Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reframing our Blind Spot

We do it everyday:  build and expand profit, negotiate, litigate truth, heal, write, create, and produce.  Powerful women are intelligent, competitive, confident and intuitive.  With a steady hand, we make decisions that cause multiple butterly effects.  Failure doesn't occur to us.  The higher the stakes, the clearer the focus.

So, when a stunningly beautiful woman with an MBA and JD told me that she was too afraid to risk disappointment to pursue an ambitious and successful man, I was floored.

When was the last time any of us handled a work issue with such preemptive failure?  What she was really saying was, "I don't know that I have enough going for me to land this one." Or, "I am not worthy of this man."  This reasoning sounds outlandish, especially given the numerous personal attributes she displays for everyone to admire.  However, the prolific nature of this script among powerful and professional women prevents us from discarding it as an anomaly.

Powerful women have a blind spot.  We don't recognize our own remarkable selves.  We come by it honestly.  After all, what drove us to pursue power in the first place?

Likely, we came about the thirst for power one of two ways.  The first rewinds to show an awkward teenage girl more interested in being Valedictorian than hearing the latest gossip.  It wasn't always her priority though.  She emerged to the same adolescent scene everyone else did, with the same curiosity, naivety, and vulnerability.  But, for a number of possible reasons, she didn't survive the social hazing:  physical immaturity, poverty, glasses, babyfat, or her dad showed up to the most recent Board of Education meeting to protest the teaching of evolution.  Regardless, rejection beget rejection, and soon she found herself watching rather than participating in the political forays of youth.  To her credit, she didn't waste her time.  Unencumbered by boyfriends, she learned new languages, studied, read, and traveled.  While her peers were negotiating sex, she was negotiating and translating in a third world country for humanitarian efforts eager to spread their influence.  Once her generation hit the work force, her far superior skills propelled her forward.  Every step or promotion was an opportunity to ease the early social insecurities and pain of rejection.

The second path, more tragic, shows the travels of a woman, who, as a young girl experienced abandonment and violation; stripped of control repeatedly.  She survives, but finds herself incapable of releasing control over every aspect of life and work.  For her, every step or promotion is one additional layer of protection from the ever-encroaching threat of powerlessness.

Either route brings the very baggage that leaves powerful women confident about everything but themselves and their lovability.  So how does a such a woman overcome her fears and take risks that involve her emotions?

The answer begins with how she categorizes her successes.  If she believes that her success was happenstance, or a lucky draw, she is likely to persist in her fear of risk.  After all, if she can't explain why she was successful, how can she guarantee that this success won't mysteriously disappear with equal random?  She replays the script that reminds her that she wasn't worthy of this by virtue of self, but chance smiled on her.  Her early perceptions of the cause and effect of rejection persist and she fails to move forward.

However, what if she begins to believe that, in fact, it is actually something about HER, that brought survival and success? What if she finds that she was genetically predetermined to survive in an accelerated fashion?  Wouldn't that change the script?  Instead of telling herself that her unlovability caused rejection, she is able to tell herself that her remarkability and uniqueness caused her to succeed despite being dealt a tough hand.  What if she was able to tell herself that she was predetermined to succeed?  Wouldn't that allow her to release her grip on self-protection and permit her to risk?

Scientific theories of a "survivor gene" are currently being explored in survivors of some of the most intense physical traumas.  Scientists are finding that what separates a survivor from one who succumbs to the trauma, may, in fact, be genetic.  While science is a long way from establishing data that can demonstrate a link to mental trauma, it is a worthwhile jumpstart to our own cognitive framing; a significant influence on who we are and who we may still become.

Powerful women must recognize, embrace, and deal with this blind spot.  You survived for reasons that are uniquely and amazingly you.  Start here and aim to risk. After all, don't we know how to deal with disappointment?  I'm not sure that any of us is really good at inaction.


  1. this blog is good. and deeply personal, and very sad in some ways even though it is also empowering. it made me think about how i do consider myself a powerful woman, and yet am constantly, profoundly afraid of failure in every arena, including the professional one, and how one of my crazy doctors in NY remarked on the very real difference between the way female and male phd students discussed their academic paths. she said the women were far more likely to question their very ability to complete the tasks set forth, their competency, the originality of their ideas, and even their intelligence. She said men rarely doubted these things, but rather balked before the task itself and the time commitment involved. That conversation really struck me. then once you get into issues of love, it strikes one that we are all so deeply fcuked up in some ways that it is amazing we ever get anything done.

    i think this blog is a great idea - for every woman who feels it is almost a physical struggle to persist and not be overtaken by doubts. i'd love to see what kind of readership you accrue. we could form a secret society and then stage a coup and establish a feminocracy. the first thing we could do would be to reject the word feminist as inadequate.

    -filled with ideas of world dominance,

  2. Hallelujah! Count me in... (this is not Athena but an avid follower!)