The Patriarchy Within: Understanding Learned Self-Sabotage

The Patriarchy Within: Understanding Learned Self-Sabotage

How behaviors learned earlier in our careers, or our lives, can deter us from leading powerfully in the present.

“Is it cold in here?”

The tiny voice came from the bathroom stall next to me. I had noticed her boots peeking out from under the door when I walked in – white, pearlescent, with a unicorn horn, two smiling eyes and pink hair and on each one. She was about three years old – four at most, having a lively chat with her mother.

The girl’s words hung in the air as the only sound in an otherwise silent 7am Pittsburgh airport. Once uttered, I couldn’t get them out of my head. They felt both commonplace and entirely unnatural, at the same time. Commonplace because I hear women asking this type of question every day.

Is it cold in here? Should we, maybe, turn up the heat? Does anyone else think we might want to consider…?

Unnatural, because there is nothing in the DNA of a female human child that should, without influence, lead her to express her direct personal observation of a physical sensation – cold – as a question.

When I introduce my book Guts & Grace: A Woman’s Guide to Full-Bodied Leadership, one of the first questions people often ask is: why did you choose to write a book on mindfulness and leadership that’s “only” for women?

Isn’t the process of embodiment universal? And can’t men benefit from these tools too?

My first answer is: “of course.” The embodied leadership practices I teach in the Guts & Grace book and curriculum speak to the nature of being whole, and being human, at work. They can be – and are – beneficial to everyone.

My second answer is typically more provocative:

When I think about the little girl in the bathroom stall, who could be any of our daughters, who asks a question instead of directly sharing her opinion or making a request, it’s hard for me to imagine she learned that mode of expression from her father.

And that tells me there’s something on average that’s different in the collective socialization of women – something that gets shared among friends, goes on invisibly between colleagues, and gets passed down from mother to daughter – that calls for a different approach.

I chose to write the book Guts & Grace in a voice that’s directed at women because it enabled me to specifically address a collective shared experience that stems from a particular paradigm: the patriarchy.

I am interested in questions like:

What does it mean to be deeply shaped by the patriarchy, on average, over time?

And what does it take for an individual – or a collective – to step out of that shaping, into a new kind of self-expression or leadership?

With these questions, I am offering no accusation. But I am also not apologetic. I am simply referring to the indisputable fact that, for the past several hundred years, most industrialized societies (and therefore business cultures) were primarily built and influenced by men. And, as result of that state of affairs, women have (both consciously and unconsciously – and often while simultaneously resisting) learned to play second fiddle.

What does that look like?

For example, it looks like doubting our own direct experience of reality (is it cold in here? am I crazy?) and looking for outside validation that what we feel, think, or know is “true.” And, rather than making a statement that risks being wrong – asking a question instead.

The good news is, gender shaping is not universal. While on average many women carry similar imprints from the experience of living, learning and leading in a patriarchal context, in particular each woman has her own version of how she has adapted. Some of these adaptations are more functional – and more successful – than others.

The bad news is, gender shaping is pervasive. In other words, few of us have not ingested some version of this programming as a result of our experience.  And, I believe it’s one of the deepest, most hidden and hard to undo underlying causes of the persistent gap between women and men’s power in society. I have spent over a decade directly supporting women to see, name and change these unconscious habits of thought, speech, behavior, presence and physical posture… and I have found that most women, regardless of their degree of success, can locate themselves inside of this conversation in some way.

Some would say this programming was fashioned by design. In other words, it happened to women on purpose. As long as “they” (the powers that be) keep us in a state of self-doubt, we’re easier to keep at bay.

Mostly. I’m not compelled to go that far. (Though I’m also not saying I disagree).

In my work, I’ve found that it’s generally most helpful to be agnostic about whether or not we became this way at the hands of someone else’s self-interested (or even malicious) intention. It helps me, and my clients, avoid blame and stay focused on the solution.

Instead, I’ve found it more useful to explore HOW we run the inner programming today. How do we unintentionally speak, think, stand and move in ways that are consistent with the very dynamics we are aiming to step out of?

And then, look at:
  • what must be forgiven or let go
  • what needs to be healed
  • and how can we start making systematically different moves

When we do this, it can often kick up a lot – old fears, shame, invisible belief systems that hold the system in place. In order to become truly empowered, we must face these. Challenge the voices in our own heads. Walk through the walls that have felt, for a lifetime, impenetrable. Re-write the stories that built them. Then, and only then, can we start forging a truly different experience of ourselves as leaders, and of the world.

This is what I mean by “dismantling the patriarchy within.”

Of course, each woman will have a slightly different set of embodied habits that reflect her relationship with this paradigm. But I have yet to meet a woman – from passionate activist, to CEO, to stay at home mom – from grandmother to millennial – who doesn’t carry some unconscious, embodied imprint which, if shifted, could lead to greater empowerment.

If our goal is truly to equalize society, we have to look in the most intimate places and get real about the part we are still playing in keeping that inequality intact every day. We simply will not get there without doing this deep and challenging inner work. And it’s time.

If you relate to what I’ve written here, and you’d like to explore leveling-up your own leadership by understanding and dismantling the patriarchy within.

Here are a few questions to get you started.
  • What’s one behavior that you learned earlier in your career, or life, that you have a hunch no longer serves you?
  • How did it serve you in the past? How did it help you to gain safety, dignity or love? How did it help you protect yourself, or get ahead in your career?
  • What’s telling you that it might be obsolete now? What are you seeing, feeling, thinking, or experiencing that indicates that it’s not needed, or not working as well as it used to?
  • What will you need to let go of, in order to start practicing something new? What will be challenging about that?  

You can answer these questions on your own. Or, if you lead other women, you can bring these questions into a dialog with your team members.

In either case, take your time in answering them. They aren’t meant to be easy. Literally you may be beginning the work of de-programming a set of thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that have formed a foundation of your leadership, or even your personality.

The good news is, there’s no way to do it wrong. This work is about learning to deeply trust your own inner compass and make your own decisions about what serves.

Of course, I’m always happy to help!

Find out more about how I support individuals HERE and women on teams HERE.

For more about Cultivating Joy, check out Chapter 1 of my book Guts & Grace: A Woman's Guide to Full-Bodied Leadership on Amazon.

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