The women’s revolution has stalled, in part because of psychological barriers women impose on themselves, writes Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013).
These psychological barriers “are rarely discussed and often underplayed,” Sandberg writes. Instead, many women prefer to blame institutional or external barriers for their lack of progress. But “internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention,” she writes.
What are these psychological issues standing in the way of women’s progress? Sandberg identifies internal barriers that include fear, self-doubt, guilt, risk-adverse instincts, acceptance of cultural stereotypes, and sensitivity to the feeling of being disliked. The author cites numerous psychological studies and draws on her considerable personal experience to discuss these issues. The women’s revolution is a vital aspect of human progress, of course, yet this revolution could conceivably fizzle out if we don’t see more deeply into our psychological issues. In a previous post, I examined some deeper aspects of patriarchal oppression, and in this post I consider the deeper elements of women’s self-oppression.
Sandberg writes that fear is a major problem for many aspiring women:
Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.
Both men and women have irrational fears, and these fears are produced out of unresolved conflict in our psyche. We benefit greatly from exposing the inner dynamics that produce these fears. Referring back to Sandberg’s statement above, let’s look more deeply into these dynamics.
Fear of not being liked. Consciously, the individual truly wants to be liked, but unconsciously she’s emotionally unresolved with the feeling of being disliked. She lives in some anticipation of being disliked because that negative feeling is a powerful expectation as well as a sense of identity and even an emotional attachment. The fear becomes self-sabotaging because she worries about it and focuses on it, causing the fear to arise even as she thinks, “I’m very fearful of not being liked.” In fact, the fear serves as an unconscious psychological defense. We instinctively defend against accusations from our inner critic or superego that we harbor self-defeating wishes or attachments. The defense claims, “I’m not looking to be disliked, I’m not attached to that feeling—Look at how fearful I am of that possibility.”
Fear of making the wrong choice. She desperately wants to make good choices, but unconsciously she entertains feelings associated with making a wrong choice. In such an event, she would feel criticized or even condemned by both her inner critic and her coworkers and supervisors. Even without doing anything wrong, she can through her imagination absorb the feeling of criticism and aggression being directed at her. This self-critical impulse lives in our psyche, and often we don’t know ourselves or we can’t experience ourselves without this inner limitation and torment. Resolving this conflict produces more inner freedom and sense of autonomy.
Fear of drawing negative attention. It’s quite common for people to expect to be seen in a negative light. It part, this is how, through our inner critic, we can see ourselves. Our inner critic can be harsh, mocking, and belittling. This makes us quite sensitive to the feeling that others see us in the same light. Again, this means we’re emotionally entangled in this negative impression, often to the degree that it becomes part of our identity. It’s an axiom of psychology that whatever is unresolved in our psyche is at times going to be felt intensely by us, even when the experience is quite painful.
Our unconscious defense says: I’m not looking for the feeling of being seen in a negative light. Look at how much I fear that possibility! In truth, though, this person does indeed choose unconsciously to feel that she is being seen (or is going to be seen) in a negative light. She might also remember a past incident that was embarrassing or humiliating, and she now feels a need to carefully monitor herself or stifle herself to avoid a repeat occurrence. Another axiom: We fear whatever we are emotionally attached to.
Fear of overreaching. The individual is trying to succeed without overreaching. The implication is that overreaching is a bad thing, allegedly an indication of grandiosity or self-importance. The individual is inwardly sensitive to unfair, demeaning accusations from her inner critic that such behavior is unseemly and arrogant. In contrast, society condones the behaviors of ambitious men who strive aggressively for leadership positions. Our inner critic can attack women more harshly because they don’t have the same degree of cultural acceptance for their aggressiveness. As well, their aggressiveness is often mocked and scorned by weak or reactionary men. Of course, the unwillingness to “overreach,” whatever that might mean to a person, inhibits one’s potential and can also produce failure.
Fear of failure. Someone who consciously wants to succeed might unconsciously expect failure. She might have an inner critic that demeans and belittles her. Her inner critic might mock her ability and talent and, like a caricature of a dysfunctional parent, constantly predict the “likelihood” of her failure. As mentioned, we instinctively defend against our inner critic’s accusations that we harbor self-defeating wishes or attachments. Her defense reads, I’m not indulging emotionally in the feeling or the prospect of failure. Look at how much I fear that I might become a failure.
Fear of being judged. She is likely, through the inner critic, to be quite judgmental of herself. She will also be prone to be judgmental of others and sense that others are judging her. Her defense reads, I’m not looking for the feeling of being judged. Look at how much I fear and hate that feeling! Another defense reads, I’m not looking to be judged. In fact, I’m the one who does the judging.
Fear of being a bad mother, wife, or daughter. Again, the inner critic, which is negative by nature, instinctively holds us accountable as it poses as the mistress or master of our personality. It accuses talented women of being selfishly interested only in their own ambitions and not caring enough about others. For social and cultural reasons, women are particularly vulnerable to this accusation. This accusation, for the most part, is false. We’re all entitled to pursue self-fulfillment, and we can trust in our inherent goodness and intelligence to avoid being selfish and to remain sensitive to others. But through self-doubt, we unconsciously give credence to the inner critic’s accusations. This acceptance of the accusations is facilitated by a quirk in our psyche that I call inner passivity (an enabler of the inner critic). Both women and men are being inwardly passive when we absorb self-aggression from the inner critic. Our guilt is associated with this inner passivity (the part in us that enables the inner critic to get away with its bullying and presumptuous authority).
In writing about women’s self-doubt, Sandberg also cites “the imposter syndrome.” This refers to the sense of feeling fraudulent when presenting oneself as a competent professional. This emotional impression is produced largely by a primary conflict in the human psyche, namely the clash between our inner critic (superego) and inner passivity (sited in our unconscious or subordinate ego.) An inner moderator, our authentic self, is able to shut down this conflict as we become more self-aware. (Read “Our Messy Mix of Aggression and Passivity.”) When entangled in this inner conflict, we lose touch with our strength, goodness, and value. We feel fraudulent to the degree that we’re not in touch with our authentic self.
In my view, men tend to be more egotistical than women. That egotism, along with the male’s aggressive instinct, can serve as a buttress (though an unstable one) against self-doubt and inner fear. With less egotism, women probably need to connect more deeply with their authentic self to feel their value and power. This is achieved when they clearly understand the nature of inner conflicts.
One technique involves monitoring and witnessing the passive and aggressive voices or feelings inside us, while creating some detachment from them. We can’t always dismiss these voices or feelings; they have a life of their own. It’s okay to listen to them and acknowledge their presence. Yet we don’t want them to be too loud. As mentioned, we regulate them and keep them in their place as our authentic self emerges as the true representative of our well-being.
Through their empowerment, women can greatly improve the quality of our institutions. The world desperately needs leaders with true power, meaning people who know how to practice assertiveness and healthy aggression while being able to avoid taking offense, holding grudges, and practicing petty vindictiveness.
Feminine values and skills associated with nurturing, compassion, and social cohesion, along with traditional leadership skills, are needed more than ever in our stressed-out world. Women have to believe in these values and provide leadership to align our institutions with the common good.