Values: the foundation of negotiation for women

A table is set up with fancy dishes and cutlery for a traditional dinner.

The last time I willingly hosted a homemade holiday dinner was about 3 years ago. I remember my in-laws arriving just as I was getting into the shower – yelling at my family to get the door and welcome everyone in. I remember stripping off my damp clothes – soaked from all of the rushed last-minute tasks I had been doing since 5am – and thinking I would be perfectly happy to flop into bed and sleep the evening away. No such luck.

I got out of the shower just as the oven started beeping – the potatoes needed to come out, and it was me (and only me) who knew the specific sequence of steps necessary to create the perfect family dinner. Barely dry, I put on fresh clothes, which stuck uncomfortably to my still-wet skin, and returned to the kitchen. I put out the appetizers, served the drinks, and then it was time to get the steaks going.

Since it was -35 Celsius outside, I opted to cook our steaks in the oven, and finish them in a cast iron pan on top of the stove. I don’t have a proper range hood, and so after the first few steaks, the smoke alarm was wailing and everyone was positioned at a window or door, frantically waving a kitchen towel , trying to disperse the wall of smoke that I had created. I had tears running down my cheeks while I seared the remaining steaks and tried not to let anyone see my face or my shuddering shoulders. We ate our dinner wearing our coats and gloves. I was still damp. Chilled to the bone. Streams of dry tears frozen on my face. 

After dinner, my wonderful father-in-law refilled my wine glass, looked at me with loving eyes, and declared that this would be the last time I would have to make the family a holiday dinner. Next time we’d just go out. Going out would ensure that I could enjoy my family’s company without the unrealistic pressures of creating the unattainable – the perfect holiday event.

While he appreciated my effort, he appreciated my presence more.

I will be eternally grateful for his kindness and wisdom that day (and I’d give my right arm to enjoy another glass of wine with him while we solve the world’s problems to the sounds of Leonard Cohen crooning in the background). But I’ll be honest, it hasn’t always been easy to feel good about going out for dinner instead of recreating a holiday movie dinner scene in my home.

Is it just me? Or does every other woman feel pressure to achieve perfection?

So much of what I beat myself up about has nothing to do with what actual people in my life ask of me. I’ve realized that it’s the conversations I have with my own mind that are the culprit in so many situations where I am striving for perfection.

I’m not saying the world is without blame. The social structures we grow up within teach us our “proper roles” as women in society. There is most definitely a pressure exerted by the world – and by women shaming one another – to be a perfect mother, partner, friend, daughter, daughter-in-law, etc. And that extends into the workplace. We grow up knowing that perfection is the goal; if that’s the case at home, then we also assume it’s the case at work.

Perfect doesn’t have to be the goal

The world doesn’t fall apart if you don’t vacuum before your friends come over. You won’t get fired if you just do a good job, instead of an exceptional job. I promise.

So why do we feel guilty when we fail to achieve perfection? More importantly, what can we do about it?

In my one-on-one and group work with clients, we talk a lot about the stories we tell ourselves – and how they hold us back from asking for what we want and deserve. These are often stories laden with a word that evokes obligation and guilt: should. When we tell ourselves we should or shouldn’t do or feel something, we impose unnecessary emotional burdens on ourselves. We attach significance to insignificant things, and often fail to see the importance of the outcomes that we are trying to achieve.

Values are the secret

We experience this in the workplace and we experience it at home. The good news? By focusing on your values, you can obtain clarity about what really matters most. And you can cut the guilt.

For example, when holidays roll around, I still have to fight the feelings of guilt that rise up because I see society telling me that I should host a perfect holiday event. In my mind, if I do all of those things, then I will be perfect. My family will love me more. They will appreciate me. They will recognize my importance.

But when I dig a little, past my need to be loved, I can say that hosting a family dinner aligns to how much I value connection. I care about holiday dinners because they are an opportunity where family and friends can relax, reconnect, and have great conversations. They feed that little girl in me who thrived on the experience of sitting around and seeing the grownups in my circle having deep and meaningful discussions. I loved those moments – because the chaos of life stopped and everyone was just present for one another.

Ironic, I know. I’m seeking a respite from the chaos of life, and do so by creating more chaos for myself. Whoa. I also want to note that nowhere in the description of what I value is a picture of a clean house, a perfect meal, an instagram-worthy event.

There are parallels to this experience at work. If I’m asked to take on yet another “important” task by my boss (because I always say yes), my first instinct is to feel like I should agree. Maybe I should even feel grateful that my boss keeps coming to me. I should feel proud that they trust me. At the same time, I might be burning out because of all of things I said yes to, thinking I should, but not negotiating what I need to be successful, and in alignment with my values and my career aspirations.

Understanding your values is the first step

So much of the pressure we put on ourselves comes from the stories we tell ourselves. But by refocusing on your values, you can often separate what you should do from the most important things that need to happen to satisfy your values.

At home, this looks like getting the house cleaned by a service and ordering in – or just going out for a nice meal and enjoying ourselves. At work, this means identifying that to align with your values, taking on another project means you need to ask for more resources or eliminate other responsibilities from your shoulders. It translates to shifting from doing low-value tasks too focusing on high-value outcomes.

Understanding your values is the first step toward convincing the voice in your head that should doesn’t matter. It’s the first step toward setting and reinforcing boundaries, and the first step toward negotiating regularly for what you want and need to be successful – in work and in life.

Getting at your values

Here’s an exercise to try, which will help you start thinking about your core values. Think about three people you admire – these can be people from your personal life, work, or both. Write about them, explore makes them special, and define the characteristics that you admire.

What do those characteristics tell you about yourself and who you are at your core?

Keep learning!

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