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The Courage to Be Yourself
A Women's Guide to Emotional Strength and Self-Esteem
By Sue Patton Thoele
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC Copyright © 2001 Sue Patton Thoele
All rights reserved.
AN EXPANDED VISION OF SELF
I want, by understanding myself, to understand others.
I want to be all that I am capable of becoming....
This all sounds very strenuous and serious.
But now that I have wrestled with it, it's no longer so.
I feel happy — deep down. All is well.
KATHERINE MANSFIELD (LAST JOURNAL ENTRY)
Because we have learned so much, finding the courage to be ourselves may be easier for some of us now than it was fifteen years ago when I began writing the first edition of this book. Easier because many women are reveling in a greater sense of personal freedom and embracing a more expansive vision of themselves. While we can still fall prey to fears and beliefs that limit us, we have also become more psychologically aware and therefore better able to understand, move through, and overcome challenging feelings and circumstances.
That's the good news. The flip side is that finding and sustaining the courage to be ourselves continue to be a challenge for many women, myself included. Why is it still so darn hard? One of the main reasons is that many of us were weaned on subtle and not-so-subtle innuendos regarding a "woman's role" and, as a result, were well trained to put ourselves last, if at all. Old, familiar habits and expectations such as these are not easily or quickly changed. Another deterrent to authenticity is the seemingly endless and ever-expanding demands upon us. Over-commitment robs us of the time, energy, and interest necessary to ponder who we are and what we want or need.
It's true, we women are becoming increasingly independent and strong while continuing to love and support our friends, families, and communities. Ironically, the difficulty of being ourselves continues to be a common topic among women. Why do we so easily give ourselves away by doing more than we're comfortable doing? Why do we often succumb to the habit of devaluing ourselves and putting ourselves down? While no one is totally immune to the charm of outside approval, many of us are periodically mystified by the seemingly tenuous stability of our self-esteem and emotional well-being.
Most of us have spent a lot of time and effort redefining ourselves and discrediting inhibiting stereotypes. Given our hard and dedicated work to improve our feelings of self-worth, why is it so hard to hold on to a belief in ourselves when people react less than positively toward us? What causes our emotional strength to ebb away in the face of disapproval? Why does it take such effort for us to express what we really think and feel?
Faced with speaking my truth, especially if I fear it will lead to rejection of either myself or my ideas, often causes a lump to clog my throat and a heavy weight to settle on my heart. Am I a slow learner? Am I actually afraid of equality? Worse yet, am I an imposter?
No, I don't think so. And neither are you.
As the saying goes, we've come a long way. However, our training and socialization to accept second-class citizenry run deep. And why wouldn't they? For millennia women have suffered punishments, ranging from denial of affection and support to being burned at the stake, for "stepping out of their rightful places." Given our history, it makes sense that a deep-seated fear of speaking our mind, being ourselves, and living our dreams is woven into the very fabric of our being. We now have the unprecedented opportunity to courageously recreate and reweave our lives and, consequently, the lives of our daughters and granddaughters.
Granted, many societal and individual assumptions are very different from what they were a decade ago when this book was first published. However, under the seemingly solid ground of respect and equality that women have earned often lurks a quagmire of lingering patriarchal attitudes and desires.
Laura and Dan's story is a good example. As a young couple, their roles were traditional. Laura stayed home with their three children while Dan worked to support the family. When the children left home, Laura wanted to return to her career as a home decorator. Dan was all for it, or so they thought. Laura said to me, "You know, Sue, I believed him when he encouraged me to take the necessary classes and resume my career. So I was confused and angry when he put blocks in my way. First, he upped his requests for me to do errands for him, like going to the bank and cleaners and picking up stuff for his business. Then he had a series of little accidents and needed me to care for him." With a sigh, she continued, "I finally got it and asked him if, deep down, he resented my working. He denied it emphatically. But when he complained about never getting a good meal at home anymore, I knew that what he thought about my working was not what he felt!"
Luckily, Laura and Dan have been able to work through this passage in their lives and consequently understand themselves and each other better. Dan was eventually able to see that, although he really wanted to support Laura's choice to work, he'd had a good thing going with a stay-at-home wife and felt abandoned when those perks diminished.
Change is hard for us all, men and women alike.
In fact, I have great compassion for both sexes as we weather the inevitable storms that accompany a change in paradigm. Thankfully, many societies are now immersed in the process of converting from a patriarchal to an egalitarian paradigm. More simply put, we're transforming the model of Top Dog /Bottom Dog into Equal Partnership. In order to create and sustain these new cultural patterns, we women must confront our own fears, including each tenacious tentacle that strangles our freedom to be ourselves. Not an easy task.
It's not easy for men or Top Dog–based organizations to adapt to the current necessary changes either. At the onset, women's increase in self-esteem and emotional strength can easily be perceived as a demotion in power and position to those accustomed to the loftiest perches on the pedestal. I clearly remember my husband, Gene, pensively lamenting, "I liked it the way it used to be!" That years-old memory makes me smile now. Then I wanted to snap, "Yeah, right! I'd like to have a wife like me, too!"
The beauty of finding the courage to face our fears and become ourselves is that everyone eventually wins. As an example, Gene and I are both happier as co-creators of a partnership than we ever were when he was the undisputed Top Dog. For me, life in general becomes sunnier and more fulfilled in direct proportion to my ability to overcome the hesitations I have about expressing my true self. Of course, I still struggle with certain fears, and I suspect that will always be true. But as I develop strength and confidence, my fears become much more manageable and far less paralyzing.
AWAKENING THE DIVINE FEMININE
One of the major areas in which our vision of self is expanding is in the spiritual realm. Myriad archeological discoveries, including goddess artifacts from ancient civilizations and the Dead Sea Scrolls, have opened our eyes to the esteem in which women were once held. Research has unearthed cultures that honored both the masculine and the feminine and recognized that each needed the other to create and sustain the greater whole. Interestingly, weapons were not found among the artifacts of these cultures, which suggests that ancient partnership societies rarely indulged in warlike activities. A state of affairs that pleased the Divine Feminine, I'm sure.
Our newborn awareness that feminine qualities were respected and revered in the past has allowed an expanded vision of ourselves to appear in the present, a vision that acknowledges Woman — or The Feminine — as deep, rich, wise, multidimensional, creative, lighthearted, and spiritual. This recognition and reclamation of The Feminine as invaluable and essential — even divine — is changing who we perceive ourselves to be. Is it possible that we are made in the image of a Mother God, a feminine creator, a divine spiritual essence? We're beginning to accept the answer as "yes."
Actually, the idea of feminine spirituality as Source, as well as Comforter, is an idea as old as time but one that has been essentially buried for centuries. In the minds and hearts of many people, and even some established religious traditions, the Divine Feminine — a spark of which resides at the center of all souls — is once again taking her place beside the Divine Masculine. For the good of ourselves, our families, and our very world, our mission is to become our true selves and in so doing awaken and express the Divine Feminine within.
QUALITIES OF THE DIVINE FEMININE
The Feminine is the embodiment of heart energy. Her key qualities are compassion and the ability to accept and honor the process of whatever is happening. Perhaps this is often easier for women because we are physically and emotionally programmed to honor the cycle of conception, pregnancy, and birth and to welcome and include whoever may be born from that long, mysterious process.
Contrary to the idea that women are overemotional, the Divine Feminine is well grounded emotionally and has the capacity to bring all of her energy to exactly where she is in the moment. Feminine energy accepts the paradoxes of life and has the ability to hold them within her heart simultaneously. Feminine energy connects deeply with the Earth and all of her children, feeling for and with them. The following list of feminine qualities — the vision of ourselves the Divine Feminine whispers in the stillness of our hearts — is by no means complete. You will be able to add many of your own.
THE DIVINE FEMININE IS ...
Inclusive: recognizes the value and worth of all people and things
Honoring of process: is able to allow circumstances, ideas, and experiences to unfold
Empowered: with steeled softness, champions the weak and vulnerable and stands firm for what is right
Intuitive: is holistic, accessing immediate perception rather than rational thinking
Compassionate: is empathetic, warm, open-hearted
Complementary: lives in concert with others, augmenting the whole with her presence
Connective: desires to link hands and hearts
Cooperative: is able to work with others without needing to be in control
Diffuse: perceives and understands a wide range of stimuli
Relational: is interested in preserving and deepening relationships
Gentle: is able to live gently with herself and others
Receptive: is open to receive the new, different, and wondrous
Empowering: awakens others to their potential
Forgiving: realizes that we are all imperfect and that nonforgiveness dams the natural flow of spirit
Introspective: is drawn to the spiritual and the philosophical
Healing: carries the ability to heal body, mind, and spirit through talent for listening deeply to her internal, inherent wisdom
Recognizing these qualities as ones that we possess, or can aspire to possess, frequently helps us recognize and respect our innate talent to usher in to all situations the energy of love and acceptance. As with everything — and much to our chagrin at times — the revolution of compassion, caring, and kindness exemplified by the Divine Feminine needs to begin within ourselves. As the song says, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." A revolution of love, a revolution of respect, a revolution of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion. All of these values must first be nurtured in our own hearts and souls, and in our intimate social groups, if they are to be transformative for the whole. To begin this revolution of love, we need to brave our fears, extricate ourselves from the dung heap of disrespect and dismissal, and honor who we truly are.
In what was for me an eye-opening conversation, a dear friend was telling me that her adult daughter only seemed to relate to her when she needed something. "It's as if she freeze-dries me and puts me on a shelf until she needs something. Then she takes me down, reconstitutes me with her tears, and fully expects me to help her." I answered, "And you do, right?"
She moaned, "Yes ..." and we laughed in recognition.
As I reflected on our talk, I realized that over the last several hundred years, our society, both consciously and unconsciously, has attempted to freeze-dry feminine energy and power, stow it safely in a corked jar, and bury it in the remote recesses of a dark cavern. As well as trying to silence women's intuition and wisdom, society has denigrated the Divine Feminine qualities of cooperation, inclusion, receptivity, and compassion, to name only a few, by relegating them to the second-class areas of servitude and sacrifice. As sad as I am to admit it, the attempts to bury the innate spiritual qualities of the Divine Feminine were certainly successful with me. For many years, my sense of spiritual and personal power lay dormant, and I felt no sense of connection to the Divine Feminine or to the divinity within myself. Although I tried to act out feminine values by loving, caring, and supporting others, my service sprang mostly from fear and a sense of obligation rather than flowing freely from my heart. I did what I should do and neither embodied the values, spoke with the voice, nor radiated the joy of the Divine Feminine. She was asleep, freeze-dried in my heart, buried under mounds of false beliefs, societal injunctions, and visceral fears.
From talking with friends and working with clients, I know that my barren experience was not unique.
The Divine Feminine is issuing wake-up calls. And the most important of those calls are the ones stirring within our own hearts. Such stirrings may come in the form of little nudges to invoke a female power or deity while praying, intuitive flashes that we have the courage to voice and act upon, acts of kindness, love, and wisdom that effortlessly bubble from us, feeling intensely connected to nature, joyous bursts of creativity, or soft, silent whispers that come during dreams or meditation.
As we pay rapt and respectful attention to the whispers of the Divine Feminine within, we can usually find the courage to restructure our values around a core of compassion and connectedness toward both ourselves and others. Waking up to the Divine Feminine within our souls and then heeding her gentle pushes and pulls empower us to live the expanded vision of self we are being shown. The invitation has been sent. With courage, commitment, and intention, we can become our true selves: authentic, heart-centered women, light-bearers in our beleaguered world.CHAPTER 2
COURAGE: YOU HAVE IT!
I have met brave women who are exploring the outer edges of human possibility, with no history to guide them, and with a courage to make themselves vulnerable that I find moving beyond words.
Are you often filling the wants and needs of others without having your own met? Do deadlines and difficult people leave you feeling frazzled? Do you feel overworked and under-appreciated? Do you grapple with self-limiting fears? Are you more an enemy than a friend to yourself?
Despite the tremendous changes of the last fifty years and the new vision of ourselves we've been given, many women will still answer "yes" to the above questions. Often we are caught in a tangled web of emotional dependence, afraid to express who we really are.
EMOTIONAL STRENGTH AND SELF-ESTEEM
Emotional strength flows from a healthy and hearty sense of self-esteem. Emotionally strong women know themselves well, honor their strengths, nonjudgmentally work on their weaknesses, and treat themselves — and consequently others — with respect, understanding, and kindness. When a woman is emotionally strong, she is able to be gentle with herself and call upon her own inner core of strength as her main support even in the midst of chaos and failure. For the vast majority of us, emotional strength and high self-esteem are attributes that we have worked diligently to attain, not ones that came easily or automatically. Courageously we build, balance, and stabilize our internal ego structure by overcoming one tiny — or tremendous — fear at a time and embrace a new vision of ourselves one insight at a time.
Uncovering, strengthening, and allowing our authentic self full expression is an ongoing, eternal process, a dance with our soul.
Excerpted from The Courage to Be Yourself by Sue Patton Thoele. Copyright © 2001 Sue Patton Thoele. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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