12/07/2014 12:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Maiden, Mother, Bitch


In my sessions with private clients, I often find myself working with traditional female archetypes. The young women I see are often in the midst of their maiden years, trying to figure out just who they are and where they belong the world.

My clients in their 30s and 40s (and sometimes 50s) are fully immersed in their mothering years, where caring for themselves usually takes a back burner to caring for their children. These women almost always suffer from a superwoman complex -- feeling they must do everything and do it better than anyone else has before them or they're not good enough. This complex "works" for them for a time, until they grow resentful -- of their children, their spouse, their boss, the world. At that point Superwoman often takes on more of a Martyr complex. She still, begrudgingly, does it all, but she makes sure you know what she's sacrificed for you.

This is a complex with which I am very familiar. I grew up with it. My mother had the superwoman/martyr down to a T. It's something we've discussed over the years. At one point I even accused her of liking her role as martyr; an accusation she vehemently denied. Yet, last week I came to a shocking realization. I had become my mother. I had been wearing my superwoman/martyr cape for so long I didn't even know I had put in on. And that both shocked and saddened me.

I had an illuminating conversation with my boyfriend about this issue. He asked me, "What happened in your childhood to make you think you always had to do everything for everyone?"

"My whole childhood was that way," I replied. It wasn't any one thing; it was everything. It was what was expected, how I was raised. I was taught that life was about being of service to others -- at expense to yourself. That's how you prove your worth, your value.

Then it occurred to me: I have a choice. I don't have to be a martyr. Women in my generation have many more opportunities than our mothers did. We can choose to play out a different role, roles that our mothers never dreamed possible.

But if I'm not a martyr -- if I'm not proving my worth by doing -- then what am I?

I learned growing up that I must be of service to others at my own expense. Anything less was selfish. So if I decide to choose differently -- to not be of service at my own expense -- then what does that make me? According to women who suffer the martyr complex, likely I'd be a selfish bitch. agrees: A bitch is "a malicious, unpleasant, selfish person, especially a woman."

I disagree.

In her book, The Bitch, the Crone, and the Harlot, Susan Schacterle defines a bitch as:

A positive archetype of a Bitch at midlife is that of a woman who has become so comfortable with who she is that she doesn't hesitate to take appropriate action in any situation. Her actions are no longer so governed by what others think, but rather by what she knows to be true. This is a woman whose intuition is so well-developed that she knows in her gut what to do. Part of her personal mission is to perform actions that are shaped by integrity, insight, and compassion. This woman can make things happen anywhere but, unlike the street-defined bitch, there is no selfishness, no unkindness about her; she takes action and creates results that are the highest and best for everyone involved, within a framework of wisdom and love.

Now that's a definition I can aspire to! Who wouldn't want to be a bitch with that definition? Sign me up!

Yet, if you called a woman a "bitch," I'm guessing very few would say thank you. The negative connotation of the term is too powerful.

So what if we, as women, decided to change that? What if we hung up our superwoman capes and said "no thank you" to the martyr complex? What if we embraced our inner bitch, understanding that meant saying yes to our intuition? Our compassion? Ourselves? What if, for once, we were finally and truly comfortable in our own skin? What if we felt free to speak our truth and walk in our power?

I'm willing to aspire to be a bitch. Will you join me?