Lean Where?

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…..“I was surprised at how I reacted to the book,” my client Lauren said, sitting on the couch with her legs crossed wearing jeans and a black crew neck sweater.  She was referring to Lean In, a book written by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, that encourages women to be more assertive in the workplace.

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…..“I’ve always considered myself a feminist.  I’ve worked hard and think women should have the same opportunities men have.  It frustrates me that there are still more men at higher levels of management than women, and that men usually make more money than women,” she continued, shifting positions, now crossing her right leg over her left.

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…..“What was it that surprised you then?” I asked.

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…..“That I reacted against it.  She seems to be saying that in order to be successful in business women have to be more like men.  Her definition of success privileges the masculine.”

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…..“What do you mean by privileges the masculine?”

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…..“She privileges the masculine over the feminine.  She seems to want women to act more masculine.  And it’s not necessarily the leaning in part that bothers me, because I think women should be assertive and have a voice and have equal power.  But she seems to place more value on what has been traditionally masculine – fighting your way to the top, achieving a higher level of rank and leadership, competing to win.  And in the process, she seems to devalue what has been traditionally feminine – caring more about relationships and networking, and being present for your children, and finding meaning in pursuits beyond the workplace.”

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…..“You believe what have traditionally been considered more feminine pursuits or ways of being in the world aren’t as valued?” I asked.

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…..“Yes.  And I don’t even mean masculine and feminine as they relate to either men or women.  Men can be more feminine and women can be more masculine.  This is where all my college courses in Feminism come up, and I start going in circles, doubting myself,” she said rolling her eyes and sighing as if suddenly overwhelmed by all the thoughts flooding her mind.

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…..“What do you doubt?”

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…..“That I should criticize the book, or her brand of Feminism, when I imagine Sheryl Sandberg just wants women to be more empowered in the world.  And I admire her.  I admire the fact that she has worked her way to the top of a male dominated industry and that she’s so successful. She’s a leader, and a role model for young women.”

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…..“Yet you’re conflicted, because what success means to her is not what success means to everyone?”

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…..“Right.  Not everyone wants to be a top executive or CEO.  And not everyone is cut out for that kind of work.  Not everyone is a type A personality, or competitive, or outgoing.  Not everyone wants to be a leader, or drive profits, or be the center of attention.  Not everyone wants to lean in.  Some would prefer to lean out – to be on the quiet side, to be more introverted, or just focus on other things.  Or some might prefer to lean sideways, to have more influence horizontally than always striving vertically.”

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…..Her gaze shifted to the floor, now streaked with afternoon light.  She was silent for a few moments.

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…..“What are you thinking?” I asked.

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…..“That I’ve been trying to be someone I’m not for a long time.”

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…..Lauren later talked about her career in law, and how being an attorney didn’t suit her.  She was good at it and she made a good living.  But she had chosen the career for the wrong reasons. She had chosen the career in order to please her parents and gain respect.  Her real interests were of the creative sort:  painting, cooking, making jewelry.  But those were not serious enough pursuits for her younger self.

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…..As we explored further, she realized she had tried to be the woman her father wanted her to be: a high-powered attorney, constant in her dedication to success, to being the best.  Her father was an attorney as well, and had taught her his stratagems: how to build a solid case, skillfully argue a point, and win.  They spent countless hours at the dinner table debating.  She became a warrior, and learned to suit herself in armor and carry a sword, losing herself in the process.  It wasn’t difficult to see why Lauren reacted negatively to Sheryl Sandberg’s book.

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…..Lauren isn’t the first person to reluctantly follow in her parent’s footsteps or get into a career for the wrong reasons.  This story goes back thousands of years.  But we’ve finally reached a point in history where we can choose our work, and who we want to be, if we are fortunate enough to live in a place and be in a situation that offers us those opportunities.  And Lauren was ready to stop pretending she was someone she wasn’t.

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…..Hers wasn’t just a question of what she wanted to do, what career she wanted to pursue.  It was also a question of who she was as a person, and as a woman.  What roles or personas had she taken on only to please others or fit into some cultural expectation?

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…..In seeking answers to this question, I had recommended some books, one of which was The Female Brain, by UCSF neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, which revealed new research about the unique capacities and structures of the female brain, how it differs from the male brain, and why men and women often think and behave so differently.  This turned out to be a revelation for Lauren.  She was especially struck by the fact that while it was true fewer women had careers in science and engineering, it wasn’t due to them being less competent in math and science (as Harvard president Lawrence Summers had reported in a 2005 speech), but to their preference toward careers that were more social in nature.  “These are value decisions that are actually shaped by hormonal effects on the female brain compelling connection and communication,” wrote Louann Brizendine.

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…..“So maybe there aren’t a lot of women in high executive positions, at least in part, because a lot of women don’t want to be,” she said.

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…..This is where is gets tricky.  Louann Brizendine was initially rejected by publishers because they thought the premise of her book would be too controversial, that it would be considered sexist.  Some people respond in fear to the findings; they worry the differences will be used against women to oppress them, and that the equality women have fought so hard for will be questioned.

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…..But what if instead of trying so ardently to be politically correct, we opened ourselves to even wider possibilities?  What if the differences between men and women were honored and celebrated, instead of used against each other?  This may sound unrealistic, and it would not have been possible before the Feminist Movement.  And it is still not possible in many places around the world.  But those who have reached a certain level of awareness can begin to see women as equal to men, yet different; existing in limitless combinations and variations, each woman her own unique equation.

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…..These unique equations might include how and where she grew up, and what familial or cultural values, beliefs and customs were passed down to her.  They may include the era in which she was born, as well as the political and economic structures in effect during that era, within which she must operate and to which she must adapt.  They would most likely include her interests and innate talents, her personality type (introverted or extroverted and so on), and her dreams and desires – what feels to be her life purpose, her reason for being here; there may even be a spiritual element at play here, if she is a spiritual person who believes in some sort of soul, some enduring part of her in relation to something much larger than her.  And finally, they would include the structure and chemistry of her brain, in addition to the particular cocktail of hormones she was born with – more estrogen or more testosterone?  And so on.

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…..Lauren came to see me one hot August afternoon after a weekend in Big Sur, in the process of decoding her own equation.

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…..“It was good to get away,” she said.  I hiked the trails surrounding the hotel in the mornings, and read and stared out at the ocean later in the day.  I tried to accept myself for who I am.  Not censor myself.”

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…..“And what came up for you? What did you notice?” I asked.

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…..“That I like being reflective, and creative.  Not being in a courtroom.  I noticed that my mind naturally wanders toward cooking and what I’m going to make for my next dinner party, or book ideas or beautiful imagery or jewelry designs.  I even dream of jewelry designs sometimes.  The most incredible designs come to me in my dreams.”

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…..Young women today may not be as conflicted about the same issues the women of Lauren’s generation were.  Now forty-five, Lauren had been influenced by second wave Feminism, which saw women as being sexually objectified by the dominant patriarchy.  Lauren, like many women of her generation, rejected certain aspects of her own femininity, and vowed she would never wear a princess style wedding dress or change her last name or succumb to being just a stay-at-home mom who baked cookies.  She would instead become an attorney who would wear a simple wedding dress and keep her maiden name and be more likely to buy cookies than bake them.
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…..Today, young women are more influenced by third wave Feminism, and believe they can define beauty for themselves; they can be subjects versus objects of sexuality.  They can wear high heels and red lipstick, or a princess style wedding dress and change their last name and bake cookies, and still be intelligent and respected as women.

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…..The most prevalent form of backlash I’ve noticed with today’s generation of twenty-something women in my practice, consisting of women from San Francisco and Marin and the East Bay, is their ambivalence around dating and relationships.  Now that sexuality is so openly expressed and casual “hook-ups” are the norm, they tend to minimize their own desires to be in a committed relationship.  Several of my twenty-something clients have criticized themselves for being “too much of a girl” or for “acting like a crazy girl.”  They feel they have to be the cool girl, the girl without emotions, who isn’t needy.  It would be one thing if they actually didn’t want a serious, monogamous relationship.  But all of these girls did.  They were fighting against their own instincts and desires, and most likely their own brain and biology.

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…..In order to understand who we are, we have to be willing to listen to our ancestral bodies, to their ancient messages, containing codes and directives developed over thousands of years of evolution to ensure our survival.  And instead of going against nature, we can appreciate and learn to utilize what we were given, or at least yield to it, so we’re not stuck in conflict with ourselves.  The alternative is to remain blind to or to ignore our own nature, and to instead be unconsciously driven and ruled by it.

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…..This is not to say biology is destiny.  We can override impulses that don’t serve us.  Yet, the more we understand ourselves, our unique equation, the better equipped we are to know what we want, what fulfills us, what our purpose is, and how to best utilize our intrinsic talents and skills.

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…..We don’t have to turn away from what makes us unique as women, the way many turned away during the 2nd wave of Feminism.  And we don’t have to act more like men, or adopt traditionally masculine qualities or goals, the way some women still feel they must in order to lean in and succeed in the business world.  In fact, as the world changes, what are considered more traditional feminine qualities, or right brain capabilities, are projected to take center stage.
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…..According to A Whole New Mind written by Daniel Pink, these more feminine or right brain capabilities will be essential to success in the future.  “We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age.”  This is due to an increase in material abundance, globalization and outsourcing, and the extinction of professions that are now automated, or moving toward automation.

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……With all the freedoms we’ve gained as women, and all the progress still to be made, many of us are still trying to discover who we are and what we want.  With an increase in choice comes an increase in complexity.  Research about the female brain and hormones gives us greater insight into our biology and how it effects our thinking, emotions, behaviors and values, and also gives us permission to embrace and honor our femininity.  At the same time,  advocates like Sheryl Sandberg give us an insiders view from the top of Silicon Valley, and directions how to get there, if we choose that road.  For Sheryl Sandberg does acknowledge the road is not for everyone when she writes in her book, “I do not believe that there is one definition of success or happiness.  Not all women want careers.  Not all women want children.  Not all women want both.  I would never advocate we have the same objectives.”  Our objectives are ours to choose.
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* The name and some identifying details about this client have been changed in order to protect confidentiality.

About the Author

Lisa Nave

Lisa Nave is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Mill Valley, California.

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