I can’t tell if I prefer working from home because I get to spend time with my cats, or because it means I’ll never have to share a cubicle with another chauvinist again. Chauvinism, which typically presents in males who exhibit superiority over another group, commonly crops up in professional settings. But, like me, you’ve likely encountered them elsewhere in the wild. There was that Tinder date who told me I’ll probably never “make it” as a journalist so I might as well quit while I’m ahead (who’s laughing now, Jeff?), to the squat-rack meathead at the gym who placed his outstretched hand too firmly on my lower back, ushering me towards the elliptical machine and away from the heavy weights.
The good news is that we shouldn’t have to settle for this kind of condescending behavior. Your first task in dealing with a chauvinist is to validate your own feelings, says Emma Levine, PhD, a licensed psychologist and founder of Perennial Wellness. Remind yourself that, that yes, it’s true—women who stand up for themselves are more likely to be labeled as bossy or aggressive, rather than assertive or self-assured. And that’s okay. “Sometimes being a voice is more important than being well-liked,” she says.
“Sometimes being a voice is more important than being well-liked.” —Emma Levine, PhD
Once you’ve normalized your feelings of anxiety about speaking up, create some emotional distance between yourself and the perpetrator. “The most important thing a woman can do if she’s made to feel less-than on the basis of her being a woman, or anything else, is to engage in a process called depersonalization,” says Dr. Levine. It’s the process of emotionally detaching yourself from any perceived threats or danger as a coping mechanism. To practice depersonalization in this context, Levine recommends recognizing that your aggressor’s actions have very little to do with you or your self-worth, and much more a product of their underlying issues, psychology or history. She explains that in many cases, their bigoted behavior is an attempt to ward off their underlying anxiety or shame, which is sometimes rooted in their childhood environment or traumas.
This isn’t to say we should be held responsible for unraveling and overanalyzing our perpetrator’s actions. “This is about him in a way that he is not your problem to solve. I think even our capacity to recognize and depersonalize revs us up internally,” says Dr. Levine.
But don’t get too revved up. When confronting your aggressor, stay calm. Sure, it’s tough to model appropriate behavior in the face of a chauvinist, but I promise (and Dr. Levine agrees!) that it’ll register more deeply if you take the high road. “There’s a place to constructively make room for our anger, but the most productive response can be to empathetically correct the man’s behavior,” she says.
Apply the same strategy here that you would to scold a child. Before screaming at them that they should have shared their toys, empathize that it is, in fact, tough to share their toys because of how much fun it is to have such a great selection to choose from. The child will then understand that you’re on their side, that you understand their plight. You have now positioned yourself to teach the child a lesson on kindness in a way that will register, explains Dr. Levine. How does this apply when facing off with a chauvinist? Tell Eric from sales that while you definitely appreciate how enthusiastic he was about making the sale on that client phone call (because you’re both very eager about the project), you would have appreciated if he let you finish your portion of the presentation before he cut you off.
“The more that women do the cognitive work to create a self-affirming narrative about their inherent value as a woman, mother, employee, and person, the more she is going to be able to be depersonalize the inappropriate behavior of others.”
Once the dust has settled and you’ve separated yourself from the incident, you’ll have the clarity to realize this poor treatment isn’t your fault. “No woman should ever feel responsible for the way that a man treats her,” says Dr. Levine. While you can’t control another person’s actions, you certainly can change the way you feel about them. This starts by addressing issues of low self-esteem, according to Dr. Levine. “The more that women do the cognitive work to create a self-affirming narrative about their inherent value as a woman, mother, employee, and person, the more she is going to be able to be depersonalize the inappropriate behavior of others,” she says. “Lets say you go on a date with someone who makes comments that are subtly inappropriate. A woman who believes she has so much to offer in a partnership has the self-esteem intact to protect her in a way that a woman who’s more eager for approval will not have.”
But working on your confidence yields benefits that extend well beyond the context of chauvinism. “In general, doing the work on our self-esteem and listening to the voice of our inner critic will ultimately empower us to assert ourselves and make healthy choices,” says Dr. Levine. Maybe that encounter with a chauvinist is just the impetus you need to aim for—and live—your very best life.