Women – colleagues and friends and acquaintances and mentees – sometimes tell me about the things that hold them back, that bother them in the workplace and in life. And there’s one refrain I keep hearing. Over cocktails or coffee or dinner or tea. In group chats and personal heart-to-hearts. A refrain that sticks with these women for months or years.
“People say I’m too prickly.”
Too prickly. The implication is clear. YOU are too prickly. YOU are sticking the poor person (ok, man, it’s usually a man) with your mean, aggressive spines.
To be called prickly is to be called over-sensitive. It’s to be told your sensitivities, your concerns, don’t matter. If you were less prickly, less pointed, the suggestion goes, maybe people wouldn’t rear back, shake their hands and suck the tiny drops of blood you’ve drawn. Maybe they would be comfortable around you. Maybe they would listen to your concerns.
That blood, that discomfort, that dismissal, is your fault, you see. YOU need to soften. To bend your spines flat and file down their points. You need to be soft and pettable and pleasing.
I have never heard a man called prickly. Men aren’t prickly. They are pointed. They are demanding, they have high standards and they have valid concerns that must be taken seriously. They know what they want and how they want to be treated.
But when women set up those boundaries that say “I don’t want to be treated this way,” it’s not that they know what they want or how they want to be treated, or touched or talked to. It’s not that they suspect they are being talked over, not taken seriously or dismissed.
No, they’re just prickly.
But I don’t think they’re prickly. I don’t think they should dull their spines. When I think of prickly, I think of a cactus.
Cactuses are prickly. It’s their defining feature. But prickles are not an aggressive weapon. They are defensive. They are armor. They are something that plant had to develop, to stay alive and thrive in a harsh landscape where no plant should venture.
Spines aren’t there for fun. Spines are the result of millions of years of harsh evolutionary experiences. Spines aren’t for attack. They are for protection.
Each spine on a person is a boundary. A boundary they have for a reason. A prickle they have grown from their own professional and personal evolution. This thorn says “I won’t be dismissed.” That prickle says “don’t touch me without my permission.” That spine means “My concerns are valid.”
That armor is important. We need that protection. Within its spines a cactus stores water. It grows fat and succulent. It lets its flowers bloom and nurtures its fruit. Prickles allow a cactus to thrive. To care for itself.
And prickles don’t mean that no one gets in. The cactus wren likes a prickly cactus. It builds its nest in places well-protected by thorns. Bats and birds and insects gain access to a cactus’ flowers, without ever worrying about getting impaled. White-winged doves feast on their fruits.
Cactuses let the right animals in. The animals that respect the spines and avoid them. They know a cactus comes with spines, and the cactus will not blunt its spines for them. But if the spines are respected, the cactus shelters the wren. It feeds that bats and the birds and the insects. In its spiny shade an ecosystem thrives.
I want my friends and my colleagues and my people to not to be ashamed of their prickles. I hope some days they take pride in their spines. I hope they embrace them (carefully).
I want them to say:
“Yes, I have armor.
I am prickly because I need to be.
I am prickly because this is how I survive. This is how I thrive in an arid landscape.
I will not blunt my spines for you. I will not become pettable and sleek. My prickles are my boundaries. They are my standards. You violate them at your own peril.
Avoid the spines. Respect my boundaries. Maybe I will let you in.”