I’m a mild-mannered Mormon woman. How do I learn to stand up for myself? (plus an AMG apology)

We have a great question in the line-up this week, readers.  But first I hope you will indulge a personal note. There’s a profile of me up this week at CNN.com.  It includes a story from my book The Book of Mormon Girl about the 2008 Proposition 8 campaign, when, in a moment of emotion, I destroyed some Yes on 8 campaign materials.   In the book, I tried to make it clear that I acted out of anger, and that I’m not proud of it.  Let me reiterate that here for folks who just read the profile:  I don’t look on what I did that day as one of my finest moments, and I apologize.  The fact that I was not able to support Proposition 8 does not mean that I disrespect those who did out of conviction or obligation.

And now, on to this week’s question.

Dear AMG:

Growing up in an orthodox Mormon home, it was important for me, the oldest and the only girl, to be nice and compromise. Usually that meant self sacrificing. While I know that everyone has their own perspective, and everyone deserves to own that, it doesn’t mean that I have to get taken advantage of. In the fine art of learning to stand up for yourself, how do I figure out how to do that? How do I figure out which battles are worth fighting?


Stiffening Spine in LA

Dear Stiffening Spine:

I belong to a group of Mormon women—most of us 40 and older–who converse regularly on-line, and the questions you’re asking right now regularly bubble up to the surface of our conversations.  How was it we learned over the years to give away so much ground?  How do we unplug all those learned habits that mean we are always deferring, always smiling, and yet—whether we like to admit it or not—often feeling bruised, spent, lost, or angry inside.

And it’s not just women in Mormonism.  Oh, no.  I see plenty of self-sacrificing men in the world of Mormonism too.  I see plenty of self-sacrificing people in the wide, wide world who would, I suspect, be better served and better capable of serving others if they would learn to respect and protect themselves.

But how, how to begin?

I wish I had a clear five-step process for you.  I’m sure the local library has a shelf full of self-help books with glossy, airbrushed author photos and clear five-step processes laid out in bullet points.

What I have instead is an actual, messy life, with lots of missteps and things I wished I’d done differently (note above) as I’ve learned what my work in this world is and how to get it done.

One thing that has helped has been trying to discern what my work in this world it.  Have you started started a dialogue with yourself about what your work in this world is?  Try to discern what really matters to you, what brings you the most joy.  It may not be just one thing.  It may be many things at once, and it may include helping other people.  But it does not mean accommodating everyone who asks for something just because they ask.  To illustrate the concept, I’ll use the old Mormon pioneer hymn, “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel.”  The song says, “Put your shoulder to the wheel, push along, do your duty with a heart full of song, we all have work, let no one shirk, put your shoulder to the wheel.”  Now, imagine—lots of wheels on the big wagon of creation.  God put you in front of a specific wheel.  It does not help the big wagon of creation roll along when you ditch your wheel and run to push along someone else’s wheel just because they’re fussing about it.  You can be kind and encouraging, but you are here to do the work God sent you to do.  If you know what that work is and feel a sense of sacred purpose in it, you can and will be less available to every one who comes to you feeling entitled to take a little piece of you.

Similarly, I’ve learned that it’s okay not to give away your words, feelings, thoughts, heart, soul to just anyone who asks.  You do not need to explain yourself, give yourself, or apologize to everyone who stops by.  It’s okay to know your own mind, hold your own feelings close, and maintain your boundaries when you are dealing with people who you don’t know well enough to trust, or with people who don’t appear to be wiling to enter into a respectful dialogue of equals.  A healthy reserve fosters dignity, and dignity is a form of power.  You decide when to enter the conversation, and how to participate.  If you find yourself in a situation where the game is set up against you—where you’re pretty sure your voice will not be valued—you don’t need to play.  This may sound like contradictory advice—how can I be assertive if I remain quiet?  There is a difference, though, between the quiet that is afraid to speak and the quiet that knows better than to speak where the voice will not be valued.

Along the way, I’ve also learned to face my own perfectionism.  From one oldest daughter to another, sounds like you’re a perfectionist too.  Gently remind yourself that it is not the end of the world to be wrong.  Everyone has been wrong sometimes.  I sure have—see above, for just one of many examples.  Everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves room to learn from them, including you.  When you make a mistake, you can apologize, but you must not treasure it up as evidence against yourself.  God loves you.  Your nearest and dearest love you. And you know I’ll still love you.  It’s Mormon doctrine that we come to this world to gain experience—and not only through perfection or the pretense of perfection, but through choices, better and worse.  When you give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them, you give yourself permission to extend yourself into new situations and new, growthful challenges.

Just as you will be wrong sometimes, you will be afraid sometimes.  I am afraid sometimes.  Okay, let’s revise that.  I am afraid more than sometimes.  I am afraid for reasons I can’t fully explain.  But as long as I am doing my work, I am willing to be afraid.  There are lots of scriptures I recite to myself about how “God has not given us the spirit of fear.”  And I love as well this advice from the African-American poet Audre Lorde:  “We can learn to work through fear the same way we can learn to work when we are tired.” I have learned to work when and even though I am afraid.  When I am afraid, I reach out to trusted friends and share my feelings.  I pray.  I clean my house—yes, housecleaning can be a meditative practice.  I go to yoga (which is very good for the spine, by the way). Then, I start again.  Whenever you are afraid because you are doing your work, remember that you are in good company.

For I would rather have my shoulder to the wheel in the mud with all of the other women and men who make mistakes and are afraid sometimes.  We want you with us too, Sister Spine-builder.  We miss you.  We need you.  The world needs you to do the work you came here to do.

Can I get an amen, readers?  A word of support for Sister Spinebuilder?  Who else has spine-building wisdom to share?

Follow @askmormongirl on Twitter.  Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com.


Filed under Women

38 responses to “I’m a mild-mannered Mormon woman. How do I learn to stand up for myself? (plus an AMG apology)

  1. mrsgroovus

    I don’t have a blog so it won’t let me “like” but I Like very much. I am loving your blog, loving your candidness. I think sometimes that the church breeds co-dependent women. I am just another good example of this. But it isn’t the church.. It is the people who have passed down this unfortunate tradition of smile and say yes no matter the personal ramification. We have to relearn and teach our children that while we serve others we need to put our families and ourselves first. Not for selfish reasons but so that we can be strong. It is hard to uplift someone else if we are dragging in the mud behind our own wheel. I am trying to learn this. I think I am able to do more good for others. By no means is my own cog running smoothly but when I changed my perspective on it being ok to take care of my own before I try fix everyone else.. what a relief. That doesn’t mean I stop helping others I just try to keep in in perspective.

  2. “When you make a mistake, you can apologize, but you must not treasure it up as evidence against yourself.” I love that line; there is a great and useful principle here, but an inherent paradox. I agree with you, but we are both wrong because there is something personal that can be “treasured up” in mistakes. Each mistake is more evidence, a dot to be added to the picture. When you successfully connect those dots, you can see more clearly what it is that has disempowered you.

  3. jan

    I don’t have time right now to spill but let me say that growing up in the Mormom Church and being from Mormon pioneer heritage (now those were some rebellious bitches) and being born in the 60s and growing up during the 70s has given me the strength to stand up for myself have given me waaaay too much room to stand up for the right, sometimes to the point of fault. Spine-ful to a fault.

  4. Christi

    Oh my . . . this isn’t at all what I’ve been esposed to. This is sooo encouraging! I was first exposed to the mormon faith some thirty years ago. One of the most disturbing things for me has been to lose those that I love as they quickly lost their voices . . . and a few of the women . . . themselves! For years their voices became one . . . their testimonies word for word . . . the same. I am noticing a difference recently . . . I don’t know what it is . . . but I love it! I am so encouraged!!! Blessings!!!

  5. Rachael

    As the youngest child of 7 siblings and a daughter of a working mother, I was often the one not having to do the compromising. I am often too selfish, too candid or too bold, not thinking about whom I am speaking to when I speak. My husband comes from the kind of family you describe. It has been a great learning experience to better know when to hold my tongue and to learn how to say yes rather than my typical no. I admire the women in my life who drop everything for their loved ones. I have often been the beneficiary of such selflessness.

    While you learn how to say no, trust me when I say that your example lifts other women in your life who are learning how to say yes.

  6. As a dad who only has daughters (9, 3, and 1), you can imagine how I struggle with this very issue (and others closely related to it!). The advice I try to give my girls is to start standing up for themselves now. 9 is easy, 3 gets it kind of, and 1 just babbles at me. BUT, I hope that by teaching them this principle young, I can have daughters that grow up confident in themselves and confident in their abilities. Is this approach a mistake? I hope not. Do I worry that I’m creating hyper-aggressive girl thugs? Sometimes. Do I regret doing it now as opposed to waiting until its too late? Not once, ever!

  7. avidreader

    I was raised to be good Mormon girl. l read the book: “The curse of the good girl raising authentic girls with courage and confidence by Rachel Simmons.” and read a bit on the CODA (Co-dependent No More sites.) I realized emotionally and intellectually it was ok and right for me to stand up for myself. I my Mormon Bubble I didn’t have a single Mormon woman in my life who had actually stood up for herself. The idea of doing something I had never seen or witnessed was very scary.

    I started seeking out women who could communicate their thoughts and needs respectfully and this was very important to have support and a positive role models. So asking this question here is a great first step. I attended some Codependent classes and read the manual; it was at least a guide to me of what constitutes healthy and unhealthy boundaries.

    I also took a speech and debate class and learned how to see both sides and then respectfully and neutrally advocated for one side or the other. This was a skill that was not modeled in my home or in my young women’s program. Taking a class and practicing my communication and learning to self advocate in a safe nurturing enviornment was a great baby step before doing the same in real life. It has been a decade of hard work but I am authentic and happy.

    • i like the ideas you brought up….to train oneself to understand healthy boundaries…and learning how to see both sides and respectfully advocate…Thank you.

    • DT

      avidreader, this is an interesting comment: that we can go out and LEARN how to communicate respectfully, and be more assertive. I know this is true because I’ve watched my husband over the years become a manager, and take all the training classes required, etc. NOW, he responds without emotion and helpfully points out the situation in a way it seems I never can, never learned it, was never modeled by my parents. He didn’t used to be like this. So I know it can be learned.

  8. I just found your blog and I find it intriguing. I do have advice for Sister Spinebuilder. I think a lot of times in the church and in the world in general we are told that the feelings that come to us (naturally in my opinion) are bad and we are not to have them or express them. In fact, I even went to a chiropractor who told me this week that, because I looked stressed and said I felt a little overwhelmed with all I had to do, that he had just taught a lesson on murmuring and how maybe anytime we complain about anything at all we are murmuring and just like Lamen and Lemuel. (I will not be returning to him. I can only stand so much hokum in my life) Anyway, I have found through years of sad experience that feelings are just feelings, they are neither good nor bad. You can feel anyway you need to. Don’t be afraid to feel things; I believe that the Spirit works through our feelings and helps us in this way. So for one thing that might help to build your spine, I give you permission to feel things. Even anger. Even disgust at what you’re being asked to do that you don’t want to. And then look into those feelings and ask yourself why. You might be surprised by the answers.

    • in hindsight, many of the times i felt bad about doing what someone asked–it turned out that i had neglected something that SHOULD have been done…as i look back at my life, i think that my feelings pretty much indicated either an instinct or the Spirit trying to communicate to me.

  9. Neal A. Maxwell has some typically sage advice about the need to care for oneself as a prerequisite to effective service: http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=1656. The speech is directed to BYU staff–people who, if not doormats in and of themselves, can sometimes be treated as such by others. Maxwell has their spinal health very much in focus, and there’s much the rest of us can glean from this talk. I think that Joanna Brooks is similarly spot-on in highlighting self-care and the importance of choosing how and when to serve/give of oneself.

  10. Kayla

    Amen! Powerful, profound post – LOVE it!

  11. avidreader

    Jason Kerr that is a great talk. Could you point us to some talks that Orthodox LDS Women can read that have been written by Orthodox LDS Women on our spinal health? You see one my problems growing up was not seeing or hearing any FEMALES talk and model how to have a healthy spine. I would much appreciate more talks on this theme by those accepted within the church to give to my friends who are also in the LDS Chruch struggling with this issue?

  12. Ted Michael Morgan

    I like you and your ministry. Thanks for your work.

  13. L Elaine Hintze

    The first thing that came to my mind after reading your remarks on “spinebuilding” was: “These comments send up a great bug red flag on which is printed – CHIP ON SHOULDER ! I am a 64 y/o Latter Day Saint who was raised in a Southern Baptist home and joined the church at age 27 after a very long road of worldy stiff spine just meness.

  14. Amen. Her question & concerns have been my own. And your response, Joanna, is perfect. I love the quote that “God has not given us the spirit of fear”. This has helped me immensely. And it’s so true that if one’s thoughts/opinions/feelings cannot be valued by certain people, they’re best not shared- yet. Thank you.

  15. nutmeg

    yes!! amazing advice joanna! when i was at byu (about 2 years ago) i always got super enmeshed with the guys i would date. then finally i realized it was because i had no personal purpose. i didn’t ask myself, what is MY purpose? After i figured out what god’s purpose was for me personally, i was able to feel okay with saying no and standing up for myself. . . because my purpose was no longer hinged on getting people to like me and approve of me.

    learning to be assertive without turning into a total b. has been a process!!!

    and so true — we don’t have to throw our pearls before swine by apologizing and explaining ourselves to people who are never gonna get it.

    awesome post!

  16. Helen O.

    I actually have the opposite problem. I am very assertive and I always stand up for my self. If there were to be a war of words, I would win. I have won many times.

    The thing is, people don’t like people that always win; people that are always right; people that have to have it their way or the highway.

    I’m not advocating being a doormat to be liked. I could never be like that. But I am trying hard to let things go that don’t matter.

    • My wife is like that. We’ve been together 15 years now and I have yet to “win” an argument or be “right”. But you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t to be married to Mrs Milquetoast. I fell in love with my wife because of intelligence and wit. I hope my daughters each marry a person who appreciates their independence and intelligence as well.

  17. I just want to say that I loved the CNN article. You are so real and genuine, and a breath of fresh air for Mormonism. Just keep being you. Jesus loves you.

  18. ThursdaysChild

    If you ever have a doubt that a Mormon woman shouldn’t stand up for herself, just remember Lucy Mack Smith. She was firm in her faith, and it was with her faith that she stood up for herself and her family. Remember how she stood up against those men who were trying to steal her oxen, or when she told off that uppity wagon-train captain?

    Honestly, I think Mormons, and especially some Mormon women, get caught up in a vicious circular thinking that they need to match what “the world” expects them to act like when they stereotype us, and then after those women cram themselves into that stereotype, they try to force everyone else to squish into that same stereotype too.

    But if we look at the history of the church and the women in it, women we are supposed to emulate, are any of them as passive and doormat-like as our critics tell us we’re supposed to be? No way.

    And continuing on that theme, I feel I have to change the subject slightly to say that I dislike this constant talk of “orthodox” Mormons and “unorthodox” Mormons. Because really, when I look at the variety of people in my ward and stake, and the people I read and watch about in the “I’m a Mormon” series, is that we among ourselves should not be constructing walls to separate ourselves when we are all Mormons together.

  19. Stacy

    I love you Joanna! You are my hero for using your voice in such a positive, professional way. I want to be you 🙂 Okay, enough kissing butt. Thank you for the paragraph about knowing when it’s okay not to speak up, when your words won’t be valued but will only cause anger and/or resentment. That is a lesson I’ve learned along the way. Not every friend is open to our true hearts and minds, unfortunately. As a very open person who likes to share, it’s been a hard lesson for me to learn. Also, as the “oldest”, “perfectionistic”, person that I am, I also like to be right and can become defensive when I don’t feel heard. Long story just to tell you that I love your writing and I appreciated that particular paragraph.

  20. Dani Lofland

    I am telling all my girlfriends about this blog! You have a gift with words.
    Love the “wheel” idea. This year I have been trying to work out this very thing and have come to the scripture story of Martha and Mary as my guide. “Martha, Martha thou art careful and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Even when we are “serving” the Lord, we need to stay focused on the needful things.

  21. ThursdaysChild

    I was just rechecking my first comment and noticed I wrote Lucy Mack Smith when I meant Mary Fielding Smith. Both were strong women, but it is the stories of Mary Fielding Smith that I especially refer to, enjoy, and hope to emulate.

  22. Stella

    In my life I never felt like I had a voice in the Mormon faith because I didn’t have the Priesthood.

    I remember praying so hard to be happy at being a good, quite, submissive, obedient, faithful Mormon woman. It didn’t work. I remember thinking why can’t I just learn to be like everyone else, then I realized if this is what the Celestral kingdom is going to be like I am not going to fit in. I need a lot more energy and “life” because this submissive, suffering in silence is going to kill me. I was NOT happy.

    The beginning of my “finding my voice” journey started taking shape after I started analyzing what the “purpose of the Priesthood” Is. The Priesthood means service, caring for others, praying for others, spiritually leading and following others. In my world, the Priesthood looked more like the authority for men to act and be more like women. I say this with the deepest respect for the Priesthood. I just know and have seen countless numbers of acts of service that women give without a second thought and without an assignment. They see and they do, they serve, they pray, they feel what others feel, they work.

    Men are not so service oriented, they need a little more guidance and authority. I’m finally good with that! I mean, thank goodness they were given the Priesthood so that they can help serve too. Women can’t do everything but we will if we have to.

    For some reason understanding this concept has strengthened my voice. I no longer look at the Priesthood men as domineering over the women but as equals. We need them and they need us to speek up and share in the journey….

  23. Janet Mitchell

    Iam holding myself back from speaking out to my Relief Society Pres. concerning Visiting Teachers. I do not want, or need a monthly visit especially when I attend church every Sunday. It’s a waste of time. Some members enjoy it, but I think we ought to be given a choice.Making appointments w?at least 5 or more members in todays world is crazy. Am I te only one that feels this way?

    • DT

      Janet- Ask to have just 2 – 3 sisters to VT. 5 is an awful lot. It can be a real challenge getting your schedule matched with your partner, then going to see the first lady at some time that only works for her, then making an appt. with the 2nd lady. Then trying to fit in the 3rd. Then the month is over before you know it and it’s time to make that first appt. again. I do not feel VT’ing is a waste of time. You may be the only friend in the ward your visiting teachee has. You never know. Going into the home and getting to know someone in their territory, over a long period of time, is usually the formula for making a good friend.

      • Alisa

        Maybe try a rotation system- Make an appointment to go into one or two homes a month. On the other months check in with a note, an email or a text. Caring counts.

  24. John

    Compromise is important and necessary – but no-one wants to be a door-mat. I have two daughters and I hope that they can learn to be compassionate (from their mother) and to speak up for themselves (more likely from me) without going too far one way or the other.
    (Great work as always Joanna – I quite enjoyed the profile too, not so much the destruction of property bit, but we all do crazy things sometimes when we are a bit emotional)

  25. Melon Farmer from the 21st century

    OK, I seem to be the only one posting along this line but, APOLOGIZING FOR DESTROYING PROP 8 CAMPAIGN MATERIALS! Joanna, you need to hang out with more Jewish women! This was not THE MORMON CHURCH’S FINEST MOMENT. It wasn’t just all the millions of Mormon dollars that were spent passing Prop 8, it was all the Mormon boots on the grounds (OK, most likely sensible loafers) from all over the west, invading CA, knocking on doors, “Hello, we’re the conspicuously smiley Mormons, you’re a cranky old guy who probably hasn’t voted in years, it would be our honor to drive you to the polls where you could help stick-it to Gay people by denying them the right to get married and start a family.” (A conservative value, by the way!).
    APOLOGIZE?! APOLOGIZE?! Joanna, and among Mormons, you’re considered bleeding edge? Someone will have to explain this to me? I’m from the twenty-first century.

    • Laughing. Thanks, Melon Farmer. I do need to hang out with more Jewish women. That’s true.

    • ThursdaysChild

      I find it completely disingenuous when those who were against Proposition 8 complain that “Mormons invaded California,” as if no other group ever did exactly the same. I say this because a friend of mine explained that he traveled to CA from his home in Chicago with a large group of like-minded people to help campaign against it. He talked about how he has been doing this for years, going from state to state, with an entire busload of people, none of whom are registered to vote in any of the states they’ve campaigned.

      And when pressed on it by other people in the conversation, “you travel to other states regularly, to pressure their voters? You don’t see anything wrong with that?” He was surprised that anyone saw anything wrong with ~his~ group doing it.

      So is all this horror about it really just concealing jealousy because the opposition took up one of their basic tactics?

  26. BJ

    Sometimes we can get so caught up in our selfless service that we forget ourselves all too much! Women in the church can be way too hard on ourselves. I have definitely caught myself quite often. Sometimes I feel too overwhelmed with all that people ask of me. I just try to continually remind myself that I can’t do it all, and that’s OK! Sometimes I have to say no, and that’s OK! What is most important in my life right now? What can fall by the way side? Is this making me happy?
    When things don’t quite go right and you make a mistake (we ALL do), remember Grace! The grace of God makes it all OK! 🙂

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