Dedicated to Carol Scott (and women everywhere who have believed in others more than themselves)
Cool Women are not actually cool in the modern sense. When I say ‘cool women’ I am not talking about dress or any sense of fashion. Nor am I describing cleverness or some level of professional achievement. Rather, the cool woman moniker describes a woman who is somewhat aloof, inaccessible emotionally, yet is otherwise quite frequently intriguing, setting up an allure maybe even a mystery about her that one wants to know more about. Cool women are typically smart in some way, acquire a veneer of social grace or competency and are otherwise invitational in nature. They are often accomplished in speech and have established a sense of presence for themselves as part of their demeanor and polished façade.
The cool woman façade creates the impression that she is agreeable, obliging but in actuality is anything but. She often displays these characteristics towards both males as partners and friends but this is particularly true with females who may seek emotional closeness with them. What is not always apparent initially is that the cool woman is far more focused on performance and meeting or exceeding social/class expectations (whether professionally or domestically) both for themselves and for their children. This leaves any genuine emotional intimacy or connection with others a distant second, fearing destabilization from it.
As a consequence, this achievement driven focus often prevents them from affirming positive qualities or accomplishments in others. Instead, the cool woman typically withholds direct such feedback defaulting instead to a subtle critique ‘for one’s own good.’ Furthermore, cool women typically view other women as rivals, sending out ‘signals’ that other’s read as ‘better than’ with their own position relegated to ‘less than.’ Even if no rival signals exist, other women feel ‘in competition’ with the cool woman since the strong desire for closeness sought but withheld becomes a challenge.
One can easily be fooled by cool women when they are exceptionally good at utilizing linguistic skills of an intellectual nature. The most accomplished cool woman suggests closeness without ever having to deliver it. This is in contrast to the cold woman who either has an edge to her persona, is overtly critical, or even aggressive. Someone drawn to a cool woman for psychological reasons may become quite frustrated with her since she rarely if ever lets others in to the most vulnerable recesses of the cool woman’s heart.
Why does this matter to me? My mother was a cool woman. Never did I truly know how she felt about me or anyone else for that matter. Yet, I couldn’t help but sense she loved me on some level. She never stated it directly nor did she indicate any valuable quality of mine, which of course held mystery and confusion for me. This ‘loved’ belief largely rested on the fact that, as a homemaker, she was present throughout most of my childhood and adolescence. She seemed to communicate caring through her homemaking acts, preparing all her daughters to become like her as their first responsibility, and only secondarily acting on any sort of intellectual or creative talent or impulse.
This is not to say, she didn’t value education and wasn’t promotional of it. She was. She had a bachelor’s degree in education and, you guessed, home economics, which she used to support herself before marriage and later on, ironically, to help fund college educations for her daughters. Yet, the modeling she consistently portrayed was that of homemaker and wife and not as a professional woman. This would sound counter intuitive to the cool woman described above were it not for the fact that all of her private resources were used to keep others from accessing her true feelings. In short, my experience with her was that she was never truly accessible emotionally to any of us children, with the modest exception being her youngest daughter.
Homemaking was mother’s achievement and she did it well. She knew how to do it right even if that was a subjective interpretation of hers. Furthermore, homemaking was the measuring stick we were to be measured against. She was not alone in this belief system in that it was common to many, many women in the 1950’s and earlier. Yet, this focus was also the barrier that kept me separated from her and ultimately from a portion of myself. Homemaking was not interesting to me. Cooking, sewing (only out of necessity) and the ‘domestic arts’ was boring! Making the perfect pie, having dinner on the table at the right time, tending the perfect garden, sewing the best dress were her priorities. We children seemed to be unwitting accomplices in the protective coating she established for herself.
How did she create the impression she was accessible when in truth she was not? In short, she had all the characteristics of the cool woman described above but with her own unique expression of them. She had lively eyes when something tickled her. She possessed the most beautiful soprano voice when she sang. She was physically present throughout nearly all of my upbringing with the exception of my junior and senior year in high school when she went back to work in a home economics classroom. And when she did go back to work, she seemed to come alive. Some distant renewed spark ignited and for a time, she became a different person. She actually displayed personal enthusiasm as opposed to the robotic nature I witnessed during all the years that came before.
Why does any of this matter to my perception of cool women in general now? Without being fully aware, I seem to have been looking for warmth and affirmation from my mother in the bodies, personalities, and relationships of other cool women I have come in contact with throughout my life. Of course, this has been to no avail. Unwittingly, I’m drawn to cool women as if by some magnetic force field all in an effort to make a particular cool woman let me in, to even affirm me in some way. It seems I have been attracted to cool women friendships and professional connections so that I might finally get from one (or more) of them what I was unable to get from my mother. While this is certainly a frustrating psychological dynamic, there has always been an accompanying suppressed fear that I might be a cool woman myself!
In contrast to cool women, warm women are easily accessible emotionally and psychologically in that they are open, willingly tell you how they feel and want to know how others are feeling. They are generally nurturing and affirming of others although they may or may not be self-nurturing. In addition, the warm woman usually has a positive outlook on life and is not cynical or critical. If she happens to criticize, it is delivered in thoughtful language that is mindful of the other person’s feelings while still being clear, thus softening any blow which may or may not occur.
Warm women are often (though not always) adept at raising children, instilling a strong sense of self worth due to ongoing overt affirmations for their children’s personhood. Warm women are noticeably loving and loveable. While they readily acknowledge accomplishment and achievements, the warm woman also clearly communicates another’s value unrelated to performance, relying instead on acknowledgement of and a genuine affection for a person’s essence.
The warm woman is often a good listener, conscious of not only what you have to say but your right and need to say it. Her general demeanor is one of kindness and observable awareness for how another is handling their life, their pursuits, and their struggles. She is eager to communicate with friends and family about her own life’s experiences as well as learn about those for whom she cares. She will even drop what she is doing sometimes, making an obvious effort to connect as opposed to ‘half listening’ or putting a person off to finish some task.
In addition to being open and receptive to others, she frequently initiates unsolicited communication with close friends and family members to inquire how they are and/or support them emotionally in whatever way is reasonable. In most all things she is self-assured and confident and even when she is not, she is aware of her shortcomings and works to correct them. The warm woman is open to self-critiquing as long as it is constructive. She listens well to other’s concerns about her, taking subsequent steps to either address a perceived slight or change ongoing behaviors that may be disruptive to a relationship. This is due in part to the high value she places on relationships in general.
Why do warm women matter to me? Warm women are infinitely appealing for their very warmth, concern, and ability to extend themselves in a friendship. As a general rule, this trait carries through in primary relationships with partners as well. Yet, being raised by a cool woman, and even in the face of being drawn to warm women, they are quite baffling to me. Why? In short, they are unfamiliar territory and at certain points, I become skeptical of positive feedback even when offered. At this point, I may become irritable and look for reasons to push the warm woman away. While this occurs more frequently in friendships, it has also occurred in work relationships, disbelieving accolades.
Because I’m far more familiar with cool women (though ultimately, unsatisfied) they remain my default recognition as potential friends. This has rarely, if ever, been conscious. Yet, warm women are who I crave to spend time with, work with, and develop bonds with. I seek them out like a plant needing water yet the essential elements I crave ultimately limit the friendship when the warm woman praises my accomplishments or positive qualities. The early stages of a friendship of sharing and general optimism typically remain robust, the caring and comfort they provide leave me feeling liked/loved and supported. What’s more, it feels natural that I reciprocate; at least that’s how I perceive it at my end. It is only once I am affirmed or nurtured to a greater degree that I get into trouble. It is the classic ‘approach-avoidance’ syndrome at which point I head for the hills emotionally.
As a result of affirmation deprivation in my early life, I have tried to cultivate warm women behaviors, to lavish praise and support on others although I am more than a little conscious of withholding these traits as well. What’s more, as recent consciousness of both cool and warm qualities has increased, I have become painfully aware of withholding affirmation or nurturing for me! In fact, books or affirmation cards designed to boost a woman’s self esteem leave me skeptical, even scoffing, due to the uncertainty in my own worth, consistent with my disbelief when hearing positive feedback from others.
Why do I contend I have ‘no experience’ of positive affirmation or praise? Because even when given I think surely the deliverer must be mistaken! In my mind, I simply discredit it, however subtly. What’s worse, I am more likely to believe affirmations from a man than a woman which is ironic since I rarely received it from my father, quite the opposite. He was more likely to criticize while mother was flat out mute.
Enter Carol. I was blessed with a lifelong friendship with a woman who died several years ago. She was the warmest, most affirming, caring, loving person I have ever known. For several decades our friendship thrived. And even if I did not quite believe my value as seen through her eyes, I did value the fact that she valued me. Later on, however, there was a change. As I began to have professional successes, she would offer exceptionally glowing praise. Astonishingly, I found ways to criticize her though never directly. I found myself irritated when she would be ‘in awe’ of something I had done, which sounds crazy to the well adjust psyche. In fact, I would be so irritated and skeptical of her accolades I concluded there was something wrong with her, which just goes to show how uncomfortable I became with increasing acknowledgement and affirmation of my talents.
But the mind’s eye criticism I once directed at her has boomeranged. I have become more and more aware of what has always been deficient in me, which is my inability to acknowledge my own self worth and accomplishments from the inside. What was not provided in my formative years from an external (the mother) has left me at a perceived loss, though not an insurmountable one.
At times this feels like a handicap although not such a handicap that it can’t be worked through and overcome. With increasing awareness, I can make different decisions about what to believe about myself, to question early messages or lack thereof. With increasing awareness I can also make different decisions that acknowledge upon hearing positives by others, that they are trustworthy. After all, while being drawn to cool women out of familiarity, and possibly even by sharing some of their characteristics, I know the healthy and happy path for me is to overcome my discomfort and flight patterns both figuratively and literally when I hear supportive qualities or accomplishments about myself from warm women. I can also stop being drawn to cool women, stop expecting unrealistic outcomes. At the heart of it, I can cultivate the courage to make a seismic shift, to stop looking for ‘love’ in all the wrong places.
Oftentimes (though by no means always) a warm and listening heart, an affirming and positive demeanor is the quality I have provided others over the course of my lifetime even though I have withheld it from myself. Psychological ‘programming’ embedded as distorted beliefs are tough to identify in ones’ self, let alone, dismantle. While I think this is true for many women (as well as men,) it is time I accept the truth about myself in this regard. It is time for me, without the external craving for or the denial of it, to truly see what I have been incapable of seeing previously, to own my worth, to see what I may be capable of both personally and professionally, and to love and nourish myself independent of it all.