we’ve overcome, because the struggle against the obstacles requires more effort and energy than the easy parts.

Falling victim to headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry isn’t the same as being a jerk. Jerks complain about being treated unfairly when the reality is they’re being treated fairly instead of being given preferential treatment. But most of the time, when people insist, for example, that women don’t have it harder than men, they’re expressing headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry. When National Public Radio (NPR) covers a new study that shows male doctors are half as likely to introduce a fellow female doctor as “Dr. So- and- so,” the Facebook comments in response to the story are full of women saying, “How screwed up is it that we need a study to prove what every woman knows?” and men saying, “What about teh menz?” Those men aren’t necessarily jerks; they’re just oblivious of their tailwinds.

White people inflict their headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry on people of color all the time; the road looks flat, so how could it be any less flat for people of color? It must be that the brown person just isn’t as strong a cyclist or they’re lazy or entitled. It can’t be a problem with the road. White people are not all jerks, but we are, most of us, victims of the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry.

People from affluent families do it to poor people; citizens do it to immigrants; nondisabled people do it to people with disabilities. People in any dominant group find it impossible to believe that the road isn’t as flat for others as it is for them; they only know they’re working really hard.

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