The issue of empowerment and ambition for women is confusing. We’re told that we can do anything, compete alongside men, be rewarded and recognized for our achievements – and – we have been socialized to be likable, to get along, to be attractive, and to keep improving ourselves. What we experience when working in traditionally male dominated fields is that we battle to be accepted, to be heard and valued for our contributions, and to advance our careers.
If you take away only one thing from this article, let it be this: the oppressive messages (spoken and unspoken) that you receive from others are based on their own faulty beliefs, perceptions and projections about women. You have adopted those as your own incorrect beliefs and they have become part of your self-identity. Internalized oppression is habitual negative thinking and beliefs that you use against yourself. The good news is that you can stop it. One oft-suggested approach is to “fake it till you make it”, but this will only go so far. What is required is that you work on your mindset and beliefs as well as the actions you take.
If you have held yourself back from sharing your talents in an authentic way, do not despair! It’s not too late to connect with your passions, find your power and stop settling for mediocrity.
…Playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
– Marianne Williamson
Overcoming Internalized Oppression
In working with women on this issue, I’ve noticed that as they begin to think and act in more empowered ways, their confidence and self-esteem rise naturally. They feel more ease, joy, freedom and grace, because they have chosen to stop holding themselves back.
Here’s what I recommend you do: print this out and place it somewhere you can see it every day. Pick one or two items from the list to begin making small changes. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can shift your perspective and energy.
Acknowledging that you’ve been holding yourself back and limiting your career growth can be painful at first. Start working with your beliefs and thoughts to regain your sense of empowerment and to find freedom to choose a path forward.
Mindset #1: I am in charge of my thoughts. Get serious about interrupting the mental patterns you’ve developed. Cultivate a mindfulness practice. Awareness is vitally important in the work of transformation because the mental habits of self-doubt and dis-empowerment can be interrupted when we see them as they are occurring. There are many resources to get started if you’re new to mindfulness practices. The Headspace App is a great tool to begin a practice on your own (the first 10 sessions are free).
Mindset #2: I will not give up on myself. When you catch yourself internalizing a negative thought, stop. Rather than judging yourself for having the negative thought, have some compassion for yourself. Then summon some determination and turn around the internalization to healthy self-advocacy. For example, if you’re shut down in a meeting and you start to think, “I didn’t make my point clear, there’s something wrong with me”, switch it to “Don’t give up. I have an important point to make and I want to be heard”. Approach self-advocacy in a non-aggressive but assertive way.
Mindset #3: My thoughts and opinions are important. Replace the doubting, insecure, and negative self-talk with positive messages. I know this sounds trite, but my own experience is that it works if you do it with compassion, kindness, and courage. Remind yourself of your strengths and gifts to share with the world. You deserve respect, to be heard, and to be treated fairly.
Mindset #4: I am the authority of my life. Women are conditioned to seek approval from male authorities (e.g. bosses, fathers, spiritual leaders, and “experts”). The price? Not trusting yourself and not listening to your inner knowing. When this becomes a habit you avoid your own inner knowing and are cut off from the wisdom that lies within you. Start to see yourself as the authority figure from whom you need to get approval, and stop seeking to get it from others. Trust your own experience. When you trust your own experience you develop your own inner knowing and intuition—both are essential for personal empowerment.
Mindset #5: I learn from mistakes and I move on. Understand that the process of becoming self-empowered may be messy. As you learn new ways of communicating and relating to others, you may make some mistakes. Stay out of the shame trap and keep moving forward. Success is ahead, not behind.
Strong feelings may arise as you pay more attention to unconscious bias projected on you. It’s important to acknowledge the feelings and look deeply at your own internalized oppression. The key is to not get stuck in the pain and anger, but to transform it into healthy action.
Fall down 7 times, get up 8. – Japanese Proverb
Take Action – Shattering the Inner Glass Ceiling
Look at your own self-empowerment in your interactions and start taking action on your own behalf. You don’t need to wait for someone else to tell you what to do or what you need, but you do need to be responsible for your own choices and the realization of your goals. Here are the actions that I recommend to stop holding yourself back and to become more resilient and empowered in your life.
Action #1: Boomerang micro-aggressions. If someone is displaying a negative bias about you, turn it around and inquire into their intent. Start by mirroring back what you heard and share with them how you interpreted what was said. Ask if your interpretation is what was intended and then be quiet and listen. You may learn more about how you’re perceived (which you can act on) or how they may be operating from a false belief or perception (which you can correct them on). Both are liberating and keep you from internalizing.
Action #2: Stand your ground. Speak up when interrupted or when someone takes credit for your ideas. Don’t let big personalities run you over. You don’t need to get mean or hostile, but try one of the following replies to interruptions or idea stealers:
“That’s a great idea; we can talk about that when I’m done.”
“Please hold your questions and comments until I’m finished”
“Thank you for bringing up this idea that I proposed earlier.”
“Excuse me, is that different from what I just said?”
“You’re right, that’s exactly the point I’m making.”
“I didn’t interrupt you when you were speaking, and I would appreciate the same courtesy”
Action #3: Set clear boundaries. Let others know what’s ok and not ok. If you let people say or do things that are not ok it will leave you feeling resentful, angry and victimized. Step out of victimization into integrity, strength and courage. Let go of worrying about what other people will think. The goal of setting your boundaries is to communicate your needs and improve your relationship, not alienate or punish the other person.
Action #4: Take some risks. It’s easy to look at others success and assume that they’ve had it easier than you or they got lucky. What really happened is that they were willing to take bigger risks. Start taking risks and stretching yourself past your fears. This may feel really hard if you’ve had a lot of self-doubt, but holding yourself back will ensure that you will not reap the rewards nor feel the exhilaration of doing more than you thought possible.
Action #5: Review the environment you live and work in. You may need to make some changes and leave toxic or unhealthy surroundings. If you work for a company that isn’t actively addressing the unconscious bias, talk to women in leadership positions or HR (if you think they can support you) and ask that they start advocating for women. If you feel like you are in a no-win situation, get out! Find people who are uplifting, positive and supportive of your growth. I have seen many women change companies and go from feeling completely defeated to feeling motivated and inspired when they landed in the right culture.
Action #6: Hire a coach. Trying to stay on top of everything can feel overwhelming. After the initial awareness and motivation wears off you may drop back into self-defeating patterns. A good coach will understand the challenges you’re facing and keep you focused on staying empowered. Going it alone can be hard… it’s like trying to perform surgery on yourself.
Action #7: Get support from other women. Invest your time and energy in connecting with other women in person to discuss your fears, your challenges, and your dreams. Find some amazing role models who have successfully learned to clearly see through gender discrimination, who know how to stay empowered, and who can manage their emotions in healthy ways. And stay away from negative, angry people who are stuck in being a victim.
Action #8: Stand tall and proud. Physically change your body language to generate feelings of power (have you seen Amy Cuddy’s TED talk?). Raise your energy levels with exercise. With more body awareness and connection we feel more confident.
Action #9: Help other women and be a role model. Start listening deeply to other women, and if you hear them being self-critical or doubting of their capabilities and you believe they have a wrong perception of themselves, kindly let them know you disagree and share your evidence as to why you feel that way. Publicly support women when you see them being treated unfairly. Buddy up with women co-workers and agree to have each other’s backs in meetings.
Action #10: Manage your energy. Stop overworking and focus on staying calm and slowing down. You’ll appear more confident and have more mental and emotional resources to deal with the tough times. If you’re exhausted, focus on restoring yourself first.
Wish for me courage and strength and a sense of humor. I will need them all.
– Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Start talking with other women you trust, ask for honest feedback about how they perceive you, and ask for their support in your desire to stop holding yourself back. Notice how just by making a few changes can have a huge impact in your life. As you become more authentic and aligned with your passions, your desire and determination to achieve success will be restored naturally. And as other women see you realizing your goals they will be inspired to step up and shine too!
Which of these mindset changes or actions will you take today?
I invite you to connect with me on LinkedIn or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.