Tension is natural. There are infinite ways that tension arises and dissolves within us as individuals and as groups. Women are expected to resolve tension for others, hindering women from exercising their agency, voice, and independence. After years of this expectation, women develop a compulsive need to keep the peace. Learn how to stop resolving tension and exercise healthy female assertiveness.

The Role of Tension

Like a primordial wave, tension and its inevitable release are like an ancient swell that builds and subsides in all life. For example, tension exists in the form of a line between two points. Tension builds inside a seed as it readies itself to sprout roots into the earth. Tension precedes expansion and transformation. Tension exists in our relationships as two or more individuals embody their individuality and strive for connection.

Female Assertiveness and Tension

In this article, I’ll be talking about the small ways that tension arises in normal, everyday situations in which women may feel a compulsive need to resolve it. This is a form of emotional labor that has origins in our upbringing as females and greatly curtails a woman’s ability to own her true power.

Compulsively resolving emotional tension in relationships is a symptom of the early suppression of our individuality.

Examples of how women may compulsively resolve the tension in their relationships:

  • Apologizing too much, even when you haven’t done anything wrong
  • Feeling obligated to provide an overly cheerful demeanor to others
  • Constantly “taking the high road” or having to be the “bigger person” in a relationship
  • Automatically downplaying the hurt you feel when others disrespect you
  • Assuming that others won’t hold up their responsibility and so automatically taking it all on yourself
  • Feeling obligated to accommodate the preferences of others before your own
  • Worrying excessively about other people in your life or what they think of you
  • Assuming that if you’re not deferential to others, you’re endangering the connection

Why Do We Do This?

Underneath a woman’s compulsion to resolve everyday tension in her relationships is often a little girl whose caregiver(s) reacted negatively to her separateness and individuality. Her separate feelings and needs were seen, to some degree, as cause for rejection. This is a common way that the Mother Wound shows up for many women.

Resolving Tension as a Way to Soothe Mother

As a way to survive a hostile emotional environment of their families, many little girls learn to suppress their individuality to soothe the parent. Lindsay C. Gibson, in her book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, explains that, “A child’s individuality is seen as a threat to emotionally insecure and immature parents because it stirs up fears about possible rejection or abandonment” and “Therefore, their children, in an attempt to prevent their parents from becoming anxious, often suppress any authentic thoughts, feelings or desires that would disturb their parents’ sense of security.” Some of the painful beliefs these children are taught include: Give first consideration to what other people want you to do. Don’t speak up for yourself. Don’t ask for help. Don’t want anything for yourself. A child may begin to unconsciously see her own existence (with her separate needs and feelings) as a form of disloyalty to her mother. This creates a split in the child, a constant war between loyalty to her mother and the fact of her separate existence.

No Place for Realness

No place for a “real” girl: The capacity for tension is taken up entirely by the parental situation.

The equilibrium in dysfunctional families is often so tenuous that the natural tension that arises from being a separate individual in a family is not tolerated. Enmeshment and codependency are what bond family members together, not emotional intimacy and genuine connection. The tension in the family may be caused by various issues such as addictions, financial troubles, domestic violence, or mental health issues, to name a few. Unclear boundaries in the family and marital problems are the fertile ground in which children become “parentified,” playing the role of parents to their parents. Children may see the tension that they cause due to their own needs as the problem, thereby internalizing the belief that they are inherently bad, wrong, flawed and need to be improved. This is the creation of a “false self” to please the parent. It’s beyond the capacity of a child to see the reality that the painful tension is actually not from the child at all, but from the environment, namely the parents and their management of their own lives; something completely outside the child’s control.

You Are Your Own Girl

You are your own girl, not a prisoner of your mother’s Mother Wound. 

It was probably Alice Miller, in her book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, who best describes the tragedy that besets both mother and child in this situation: “What the mother had once failed to find in her own mother she was able to find in her child: someone at her disposal who could be used as an echo and could be controlled, who was completely centered on her, would never desert her and offered her full attention and admiration. If the child’s demands become too great (as those of her own mother once did), she was no longer defenseless: she could refuse to allow herself to be tyrannized; she could bring the child up in such a way that he neither cried no disturbed her. At last she could make sure that she received consideration, care and respect.”

Set Up to Feel Like a Failure

A child can never be an adult no matter how sensitive, evolved or mature they are. In his book, Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child, Gregory J. Jurkovic explains that, “The ongoing problems of parents and other family members are persistent reminders to parentified children of their inability to fulfill their roles.” This causes them to feel as though they are a disappointment to their families, setting them up for shame, guilt and feelings of worthlessness. Many daughters are plagued with guilt not only because they experienced the pain and misery of their parent(s) as their own, but also because deep down they believed that they failed in not being able to solve the family’s problems. For example, they may feel they failed to make their mothers happy, failed to protect a sibling, or failed to keep the peace in the home, etc.

This deep sense of failure can persist into adulthood and greatly undermine their self-esteem and confidence in several areas of their lives. The truth is that often the failure a woman fears in the future has already happened in the past when she was a child. The fear of future failure resolves itself when she can truly grieve and realize that the pain happened in the past and that she actually never failed at all. She did not fail because it was never her responsibility as a child in the first place to manage the emotional turmoil in the family. Seeing this and grieving the injustice of how much burden was placed on her shoulders is a key step in moving forward.

Stop Rushing to Resolve Tension For Others

An important practice for over-functioning women is to disrupt the compulsion to resolve interpersonal tension. Natural tension shows up in many ways in human interactions, including disappointment, sadness, anger, jealousy, and disagreements, miscommunications, to name a few. Because they had to resolve the tension in their families of origin and because it was a means of emotional self-preservation when they were children, many women compulsively absorb tension for the other person, perpetuating their own exhaustion. Refraining from doing so is incredibly empowering and liberating! All that energy that went into over-functioning becomes available for you.

Examples of How to NOT Resolve Tension:

  • Allowing people to experience disappointment without rushing to fix it
  • Setting a boundary without feeling obligated to provide an explanation
  • Speaking “No” as a complete sentence
  • Not rushing to fill the silence in a conversation
  • Trusting that other adults can take care of their own needs
  • Not attributing people’s dissatisfaction as something that you did wrong
  • Allowing people to process their negative emotions without seeing it as a problem
  • Trusting that if people have a problem with you, they will tell you. Until then, you don’t ruminate about it
  • Taking people at their word and not mindreading or making assumptions
  • Allowing people to experience the natural consequences of their actions without rushing to protect them from it
  • Listening to your inner self and doing what feels right to you. Not using the possible discomfort of other people as a determinant of your choices

Own What’s Yours and Let Go of the Rest

Some things we need to remember:

  • Saying “No” is not equivalent to abandonment
  • We are not abandoning other adults when we say “No”
  • Saying “No” is a form of taking responsibility
  • Saying “No” is a form of empowerment
  • When we don’t rush to resolve the tension, space opens up for something new to happen
  • Our rush to resolve the tension is a reflection of how we had no choice but to soothe ourselves as children. It’s more about us than about others
  • Rushing to resolve the tension that comes with negative emotions is robbing people of their own experience.
  • Holding space, being present, and witnessing is a form of respect

Female Assertiveness and Anger

The word “No” is an expression of individuality and separateness, which is very threatening to any system of patriarchal domination whether it’s a family system or a political system. And that is precisely why it is our greatest ally in upending oppression in all its forms. Many little girls missed the chance to say “No” without experiencing loss or rejection as a consequence. As adults, learning to set healthy, strong boundaries is part of stepping into our full individuation. “No” is a muscle that must be strengthened through the practice of actively expressing our truth and through refraining from resolving tension for others.

New, Empowering Beliefs May Include:

  • I can be my own separate self and be lovable.
  • I can tolerate people not understanding me.
  • I am safe even when people don’t like me.

Healthy Female Assertiveness is a Byproduct of Inner Work

True female assertiveness becomes accessible as a result of feeling anger on behalf of the child that we were, the little girl who was exploited to whatever degree. Finding a healthy impulse to protect the child we were is the raw material for not tolerating any forms of exploitation as adult women. If the inner child still believes the “impossible dream” that compliance and silence will bring her some form of “mommy,” then a woman will continue to give her power away. We stop fearing our anger as we de-couple it from the echoes of abandonment we experienced in our childhoods. The answer is to mourn the powerlessness we experienced in the past and to call up the healthy adult outrage about what happened. As long as we postpone doing this inner work, we’ll keep creating experiences of feeling powerless as adults.

This inner work is a form of rinsing our “No” of the residue of the past, working through the defensiveness or the fear it may be laced with, so that when expressed, it can be “clean,” ringing with the power, clarity, and radiance of the true self.

This creates incredible momentum in one’s life as each situation becomes an opportunity to live into your truth. Each “No” is a doorway into your greater “Yes.”

Lindsay C. Gibson explains, “Research suggests that what has happened to people matters less than whether they’ve processed what happened to them.” Getting support with this is crucial. Working through what happened and placing our anger in its correct context liberates it to transform into self-knowledge and self-worth. As the “impossible dream” dissolves, our true power as women is increasingly revealed. The world needs more adult women who have reckoned with the truth about their childhoods. Only then can we really face reality now as it is and take action that will change the perilous course that we are on.

Women of color have always been pressured to resolve tension for white women, due to the power differential inherent in a white supremacist, patriarchal society.

Thus, we white women need to get used to women of color no longer doing so and picking up the true weight of whatever we’ve displaced onto their shoulders as a result of our unearned, skin-based privileges.

Mourning and Moving On

No matter the specific dynamics with one’s mother, an important part of healing the Mother Wound is to reach the point where one reaches a deep “felt sense” that the toxicity of “badness” that one internalized as a result of painful family dynamics was NOT sourced from within oneself, but rather from the external family situation of the past and how it was handled by the adults, who, for whatever reason, lacked the capacity to meet the child’s developmental needs for safety, reassurance and protection.

Putting the emotional pain in its true, proper context, releases one to more fully embody their individuality with confidence. The inner child stops blaming herself. This is the process of withdrawing the projection of the abandoning or invading Mother off of current situations so that you are living more in the Now, no longer seeing your current life through the distorted lens of the past. This process is slow and can take years, but with each layer, more of your true self becomes accessible and your life becomes more completely your own. Your inner child feels supported in being “her own girl” and as a result, you know in your bones that you are a woman who belongs to herself. Being separate and being lovable are no longer competing needs but rather inter-woven foundations of oneself. Paradoxically, this inner singularity births an ever-deepening experience of inter-connectedness with all.

Questions to Reflect On:

  • Do you find yourself rushing to resolve the tension in your relationships? If so, in what situations?
  • How does this pattern relate to your experience as a little girl in your family?
  • How did resolving the tension keep you safe as a child?
  • What do you need to grieve to let go of this pattern?
  • What painful feelings can you allow yourself to feel now that you couldn’t feel back then? (and what kind of support do you need to support yourself?)

Suggested Exercise:

Write a letter to your inner child about this pattern; empathizing with how she suffered in these situations as a child and soothing her fears about present situations. Explain that now is different than the past because she has a loving, present adult self who can keep her safe. Reassure her that you will soothe her fears when they come up so that she can learn that she doesn’t have to resolve tension in relationships anymore.

Suggested Practice:

When you notice that you feel the compulsion to resolve tension in situations, slow down and notice how it’s connected to the fear of your inner child. Pause and go within to reassure her that now is different and she doesn’t have to resolve the tension. Affirm yourself as a safe, loving presence that is there for her. Shift and make a new choice to allow the tension from an empowered adult place.

Art credits: “Moon Woman” by Elena Ray