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I am a grown-ass woman. And I was a grown-ass woman a few years back when I received a job offer that thrilled me to no end — but also made me challenge my whole concept of what I’m capable of.
It came at a time after I’d been laid off in one of the ever-increasing rounds of cuts that signaled the death march to the end of Time Inc. I’d taken a pay cut in the job after that, which made things tight for this single mother with teens, but I’d weathered that storm as I’d figured out what was next, knowing it was time to pivot out of traditional magazines and journalism. This new job offer gave me that pivot, put me back to my last top salary, and bonus, it came with stock. I was thrilled.
Then a wise girlfriend of mine who happens to work in the HR lane told me: ask for $20K more. I looked at her like she was nuts. “Are you kidding me? They’re going to take the offer back!”
Yes, I actually said that.
I know that much has been written about how working women should know their worth in the job market and seek to be compensated accordingly. That we should play the negotiation game like most men do, with audacity. That we should approach things from a place of strength and not weakness. Yes, yes, and amen to all of that. But that also presupposes that you’re not working with a truckload of complicated self-narratives based on years of trauma and other events that form your worldview.
I could not have been a bigger believer in asking for more. Okay, let me rephrase that: I could not have been a bigger believer in telling others that they should always ask for more.
Even though I’d worked in so-called elite spaces and had a career I’d enjoyed and where I was respected, my own past of being sexually abused as a child had imprinted a survival method that has spread its tentacles into every part of my life, including my work world. That lesson? Do not call attention to yourself because that way lies trouble and no good can come of that. Go along to get along. The conflict? My true nature is one that loves to create and excel, reveling in all things creative and wanting to be seen for all that I am and have to offer the world.
In my working world that translated to wanting to fly high with big ideas, inherently putting myself forward and stepping into the spotlight. But I often muted that impulse and capped my own expectations of what I could achieve, even while paying lip service to self-empowerment. I was living a life that said, You’re lucky to be in the big game, so just stay quiet and no one will realize that you maybe shouldn’t be there. It was a combo platter of imposter syndrome and distorted self-perception, with an added dash of PTSD.
I was doing what many of us do, which is pack up our decades worth of baggage, carry them into each new space, and then wonder why life feels so heavy and difficult.
I remember when I was turning 40 everyone told me that would be the age when I’d reach some nirvana of self-empowerment, not caring what others thought and blazing out into my truest form. I didn’t find that to be true for me. I was still in survival mode as a newly single mom, trying to find the balance between being pragmatic and not operating out of fear.
I’m closer to 50 now and I have only recently started to drink in that sense of true self-knowledge I was promised would come. I can thank therapy — and the work I did there — for shifting me from crisis management to self-exploration, which allowed me to share my real self with my carefully cultivated circle of friends.
So how did my negotiation play out? After reminding me that the worst thing that could happen is that the offer number wouldn’t budge, my friend helped me craft the language for the ask. I pushed through my discomfort, and I received significantly more than what was first offered. Not only did I come out ahead financially — God, I’m still so thankful not to be one paycheck away from disaster anymore — but I found true wealth in taking the next step to becoming my truest self.
Abby West heads up Multicultural Content Programming at Audible and co-founded the Black Employee Network, an Audible ERG. She is a recovering journalist and true pop-culture junkie, whose years at prominent media organizations such as Essence, Entertainment Weekly, and People have given her a love of stories that explore, empower, and celebrate underrepresented communities.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto