Going against the grain: what happens when you run counter to expectations?

Middle Eastern woman with glasses looking determinedly at camera

You want to disregard society’s expectations and just be YOU. What does that look like?

Every day, each and every one of us receives a big dose of opinion on who we should be, what we should look like, how we should behave. All of this unsolicited input comes at us so constantly, that we absorb most of it uncritically, without stopping to analyze whether it’s what we truly want for ourselves.

What’s worse, a lot of this advice comes in the name of “empowerment.” There’s an implication that if you don’t do something a certain way, you’re not only letting yourself down, you’re quietly feeding into a system that is holding other women back. You’re not part of the solution, therefore you’re part of the problem.

The problem is that everyone has a different idea of what it looks like to be “empowered.” For one person, it means “leaning in” at work. For another, it means dying your hair alternative colors and being creative with your makeup. And for yet another, it means flaunting all gender-based beauty expectations and going all natural. There’s nothing wrong with any of these variations on empowerment, except when they don’t match what you want for yourself and for your life.

Living an empowered life according to your own dreams and desires can look very different from what society expects. It can mean pursuing a career path that doesn’t pay a lot, but has more significance to you and to the world. It can mean putting a pause on your love life in order to get to know yourself more fully. It can mean entering a career field where you know you will always be a minority. It can mean having a child at a time in your life that no one else thinks is right, or having more children when everyone else tells you you’ve had enough.

Whenever we embrace the freedom to be ourselves, we do so at a cost. We face judgment, scrutiny, and unsolicited commentary. If we stumble, trip, fall, or fail, we’re likely to hear our own eccentricities held accountable, feel blamed for doing what we feel is most important.

Sometimes that’s right, and sometimes it’s wrong. Some risks we take knowing that we will have to accept the consequences, and sometimes those consequences are unjust and the result of a failed culture. Either way, living an empowered life means that whatever chances we take are for our own goals, and not because we’re following someone else’s path.

What would your life look like if you could put aside expectations?

What decisions would you be willing to own, even if they turned out to be wrong ones?

Iris is the director of ArborWoman.