esther calling

‘I Don’t Know How to Advocate for Myself to My Boss or to My Husband’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin?. She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — the show is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Message

My confidence — it’s been an issue that’s been building over the last five years, but I really want to be someone who is my own No. 1 cheerleader, confident, and able to lead others because of my confidence. I really love my job; it seems like everyone is progressing ahead and I’m not. Everyone loves my work but not enough to promote. It’s tearing my self-confidence.

[Ed.’s note: By the time the caller and Esther spoke, the caller had just gotten married and was in the middle of another issue. What follows is a recap from the caller of where she was at the time of her call with Esther.]

So I just came back about a week and a half ago — I got married in Pakistan to my now husband. I felt like maybe spending a few weeks with his family would help us bond and get to know each other better. If you’re at all aware of South Asian weddings, it’s always a week long, full of traditions and rituals. But it was also difficult, because we were trying to plan it across two continents and three countries. The wedding, at least for me in my experience, I feel like it kind of ended on a bit of a confusing note because I found out some information which I was not privy to before the wedding. And I’m not sure if I had known before if the wedding would have gone through … 

The Phone Call

Esther Perel: So we have a fork, right? Do we want to continue right here, or is there a different question? 

Caller: The question I came to you with initially was, How do you begin the journey of self-love? It’s something that I struggle a lot with, and I think it manifests itself in different ways. So …

Esther: I’m going to ask you to feel free to broaden it within both contexts, right? Love and work are probably two of the major poles of our life. So when you use the word self-love, which is a word that is at the same time very cultural, very contemporary, probably has very different meaning in the U.S. versus Pakistan and then has a very personal definition for you, who lives between those two cultures, as well. So you straddle different worlds inside of you, and they probably deeply influence the way that you define the word self-love and feel engaged with it or entitled to it.

Caller: Absolutely. I guess the context is I’ve been working at my current firm for the last five and a half years and I’m definitely a top performer. When I started my job, I didn’t think I would be doing anything remotely similar to that line of work and I’ve been really successful at work with it. But I always seem to struggle talking about my work and seeing myself in the same light that my employer and my team see me. And it took me a while to get my last promotion, which — because I don’t do the same type of work as everybody else, it’s always a different business case for my promotion. And it kind of just always leads to self-doubt. And I hear on my team with my manager, “You’re doing great work. You’re bringing skills and work and business that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.” But then when it comes time for a promotion, I don’t get it. And sometimes I feel like it’s because I don’t speak up for myself. When I talk to other people about this, the conversation always ends up with I’m super-self-aware, I know what I want, I know how to do it. But do I love myself enough? And I don’t know what that means, if I’m being really frank.

Esther: I don’t know what it means sometimes either. So let me ask it to you differently. In the way you see the world, do you have the sense that if you do your work really well, if you bring skills, if you bring clients, if you further the growth of the company, etc. … It is obvious that one way that that recognition should come to you is from the upper people discussing the promotion with you and not for you to have to go and ask for it. In the right order of things, if you do your job well, it’s them who should be coming to you.

Caller: For sure.

Esther: Okay. And therefore, if they don’t come, in that same worldview, is the idea If I was doing really great, they would come, therefore if they don’t come, maybe I’m not doing as great as maybe I think I do or as they say I do.

Caller: Yeah, for sure. Like, to me, it’s more merit based. If I’m doing great work and you think I’m making an impact, then you wouldn’t forget about me when it came time for promotions.

Esther: And therefore, if you are not going to go and ask for yourself, It is easy to see that you are lacking something to plead for yourself, to plead your case, to make your case, and to ask for more. That if you truly believed in yourself, you would be asking for more. And your view is, if people truly believed in me, they would be offering me more. Those are two cultural systems. This is not just personal, this is not just your own psychology. These are worldviews. Those are two different ways of organizing social systems. Is the concept of self-love common in Pakistan? 

Caller: No, absolutely not. The thing is, it’s starting to be with the newer generation that’s more global. But if I went to my mom and I said, “I’m doing this because I love myself,” she … I grew up in a house where the whole mind-set was this world is not about me, myself, and I, and Americans are very me, myself, and I. We are not like that. We’re contributors to the community. We think about others. We think about our family. Being selfish is not something that’s perceived as being good, at least in our household and then also probably like the time that my parents reflect on in terms of their parenting, what they use to parent us.

Esther: Right, absolutely. But of course, interestingly, individualism is seen as a form of selfishness. 

Caller: Mmhmm.

Esther: Rather than, it is the way that people in a structure where you can’t rely on others, where people have been raised for self-reliance, it becomes their mode of survival. It’s more self-centered. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it is selfish.

So each culture looks at the other culture and defines it with its own terms. If you don’t ask for a promotion, you don’t feel confident, you lack self-esteem, it’s your problem. And then on the other side, if people are thinking about themselves, then, from the point of view as you described of your parents or other people in your community, it becomes very quickly defined as selfish. Because every person through their own lens and how they would have interpreted that behavior according to their own cultural norms and values. Now you live in the States or somewhere close to here, you have learned to translate between these two languages, between these two sets of norms for a long time. Is that true, first of all? 

Caller: Yeah. You’re straight on.

Esther: Okay. You know what your mother would say, but you also know that what you say is in part what your mother would say and in part what your bosses would say, so to speak. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: There’s a part of you that is very much oriented toward the recognition of others, the serving to the community, the not putting yourself front and center. And then there’s another part of you that has ambitions, that wants to grow, that wants to advance in your career, that does want that kind of recognition, but without having to go and push your elbows. 

Caller: Yeah, our parents pushed us a lot academically, and it wasn’t ever for money or for recognition. It was to make an impact in the world. I have had to learn how to speak up because I’ve realized that that’s what’s going to allow me to get more responsibility at work, to succeed and then do what I came to do, which is to make a greater impact.

Esther: So that is actually very beautiful because you have learned to speak up. You have learned an individual practice for a collective outcome. 

Caller: Yeah, it backfires often. Like, you’re right, I have learned how to work in the corporate setting. And it’s always for the good of the rest of our team, but everyone else isn’t working in that paradigm. So it’s so easy to forget me when it comes time for those decisions or when it comes time for recognition, because I often feel like I’m being used, people will come to me and they know I’m not going to say no to something. I’ll help them with anything, but it doesn’t work both ways.

Esther: Are you the only woman of color on your unit? Is there diversity on your team? 

Caller: Our workplace is very inclusive and diverse. When I first started, I was the only person of color on my team. And now it’s a mix. Some projects I am, and other projects I’m not.

Esther: Do you have at all a sense that the reason that things don’t come your way is because of issues of race and color? Or is it because you think the system says this company, if you want to move ahead, you need to go and ask for it. They don’t offer it. 

Caller: Yeah, it’s definitely the latter. I don’t think it’s race. But it is definitely a company where self-promotion is absolutely critical as you continue to grow up the company.

Esther: Okay. So that’s a very important distinction. Because then, you know, the question becomes how can you do more of it without experiencing a value conflict? If I put myself in the center, I become the selfish person I’m not supposed to be. How do I put myself in the center in a way that actually furthers the impact that I seek to have?

And imagine, I was just thinking, what would that conversation sound like? You know, you go and you talk with whoever you need to negotiate the upgrade with, and you basically say, “This is a very interesting moment for me. I really know that there is a lot of appreciation for the work I do, and I’m very clear on that. And that feels very good. Where I’m from, when people outperform, one of the ways that people show their appreciation is by offering them a promotion. In the same way that we do not ask people if they want to drink something or eat something, we make sure that we put the food in front of them because we do not want somebody to have to ask.

It is very challenging for me to have to ask. It is not the cultural practice from which I come and I know that you are very interested in the concept of diversity and inclusion. This is a moment of talking about diversity as it comes to promotions. How different cultures do this.” 

Caller: Yeah, you know, it’s weird because I know we’re talking about work, but what you’re saying to me, it applies so much to my personal life. I think this is a huge point of tension between my partner and I, because even though he came to North America well after me, we were both born in Pakistan — sometimes I feel like he’s more well adjusted to the individualistic lifestyle than I am. We have similar conversations about how I feel like I do things without being asked and then I feel like I’m not loved enough because it’s not reciprocated and he often will be like, “But you didn’t ask me to do it.” He’s very good about like, “I’d like for you to acknowledge that I did this. I’d like for you to give credit where I did this,” and I don’t ask for that. And we have this back and forth where I’m like, “But I don’t ask for credit for things. I just do them because I know you like them.”

Esther: That is such a classic conversation that is often very vested in culture, because if it’s expected from you to do certain things, the last thing you look for is appreciation or recognition because it’s expected. If he says, “When I do certain things, I want to be acknowledged for it.” And you say, “Neither do I ask, neither do I expect to be acknowledged. But I wish you would just do.” And he says, “I will do when you ask because how else am I supposed to know?”

Caller: Yes. Like these conversations, they’re not just at home, but at work it will be something like my teammate during daily stand-up will be like, “I’m drafting an email today to send out to so and so,” and I wouldn’t ever come and say that’s what’s taking up my time. I would just come and say, “I’ve sent the email already.”

Esther: Do you feel you would be comfortable identifying the riches of this conversation? The nuances of this conversation? Exactly the way that you and I are having it right now. That is an interesting difference here. It is totally accepted for you to talk about the hardships of the email that takes two days or the fact that you’ve really put time aside to do this. And it is so interesting how easily people who grow up here, sometimes — because there are many people who are like you and they don’t even have the cultural camouflage to really explain it, but they experience their internal life like you. But many times, it’s true, people are encouraged to speak up, to say what they’ve done, to highlight the efforts that it takes. And it is a kind of a subtle invitation, or not so subtle invitation, for recognition. And on the side of your humility, you say, “I don’t make a big fuss. I just come and say it’s done.” But internally, you also expect the recognition. You actually do. But you don’t want to have to ask for it. The same way that you don’t want to have to ask for the cup of tea.

And if you made that conversation public, It would be a very interesting opening up of many layers of communication that exist in your workplace and in your marriage. Shed a light onto this. This is so interesting. This is not me and you. These are two different cultures. But interestingly, in both cultures, there is an expectation of recognition. It’s just that in one, you’re allowed to make a big deal to show that you deserve it, and in the other, your actions should speak for themselves, and everybody learns to maintain harmony by giving the recognition without the other person having to ask for it. It’s considered a form of attunement. You know that that’s what you’re supposed to do. You know that you’re supposed to ask, “Shall I carry your bags?” And not wait for the other person to say, “Can you help me?”

Caller: Oh my God, yes. This actually happened the week after the wedding. My brother got mad at my husband because he didn’t pick up my bags and he was letting me carry my suitcase in and my brother was like, “Are you seriously just going to let her do that? Like she’s never going to ask for help.” And it created so much tension because it’s just two different ways of looking at the world.

Esther: But your husband knows the code. It’s not like it’s a foreign code to him, right? 

Caller: I don’t think that it is, that he was raised the same way. It’s also partially a gender thing.

Esther: You can leave the word “partially” out of it, but go ahead. 

Caller: It is a gender thing. I think in South Asia, there’s a different expectation of how women behave in society and how men behave in society. One of the things I’ve learned through this whole marriage process is how much effort we, in South Asia, focus on making sure that women know what to do, how to do it, how it affects everybody else, what the consequences of their actions are, even before they think it. Whereas men kind of haphazardly can go through life and make mistakes and it’s okay.

Esther: What is the child order of your husband? 

Caller: He’s a middle child.

Esther: How did he respond to your brother? 

Caller: He’s definitely on the quieter side, so he didn’t say anything, but he was very upset at me that he felt like he was being blamed for something that he didn’t have the intention to do.

Esther: Do you think he minded to carry your luggage or that he just in his mind it was, ‘If you need help you’ll ask”? 

Caller: I mean having had these conversations I know it’s the latter, but my knee-jerk reaction is that he didn’t care.

Esther: Right. So this is where you will need to learn a little bit more to interpret his behavior from his vantage point. Otherwise, you’re going to continuously confirm every time he doesn’t help you, every time he doesn’t thank you, every time he doesn’t acknowledge you, it will continuously be interpreted through the same lens. And you’re going to end up feeling very unloved, which is part of why I’m imagining you began to say that you may not have married him had you known all of this.

Caller: No, I already knew these things. I think what I didn’t know is … leading up to the wedding, I knew what is expected of me and what my parents expect, and what our family expects, and how to do that from a societal point of view. And he’s very much like, “Well, I don’t want to do this because I don’t want this. And that’s it, period.” It ended up leading to a lot of conflicts between us.

One of my solutions to this conflict and this constant stress we were both under was to tell him that he should go take a vacation for a week. I learned after the wedding that he started talking to someone else on that vacation, and it wasn’t anything, I guess — maybe other people would call it not cheating, but to me, it was a huge blow because at the end of the day, it was the same thing. How could you not have thought about how much this would hurt me? How did you not care? And his response was that, in that moment, he wasn’t thinking about anyone else but himself. And I went through an even harder time because it’s always harder for the girl, especially in South Asian weddings. And if I’m being honest, I thought about running away. And I wasn’t able to do work that I enjoy. I wasn’t able to just relax and enjoy that, because I constantly felt guilty about having to do something in relation to wedding prep. So I thought about running away and doing something for myself. But I didn’t because all I could think about was how disappointed he or my family or his family would be.

Esther: And have you and him been able to work through some of what happened between him and you? 

Caller: The hardest part about all of this is I found out maybe a few days after we got married and we still had a solid week left with our family. So I had to suck it up and make sure we were a happy married couple. And when I came back, it was very hard for me to think about anything or feel anything because I had spent so much time just numbing it. I am very in tune with my emotions but I can also, it becomes really hard to reconnect with them if I’ve shut them off.

Esther: Well, it’s not that you shut them off only, it’s that you put them aside because your emotions are not to be more important than the social convention and the maintaining of the social harmony and the relationships with all the families. So that is where the individual has to step back behind the collective and the community. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: You do have the opportunity through your husband to learn to speak up as much as he has the opportunity through you to learn to become much more attuned to the needs and the feelings of the person next to him and not just to say “This is what works for me. Why don’t you adapt? You learn to be like me.” No. If he chose you and he chose someone who is so adept at thinking about others, you are adept at thinking about him, then the goal is not just for you to continue to think about him and to presume every need he may have ahead of himself but also for him to become more sensitive and attuned and attentive to you.

And for you to use the opportunity to say I’m going to learn through him to be a little bit more outspoken, to be a little bit more vocal, because it ultimately will serve me a little bit as well and not in the instrumental sense of serving, but if I chose someone who’s good at thinking about himself, it’s because sometimes I could learn a little bit of that.

It’s like each of you chose someone whose proclivities match your vulnerabilities. And the same thing will apply at work but in a more broader sense. You’re going to use your knowledge of a different cultural system to describe that to the people and that it applies not just to you because you are from Pakistan but it applies to probably other people on the team who are quieter, who are waiting for others to notice them rather than to push themselves on the front stage, and that you will be a good interpreter of that dynamic. So it goes beyond you, and you can explain exactly that. It’s very interesting. This company works on one model. But I’d like for you to know there’s another way to go about this that would actually make quite a lot of people here feel much more acknowledged, much more appreciated, and therefore much more engaged, and therefore probably even more productive.

Caller: So what I’m hearing from you is self-love translates to having a voice and practicing using it both at work and in my personal life.

Esther: Yes, but you may use the word self-love — I think that if you know that when you speak up, you’re not just doing it for you only, you will have less of a concern that to be vocal is to be selfish and that you have to stay subdued, subservient, and subjugated in your role as a woman and that you should not ask for too much, and that you should wait for your turn, and that you should think about how your needs affect everybody else, and all of that code. If I just talk to you about self-love in the American sense of the word, you’re gonna experience a conflict in doing it. Because you will feel like you’re doing everything against the thing that you were brought up to be.

But the one thing they did say in your house is being educated, being learned, being very ambitious, being very successful, is about impact. And as long as you don’t just see this as benefiting you, you will have a much easier time to experience what you call self-love because the love of the self benefits the community rather than just yourself.

Caller: Yeah. I didn’t see it that way.

Esther: How does it land on you now? 

Caller: I mean, it’s definitely harder, but I think this is the little trinket to remind myself. Because it’s very easy for me to stand up for someone else, to ask for things I know that are going to be good for the rest of the project, or are going to be good for the team, but if it’s just solely about me, then I will keep waiting to be asked about it.

Esther: Tell me something: Do you have people on your team who can do for you what you do for them? 

Caller: I’m trying to build those. I’m trying to give people the opportunity to do that.

Esther: You know, when they used to measure social competence of children in school, they often looked at the kids who put their hands up as the children who are more socially competent and more assertive and more confident and more engaged, etc., etc. And they therefore interpreted the kids who didn’t put their hands up as having less of all those social competencies, rather than looking at the fact that these children may have come from different cultures and different backgrounds in which putting your hands up was considered boastful, attention seeking, and selfish.

Caller: You’re describing my childhood right here.

Esther: So you don’t have a problem. It becomes, maybe, sometimes problematic in this environment, but that doesn’t mean you have a problem, and that you lack self-love. You are raised with a different code, and it becomes interpreted as a lack of self-love. You have a lot to teach the people that you work with about other ways of being in the world, and other ways of being in relationship to other people.

Now that said, you’re going to choose your mentors. You’re going to choose your allies. You’re going to choose the people who sometimes can go to bat for you when you don’t feel that you are the best representative. There are loads of people who need other people sometimes to negotiate on their behalf.

And you are right; these are the very same people who are often wonderful at negotiating for others. So it’s not that you don’t know how to do it, it’s that you have learned not to do it on your behalf. But you have learned this. Can you unlearn it? Yes, to a certain degree you can learn to do it differently. If you so choose to. How does all this resonate for you? 

Caller: Yeah, I think it’s just kind of looking at the box from a different angle. It’s a way of looking at things that I hadn’t looked at before, so thank you for that.

Esther: And how are you feeling right now? Because I don’t see you, but I hear your tears, and I hear your sadness.

Caller: At work we often talk about creating a culture not where people fit in but where people belong. It’s two different things. I think with that point of view, I feel like I’ve been trying very hard always to fit in and maybe not taking the time to share with people how they could make me feel like I belong.

Esther: Beautiful. In this conversation, you try to fit in, or you belong? 

Caller: I guess in this conversation, I felt like I just am, and I tried to just be. So, I guess I felt like I belonged.

Esther: Because you honored the many parts of you. 

Caller: Yeah, and I guess you heard the many parts of me, so thank you for that.

Esther: So, I invite you, because we only have one very brief conversation, but if you can take some of that with you to work and home, where you hold on to the many parts, not rigidly, but openly, and that beautiful distinction you just made. Instead of putting all the effort in fitting in, fitting in as a wife, fitting in as an employee, that you cultivate the experience of belonging. But you are right. It is a reciprocal experience. It’s not something you do alone. It’s something that the culture, the environment of the place where you are, the relationship you are in, or the team you are on, they are direct co-creators of the feeling of belonging.

Caller: Yes.

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