A Ruthless Woman


Yesterday at 4:35 a.m., I woke up with the following thoughts:

You didn’t check on Jane when she landed in LA. Finn needs a pep talk for his interview. Check to make sure Jackson gets up for school. Tell Mark the cough is probably because he’s forgetting his supplements.  

On my run, I reflected on this tendency to mind my family’s business and ignore my own needs. I do it with friends too. Making sure they’ve had enough air time to express every little thing before I allow myself to make a peep. Sometimes my role as a woman feels like compulsory codependence.*   

Similar dynamics play out for other women I know. Too many to even talk about.

A dear friend I bumped into outside the grocery store last weekend had been volunteering that day and hadn’t been around to wake up her teenage son. He slept until afternoon and didn’t do any homework.

“If I am not there, everything goes to hell,” she said, looking exhausted.

So many of us do this to the point of feeling totally drained. Resentful even. It’s a sure sign that we are over-giving to others and forgetting ourselves.

The good news is, this learned behavior can be unlearned. We may have grown up watching our mother or father (did anyone’s father do this?) never say no to people or communicate in unhealthy ways. But that doesn’t mean we also have to enact these behaviors in our relationships forever and ever.

Bit by bit, I am choosing to check in with myself first. I am inhabiting my own body a little more each day. Instead of looking outside myself for people to control and problems to fix, I am pausing to reflect on what is going on inside me. When I am minding my business, I can allow my insides to reflect my outsides—listening to my body and acting on it.

As a result, my instincts and self-trust are growing stronger. Forgive the crude example, but it’s as simple as going pee instead of holding it until a more convenient time. It’s as complicated as declining physical touch when your body says I don’t want to. This goes against all cultural messages that tell us what we should do. Take care of everyone but ourselves.

Likewise I am self-honoring in friendship, declining invitations where the investment of energy and time is high and the chances of mutually fulfilling connections are low. More and more, I say no to big groups. I am making my needs known and not apologizing for it.

Listening to my inner guidance is working. The inner voice is now loud and clear. And I feel better. More myself. More at home in my body.

Don’t get me wrong, doing this is super uncomfortable for me. But prioritizing myself has become an imperative I can no longer ignore. I am choosing to align with who I am.

There are plenty of women who don’t feel safe enough to do this. I realize I am immensely lucky that I can exercise this much agency. I will do it for all of us.

As one might imagine, listening to myself instead of the shoulds has started trouble. Our society doesn’t love a woman who puts herself first. There are all sorts of names for that kind of woman. The world prefers an over-giver. A woman who is all sacrificing, tireless. Self-less.

A woman.




A few weeks ago in a couples therapy session, my husband and I were asked to name three qualities we admire in the other but don’t verbalize. These were mine of Mark.

  1. He’s really beautiful and sometimes I stop listening to what he’s saying and go blank thinking that.
  2. Mark is super focused. He can depo prep for umpteen hours, sacrificing everything to do his best work.
  3. Once when we first met, I was kidding around with him and he’d had enough of it. With no trace of a smile, he turned to me and delivered a chilling warning. “I can be ruthless,” he said. It was hot.

Our therapist Josiane explained that the three qualities we most admire in each other but don’t articulate are ones we need to cultivate in ourselves.

I understand the first two but I didn’t get the ruthless thing until now. I believe that being a woman in our culture who listens to her own body and honors herself first is considered ruthless. Selfish, most certainly. Ungrateful, without a doubt.

The opposite of a selfless woman is a ruthless woman.

I am letting go of the worry of what others think of me for following my instincts. I am unlearning the compulsory codependence of wife, mother and friend. It’s my new organizing principle.

So. Who is with me?

When you endeavor to be yourself and do as you wish, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.



WRITING PROMPT: What do you think about a woman who puts herself first? Where do you put yourself?

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*We throw the word codependent around a lot. Here is the definition from “Codependency refers to an imbalanced relationship pattern. In this pattern, one person assumes responsibility for meeting another person’s needs to the exclusion of acknowledging their own needs or feelings.”