I was banned from saying sorry in my gym class freshman year. I was so embarrassed by my inability to throw or catch a ball, I would apologize anytime it came into my general vicinity. After about a month of vomiting apologies, my teacher pulled me aside and said that I had nothing to apologize for and I should be proud — fumbles and all. So, I would whisper it when she wasn’t looking.
I don’t know when I started feeling guilty for everything I ever did. I don’t know if it was nature or nurture. But, it’s there. Sometimes, I feel it make a home in my stomach. It lays its roots and will last days, weeks, or even months. It is so tangible that it sits heavy in my conscience. So, I avoid it. I do absolutely everything in my power not to feel guilty. I smile at people that don’t deserve it and laugh at jokes that aren’t funny — anything that doesn’t make me feel like a bad person. It usually doesn’t work, but I certainly try.
I think it might be a girl thing. Not in the way that society labels a girl thing (pink, makeup, and objectification), but in a way that inexplicably binds all women together. At some point in every young woman’s life, they feel guilty for the space they take up. They are berated for being loud or opinionated or important. They are told to be less — whether subconsciously or directly. When your entire life has been nothing but a series of fingers on lips, you learn to keep yours shut. While I normally avoid generalizations, after countless hushed conversations with fellow women, I find it hard to believe it isn’t universal. I see it subliminally in myself sometimes. I see myself talk less, smile more, and laugh brighter when a man is around. I see myself shrink to the space I believe I am entitled, only for the man before me to expand into the new leg room. I tell my literature professor that it makes sense he is uninterested in essays that are about sexism. He is the smarter, more established man in the room and I am the foolish girl that sits before him. I feel myself curl in towards my own body, cuddling the ball of guilt forming in my stomach. I keep it to myself that none of us are interested in sexism, but we just have to deal with it. I say goodbye to him with an apology.
I am a woman who comes from strong women. I have a mother who could move mountains and grandmothers who have already moved them. I am no stranger to innate female strength. I am no stranger to my own strength. However, I am also no stranger to the guilt that comes with it. Although many believe the narrative has shifted, that girl bosses and bad women change the world, they rarely talk about how defying manifests in that person. How internal misogyny makes you guilty for your own accomplishments. For your own strength.
Now don’t get me wrong, I would not describe myself as passive or shy. However, when you run from guilt your entire life, you begin to adapt to a person who does not face it. So, in order to not feel like I have done something wrong, something worth sleepless nights and churned stomachs, I hide. I do exactly what other people want. I get the grades, the laughs, the praise I am supposed to, anything to ease the pit in my stomach. Being the good girl keeps the guilt at bay.
I feel guilty for my writing sometimes. I feel guilty for thinking that my words matter and that I am egotistical enough to put pen to paper. So, I scratch sentences and take breaks that are so long they could be called hibernations. I read famous prose and poetry and laugh at my own guilt for not being good enough. Then, I feel guilty for being lazy. I can’t escape it.
So, how does it end? How do the “sorry”s and the pit in your stomach leave you alone? How do you escape an emotion? I don’t think I know the answer. I don’t know if I ever will. Sometimes I think we have to take down the whole system — crossbow strapped to my back and all. Other times, I think it is just me. I think it is my own brain with too much time on my hands and too many thoughts for a single person to handle. Then I feel guilty for thinking I am even special in the first place. It is a never ending cycle.
Ultimately, like most of life, it is just something I have to come to terms with. I think it is something that will always be there, haunting and taunting. I wish I had a beautiful metaphor about how I overcame the patriarchy, my own head, my own internal misogyny. But, I don’t. I still feel guilty for every word I write. I recognize it though. I see it there. Maybe that’s half the battle.
Thank you to all the girls who said sorry before me. Thank you to the girls who scream just to be heard. Thank you to all the girls and women in my life — I am forever a reflection of your strength. Thank you to myself; I’m sorry.