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Barbie and the Paradox of Competing Demands

Barbie and the Paradox of Competing Demands

I know I'm late to the party. Still, I had to jump on the Barbie Movie moment and share an unforgettable Barbie scene towards the movie's end about the Barbies' choices once Ken had returned from the real world where patriarchy ruled. It reminded me of my own confusing time and crucial lessons from my own competing demands and my decisions.

The paradox each of us faces is this: Do we feed into society's expectations or choose to listen to what we know about ourselves? To make any impact in the world, I must choose who I listen to carefully, whether it's society's expectations of my life or my calling on it. I often find a mismatch between what my society wants and how I see myself adding to it.

I think Lauren Pucket-Pope's article in Elle on the Barbie Movie, "Let's Never Stop Questioning What Barbie Is Really About," shared the best observation of the paradox we live in.

“Barbie is a plastic paradox. She is a narrow vision of womanhood, and she is also an everywoman. She has hundreds of jobs and has never worked a day. (She is also, importantly, not alive.) She is more than 60 years old and eternally, vaguely 20-something. She is sexy but sexless. She’s a child’s plaything, with influence felt widely on adults.”

In contrast to Pucket-Pope's paradoxical statement, America Ferrera's character Gloria in the Barbie Movie powerfully articulates the struggles of the paradox in being a woman today.

"It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. We have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong.

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can't ask for money because that's crass.

You have to be a boss, but you can't be mean. You have to lead, but you can't squash other people's ideas.

You're supposed to love being a mother but don't talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men's bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you're accused of complaining.

You're supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or threaten other women because you're supposed to be a part of the sisterhood. But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So, find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful.

You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.

It's too hard! It's too contradictory, and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact, that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

Feeling that statement can be painful. But it’s not just society’s conflicting expectations of women; it’s the gap we feel in our gut between those expectations and our understanding of who we are in the world and what we can be. Moving from “what will people think” to “what I am” in this world that can be hard to navigate or express.

In the past, I found it easier to go along with the (external) expectations placed on me rather than advocate for the (internal) values I held. I now recognize those as competing demands. What expectations are set upon me by others, what I see as my calling, and how I choose to be in the world.

I first heard the concept of “competing demands” while reading Brene Brown's book, I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I am Enough,” published in 2007 and I was in the throes of a new job requiring new demands and felt constantly pulled in all directions, so much so, that I failed or was too slow at making decisions about the role I was in. I based my responses on what I thought people wanted from me at the moment and looking back, I believe this lack of decision-making made me appear weak and had people question my leadership capability. I felt the sting of "not enough" shame, and it left me paralyzed.

The shame of not being good enough also left me exhausted and in an impossible situation. That was until I could see the paradox I found myself in. I couldn’t make responses based on my values and be responsive until I saw the many contradictions I was in. Brene Brown's research shows how we must recognize our shame triggers to respond mindfully with our strengths instead of worrying about others' opinions. This is especially true if I am to bring any influence into the world. I must pay attention to my gifts and share them by making choices that often shrug off other’s expectations.

Understanding the impossibility of the position placed on me by others, I became aware of my ability to choose my response based on my values and priorities. With trial and error, I defined what was acceptable and unacceptable for myself. By seeing and engaging in my life's many competing priorities, I made pivots, taking stock of my needs and those for the situation instead of standing on my head and contorting into someone I wasn’t or was unwilling to become to fix it. 

Brene’s book is easy to understand, and her website includes guides and printed materials to help you discover how to break free of your particular shame triggers, including a five-page document to walk you through identifying those triggers. All relate to the shame triggers and feelings that you are "not enough." You can identify and break free of the unrealistic expectations. Brene Brown’s work shares additional information on the distinction between guilt and shame, but that is another topic she covers, and believe me, her work and website cover this, too.

In the end, the Barbie movie left me a little emotional, and it took me back to painful but necessary lessons on the challenges of being a woman while navigating the paradoxical demands of society and my priorities. I now saw a framework for grown women piloting life and choosing their values instead of falling into others' expectations.

When America Ferrera's character shares her monologue about the multitude of paradoxes and competing demands each of us faces, she reminded us we have a choice ~ to break free from expectations or believe in the priorities, gifts, and talents we have. She presented each Barbie with the paradox of the expectations or what was in each of them, which I recognized within myself so many years ago.

I believe that each day, we must make a choice based on personal priorities and values, or we could fall into the “never enough” pressures from those in society. Carpe diem and choose wisely, my friends!

DeShawn Wert teaches intelligent, motivated, professional women how to get stuff done so they CAN relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor! Let's explore how you do your best work together. An Ericson-trained life coach and JTS Coaching-trained ADHD coach, DeShawn is a member of good standing in the ADHD Coaches Organization. She's been a contributor to several books on living with ADHD, including Dr. Dale Archer's book, The ADHD Advantage, and Laurie Dupar's series called, More Ways to Succeed with ADHD.

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