Today, I am honored to introduce Sarah Burton, one of the first women who comes to mind when I think of inspiring, strong women. Sarah loves to travel, cook and bake, and drink more wine than she’d admit to in front of her mother. She has served in the Peace Corps, been in nonprofits for 15 years, and currently is an executive director at a nonprofit providing crime prevention and safety services in San Francisco, where she lives with her cat and husband.
Finding Your True Narrative
We have all been asked at one point in our lives who our role model is. I sometimes think of my grandmother or other family members, but more often than not I choose larger than life women that are influencing the world and history of today. As my role models, their examples inspire me to do greater things in my own life.
Sometimes, though, I end up comparing myself to those role models and feel less successful because I know that it is unlikely I will be as famous or as impactful as them. I hold myself to standards impossible to reach, turning inspiration into an “I’m not good enough” narrative.
I have been thinking about this a lot, partly because Annie asked me to write this guest blog in her “strong women” series. I am always flattered when someone tells me that they consider me a strong woman, but then I start thinking they must only say that because of my age, my job, or because I’ve fooled them into thinking it. Thus starts my inner dialogue that will invariably question the validity of any positive statement someone says about me.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a woman in today’s world is living up to all the expectations. I should be thin (perfect bikini bod in time for summer!); I should do my best to stay looking young (they have a cream for that); I should be married (to a man, of course); I should have children (wait, you don’t have kids yet?!); I should be smart (but not a know-it-all); I should be successful (Mark Zuckerberg was, like, 23 when he started Facebook); and of course I should be sexy – but not too sexy, because that’s just trashy.
Women have such a fine line to walk – be smart, but not too smart. Be thin, young and beautiful, and make it look effortless. Be domestic and successful. Be a lady and a freak. There are so many external expectations on us in our society which we internalize, then we add many of our own expectations (realistic and unrealistic) on top of those. By the time we’re finished, no matter how much someone compliments us or acknowledge our success, we can somewhere in our lives where we fall short to counteract that positive.
How can we possibly live up to all these expectations? We can’t. Just because I did not change the world by the time I was 35 while also maintaining a perfect 20-year-old body does not nor should not lessen the true narrative of my own strength or success.
So here’s my advice, from one strong woman to many: start using the right standard – yourself. Think about what you want, and what will actually make you happy.
Take the inspiration you need from the world and set realistic expectations for yourself. Celebrate accomplishments. Acknowledge strengths. Use failure to move forward and grow in a positive way. Forgive yourself. Take the time to recognize the many difficult and wonderful things you achieve on a regular basis, regardless of whether or not someone else would write about it in a history book. This is not about history – this is your story.
It’s not easy. It’s an ongoing commitment to hold yourself to kinder standards, to work tirelessly at achieving goals that you have chosen for your own growth, and to love your wonderful, flawed self in the face of unrealistic expectations.
Unrealistic societal expectations won’t go away entirely, and you may still face criticism for not living up to them. But by not making them the standards by which you live gives you the opportunity to move beyond the paralyzing impossibility of success to a place of courage and freedom to explore what strength and success looks like to you.