Where Are My Sisters At?

Ever since I was super young, I have idealized my relationships with other women. In grade school, I fell in love with books and movies where female protagonists took solace in their trusty BFFs. In my twenties, I sought bosom buddies via Craigslist posts and community events whenever I moved to a new city. In my thirties, I routinely danced naked and experienced nothing less than the rebirth of my soul among fellow goddesses in women’s circles. I yearned for the kind of closeness with women that, for me, symbolized “real” intimacy. In my eyes, romantic partnerships would come and go, but sisterhood—including the marathon conversations, unabashed introspection, tears, laughter, and around-the-clock support (even if you hated the guy she was dating or she was honestly a little sick and tired of hearing you complain about your dead-end job)—would be forever.

All the same, more than romantic relationships, it is my friendships with women that have wounded me the most. While many of these friendships have stood the test of time, the majority have crumbled by the wayside—sometimes out of negligence or a simple parting of ways, and other times through just plain unskillful behavior.

I recall how crushed I felt when a woman whom I believed was a close friend admitted that she was only using me to get close to someone in my circle who would help her take her publishing career to the next level. Then, there was the time a soul sister, admitted to me that she didn’t enjoy our time together as much as she used to because my newfound success intimidated her and made her feel we no longer had anything in common. Hoping that this was a conversation starter rather than a friendship terminator, I asked her what she’d like to feel and how she was hoping for our friendship to feed her. I never heard from her again.

Sisterhood is one of the most beautiful, life-affirming experiences a woman can have, which is why it’s so devastating when it’s compromised by betrayal—especially the kind that comes from comparison and competition.

Don’t get me wrong: I actually believe that competition is entirely natural and one of the most important reasons for how we’ve accomplished as much as we have, as a civilization. It’s what compels animals to mate in the springtime, and it’s what makes us demand more of ourselves in ways that bring out our natural brilliance. The thing is, competition that cuts other people down to size or leads to an attitude of “me versus you” only ends up hurting everyone. We can use competition to make each other smaller, or we can use it to make each other better.

As women, we’re accustomed to making each other smaller because we are all too accustomed to this mistaken cultural belief that we are inherently separate, and because we have so much conditioned fear around scarcity. For most of recorded history, women have “received” their power from other men, by dint of their beauty, shrewdness, or social status. Thus, positions of power have always felt more elusive for women than they have for men. But when we are in our true power, which is self-generated rather than given to us by the external world, we naturally believe in our abundance. We are confident, self-assured, and we can certainly afford to have other powerful women around us. In fact, we want more powerful women around us, because this guarantees that we’ll continue to grow.

For me, this is the new paradigm that women must willingly step into—the old ones simply don’t serve us.

Of course, in order to get to healthy competition, we need to fess up to how we hurt each other through cattiness and jealousy. Jealousy is an automatic reflex: if she’s prettier, smarter, more successful, or more attractive to men than we perceive ourselves to be, we don’t necessarily view such a woman as inspiring or a potential mentor. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we automatically label her a “bitch,” or jab her with the needles of our insecurity by pointing out all her shitty qualities. Other times, we flatter her with gratuitous attention to her face, and as soon as she’s out of sight, we’re drawing up a laundry list of all the reasons she must be destroyed. (And yes, I’m guilty of all of the above.)

There’s nothing wrong with a natural competitive spirit that can be shared openly and happily. But often, what could have served as healthy competition gets poisoned by guilt, shame, insecurity, and inhibition. When we don’t channel our desire for success into a fun and positive game, it starts to look like backhanded compliments and hostile Real Housewives–style barbs.

And it can work the other way, as well—women who are the objects of envy learn to feel guilty and ashamed of their own success, which they experience as being hurtful or oppositional to their friends.

When it comes down to it, we can’t really be happy in the world unless we realize that other women are our allies: our sisters, our confidantes, our friends, our co-conspirators and fellow dream-makers.

When we’re closed off to our power, women become the unfortunate targets of each other’s unconscious projections. But when we’re lit up, we actually want to light up other women, too. This doesn’t mean dishing out inauthentic praise or fake positivity. But just imagine what it would be like if the women we knew stopped beating themselves up in public and private, and woke up to their true beauty and power! The generous thing to do here is to point other women in the direction of their inspiration, using our own self-acceptance and willingness to shine as our compass.

I’ve learned that it can be a scary step, because the kinds of relationships most of us are used to having with each other oscillate from adoration to cattiness, unspoken insecurity to downright snarkiness. Breaking out of this cycle might feel unfamiliar, especially if it means demanding higher and nobler standards from one another.

I’ve had to scrutinize my own longstanding patterns in sisterhood: passive-aggressiveness, a constant need to apologize for taking up too much space, the desire to save rapidly sinking ships at the cost of my own self-worth, and the tendency to ghost people instead of sitting down to have vulnerable conversations about what isn’t working.

As I approach 40, there’s an ease and grace I find in my relationships with women that I’ve never before experienced. It includes radical honesty (seriously, if you’re in my life, I don’t tolerate pussyfooting around the truth), radical love (the kind that can move mountains and doesn’t throw in the towel prematurely), and radical acceptance (because you really can’t want more for someone else than they want for themselves, but you can choose to love them where they’re at).

After stumbling through my own mistakes in friendship (and there have been many), I’ve opted for a different approach. I choose connections that encourage excellence and shared vision but that aren’t transactional; that is, I have no desire to “get” something from anyone else that I feel I myself don’t have. And when a woman I love is up to something BIG in her life, I’m there singing her praises and cheering her on. Admittedly, that used to be kind of excruciating once upon a time, but it’s one of my favorite things to do today.

Despite my disappointments in sisterhood, I haven’t ultimately allowed them to embitter me or distort my feelings about women in general. Indeed, I’ve used them as an even bigger reason to keep moving toward connection with women. To reach out, make intentional contact, offer friendship, engage in mutual brain-picking, and express my gratitude and appreciation. Because empowered women can’t help but want to see the natural awesomeness, beauty, and potential of other women magnified a thousandfold in the world around them.

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About the Author | Nirmala Nataraj

Nirmala Nataraj is an award-winning author, editor, playwright, and counselor whose work has ranged from freelance journalism to copywriting in the advertising industry to transformational book coaching for first-time authors interested in translating their ideas from their heads to the page. Raised in California, with most of her career experience concentrated in the booming creative region of the San Francisco Bay Area, Nirmala recently relocated to New York’s Hudson Valley. She is currently working on editing three different books and writing a play about Egyptian gods, commissioned by the San Francisco Olympians Festival. Find out more about Nirmala at www.nirmalanataraj.com.

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