Read an Excerpt
The Woman's Book of Courage
Meditations for Empowerment & Peace of Mind
By Sue Patton Thoele
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2003 Sue Patton Thoele
All rights reserved.
A Woman Has the Courage To Acknowledge Her Strength and Set Limits
Feminism called upon me to have the courage to grow up, to discover and exercise my womanly strength, to be unafraid of pain—and the pain is immeasurable—knowing that fully experienced, it makes joy fully possible. —Sonia Johnson
Our daily lives are proof of our inherent strength. We women move through uncharted occupational territory, have and care for children, nurture others emotionally and physically, and explore our psychological and spiritual dimensions. Although we are usually strong for others, we often feel weak and victimized while attempting to set realistic limits that respect us as individuals. However, every human being has limits and, if we do not honor ours, we can become overextended, resentful, and even ill. So sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is be aware that we can't do it all for everyone.
Even when others disagree, it is important that we remember we have the right to be strong and to say no. When we know in our hearts that it is okay for us to honor ourselves by having limits, we can set them in a gentle way. Although it is one of the most difficult things women have to learn, often the courageous and loving thing for us to do is to acknowledge our strength and learn to set honest limits.
Imagining Ourselves Strong
We all face situations in which we feel powerless and afraid. I once had a client who was terrified of an upcoming child custody hearing. She felt intimidated by the legal system, her lawyer, and especially her ex-husband. I asked her what it would take for her to feel safe and strong in the court room.
"Nothing short of riding in on a brahman bull!" she answered jokingly. It was a great idea, straight out of her inner wisdom.
I had her work with the image. She had fun creating the scenario of herself galloping into the court on a huge, snorting bull that threatened to gore anyone who tried to frighten her. Her day in court was a success because each time she felt the least bit scared she visualized herself astride her bull. With the help of her amusing but effective mental imagery she felt strong and capable. As a result, she was treated as if she were powerful, someone not to be dismissed or manipulated.
As the story illustrates, we are all as strong as we imagine ourselves to be. When we act as if we are strong, we move towards becoming the powerful women we desire to be. Having the courage to see ourselves as strong, capable, and wise, able to do what we need and want helps make it so. But we need not do it alone. We can move creatively through our fears by accepting support and guidance from an unseen helper, whether that is a higher power or a brahman bull.
I am strong and capable. I can do whatever I set my mind to. I am filled with strength and confidence.
Acting in Spite of Fear
To act even though we are afraid is to be courageous. Amazingly, we do it almost every day. If we did not do what we feared, how many of us would move to a new state or decide to change jobs? More importantly, how many of us would be grappling with the intense need to be our own person if we were not, indeed, already courageous?
For years Fiona had felt at the mercy of her husband's temper. She was terrified by his outbursts; faced with his fury, she would appease him, suppressing her own feelings in the hopes he would calm down. Finally, cautiously she began to work on setting limits in her relationship. She talked to a therapist and went to Al-Anon meetings to help her have the courage to break the destructive pattern she was in with her husband. She knew she had succeeded when, on the eve of a trip to Hawaii, her husband blew up and said they were not going. Calmly, she continued to pack. With sadness but without anger, she told him she was sorry he felt as he did because she had been looking forward to a second honeymoon with him, but that she was going without him.
Getting to that point took tremendous courage for Fiona. She faced her fears and triumphed. Her story has a happy ending, too—her husband apologized for his outburst and they had a wonderful time in Hawaii.
Take a moment now to focus on your courageous acts. They can be very simple. If you are grieving, depressed, or otherwise in pain, it may take quite a bit of courage to do something as simple as getting out of bed or making dinner. Take a few moments to make a list of times when you have acted in spite of fear and then share your list with someone you trust. We are courageous every day, but it helps to remind us when we share our courage with others.
I have the courage to act even though I feel afraid. I have the strength to do the things I need to do.
Knowing We Are Not the Target
We often allow ourselves to be deeply wounded by the actions of people around us. We feel guilty and irrationally think that it is our fault if people treat us badly. It takes courage not to do this.
Sarah's father and sister were invariably doing and saying things that wounded her deeply. She felt somehow responsible for their actions and became mired in guilt. One day, while visiting the zoo, she saw a gorilla bellowing and throwing excrement at onlookers. She realized that while she was among the crowd, she wasn't being personally targeted. Sarah decided to view the attacks of her father and sister in the same way. Now, when Sarah finds herself believing she is the target of her family's anger or manipulation, she pretends she is at the zoo observing another species and emotionally moves out of the line of fire.
It takes strength to know that we are not to blame for the actions of others, and that we do not need to be their target. Even if people insist on projecting their unfinished business onto us, we can train ourselves to remember that we are not responsible for what anyone else does or says. We can learn to take the bull's eye off our chest and put it in the closet.
I have the strength to know I am not the target. I know I don't need to "fix" anyone else's attitude or circumstances. I dodge anger that is inappropriately aimed at me.
Chewing Bite-Size Pieces
Many times our automatic reaction when faced with an uncomfortable or confusing situation is to thrash around trying to change it immediately. We attempt to swallow the whole predicament at once and spit it out, solved. Very rarely does this approach ease our pain or alter the situation. In fact, thoughtless, quick action is often more frustrating than productive.
When baffled or upset, we need to PAUSE, take a deep breath, and have the courage to recognize that we are intelligent and resourceful enough to solve the problem. We can either figure out a solution ourselves or find the people to help us. Slowly and thoughtfully, we can then begin to explore the problem and its possible solutions in bitesize pieces. Usually, as each small piece is solved, anxiety subsides and the entire puzzle fits together more easily than we might have feared.
Who, for instance, hasn't experienced qualms of inadequacy and frustration when first faced with a convoluted income tax form or an incomprehensible insurance form? Without a small-step approach to such chores, we can feel discouraged before we even start. But if we pause, take a deep breath and affirm our ability to solve our problem, then divide our task into small pieces, we can almost always conquer whatever is in front of us.
We can find what we need to solve our problems if we don't allow ourselves to become overwhelmed. Three little slogans we can use to remind ourselves of this are: Pause, don't panic; this isn't an emergency; I rarely choke on bite-size pieces.
I am resourceful. I take one thing at a time in bite-size pieces. I solve problems with ease and intelligence.
Putting Our White Horse out to Pasture
Women tend to be habitual rescuers. We leap on our white horses at the first sign of distress, believing that it is our job to save everyone. It isn't.
I was giving a talk at our local hospice meeting about how tiring it is to get stuck in the "rescue" mode. One woman volunteer exhaustedly said, "I agree, but what if your white horse is parked next to your husband's mule?" This woman had let herself be labeled The-One-Who-Fixes-It in her marriage, and her husband was stubbornly refusing to have it any other way. I asked her, "Do you believe you need to keep rescuing him?" Her answer was a hesitant, "Well, no, but ..." Even though she was complaining, she really did believe it was her job. And of course, she couldn't get out of the position until she gave up her belief.
In reality, no one can rescue anyone else. Everyone must find his or her own way through life. However, breaking the whitehorse habit is very difficult and takes commitment on our part. We need to keep reminding ourselves that, although society has fostered the myth of woman-as-rescuer, it is invalid.
As we have the courage to continually halt our white horse in mid-gallop we will, in time, believe it is okay to do so.
I know I can rescue only myself. I put my white horse out to pasture. I trust others know how best to live their lives.
Crediting Our Life's Account
The myriad of demands on our time and energy can leave us feeling emotionally drained and physically exhausted. We become imbalanced when we give out more than we take in. Because women have been taught to be givers and receiving seems selfish to us, it takes enormous courage to see the value in allowing ourselves to give only that which is reasonable and healthy.
If your life were a bank account, how many daily deposits and withdrawals do you make to and from the account of your body, feelings, mind, and spirit? In fact, we all do have a "life account," from which we frequently make too many withdrawals or allow others to withdraw too freely.
In order to have a comfortable "balance" in our lives, we need to credit liberally and debit wisely. When we overdraw physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, we "see red"; i.e., we experience frustration, anger, and exhaustion. But when we credit our life's account by setting realistic limits, we have more to give. Although taking care of ourselves is often difficult to do, it is an excellent investment in creating the quality of life we want and deserve. By taking the time to nurture ourselves, we ensure that we will not get "overdrawn."
I credit my "life account" by setting realistic limits. I have the courage to decide what I will give and what I will not give. My life is blessed by balance and harmony.
KISSING Our Life
"Yes" is a little word, but it can lead to lots of complications in our lives if we use it too liberally. Saying "No" is particularly hard for women because we feel guilty turning down requests or demands. We want to live up to our own and others' expectations, even if they are unreasonable.
How often do you find yourself overwhelmed by more commitments than you can comfortably handle, wondering, "Why did I say 'Yes' to this commitment? I knew I didn't really want to do it." One of the biggest reasons we say "Yes" is because we don't honor our limits—many of us aren't even aware of them until it's too late. But we all need to give ourselves permission to be aware of our limits, to listen to the inner warnings as they come, and then honor our wisdom by saying "No." One way to begin to do this is to implement the old KISS philosophy of Keep It Simple, Sweetie. Say "No" to complexity and "Yes" to simplicity in your life. Complexity is exhausting and fragmenting while simplicity is energizing and centering.
Write a list of ways you can simplify your life. What obligations can you delegate to others, give up altogether, or modify in order to be comfortable with your commitments and feel you have not overstepped your limits? Gently close your eyes and visualize yourself living more simply. Having weeded out unnecessary responsibilities and commitments from your schedule, think of things you find nourishing, such as solitude, friendship, or romance, and visualize yourself enjoying them. We deserve to have a simply beautiful life.
I am aware of my limits and I honor them. I give myself permission to keep my life simple. I create the time to do things which nourish me.
Saying "No" without Feeling Guilty
What in the world impels us to say "Yes" when we feel "No"? We think we should. We're afraid of what they will think of us if we don't do what they want.
Vickie tearfully lamented to me, "I knew it wouldn't work when Jack (her husband) asked if he could come to work for me. Now he's there and I hate it! Why did I say "Yes?" Vickie had been taught to feel guilty if she refused a request. She is not alone—we women have been brainwashed to ignore what we feel is right for us if it doesn't comply with what others want. That's why it takes a lot of courage to stand up for ourselves and set limits; if we don't we can end up filled with regret and resentment, as Vickie did.
Even though we are afraid of disappointing others, when we really feel we have a right to say "No" and say it with full awareness of that right, people usually think it's just fine. For when we expect people to accept our No's and to honor our limits, they generally do. Our conviction that we have the right to choose to say "No" comes across and is accepted.
So we need to respectfully pay attention to ourselves, tuning in when the little voice inside wants to say "No." We are our own best experts. We can replace our draining shoulds with empowering words like can, want to, choose to, or will.
I have the right to say "No" without feeling guilty. I have the courage to say "No" without feeling guilty. I pay attention to what I know is right for me.
Retiring Aunt Jemima
Lurking in the subconscious of some women is the archaic belief that as a woman, wife, and mother, our proper role is willing servant to our families. Mindy came face to face with her hidden belief about the role she felt she played when she saw her family's Christmas photo. The idea had been for each family member to dress in outfits that indicated one of their main interests. The children were dressed in sports uniforms or theatrical costumes, and her husband wore his jogging togs. Mindy had chosen Aunt Jemima. She thought she dressed as a slave for a joke, but, after seeing the picture and thinking about her reasons for choosing as she did, she became aware that she really did feel like a slave. And she began to comprehend how resentful she felt as a result.
Realizing the role she had allowed herself to slip into was a turning point in her life. She decided to send Aunt Jemima into retirement. She began affirming that she deserved to be her own person. As that belief took hold, she was able to set firm limits about how much she would do for everyone and stick with them. She also began seriously to pursue her career. It wasn't easy, but the eventual bonus for Mindy and her family was that she began to feel more loving and giving as she gave up her slave role and became committed to having a life of her own.
It takes courage to retire Aunt Jemima and give ourselves permission to do what we choose to do rather than what we feel we have to do. As we gather the strength to give up living under the tyranny of our shoulds, we will feel more loving, and our giving will not be laced with resentment. We have the right to set limits and have lives of our own.
I have the right to set limits and the courage to do so. Setting reasonable limits makes me more loving to myself and my family.
Teaching Others How to Treat Us
A burdensome problem many of us have is the inability to accept our own worth. At some deep level we believe that we are not worthy of success, happiness, or supportive and loving relationships.
There is an old adage that "we teach people how to treat us." Do you teach those around you to treat you with respect or disrespect? When we believe we are unworthy, others treat us accordingly, but when we believe we are worthy of being treated well, we will accept nothing less. Inherently, we are worthy—our challenge is to know that and treat ourselves as we want others to treat us.
Excerpted from The Woman's Book of Courage by Sue Patton Thoele. Copyright © 2003 Sue Patton Thoele. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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