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Derailed by Anxiety or
Inspired by Meaning?
The bedrock of all ambition is motivationan intense and sustainable drive toward a specific goal. Any effort you make to increase your ability to achieve must begin with an examination of your motivation, with an eye toward how you can increase and maintain your drive. Traditionally, women's motivation to contribute has been most powerfully expressed within the home. Achieving outside the home requires harnessing that same motivational energy and directing it toward goals that are less safe and familiar. This shift of motivation is challenging, often opposed not only by social and familial forces but also by internal anxieties and self-doubt. How have those women who have achieved managed to find the determination to succeed?
To explore this, consider the motivation of three great women of history: Hildegard of Bingen, Harriet Tubman, and Florence Nightingale.
I have always remembered a fact I learned in medical school: The seventeenth-century British anatomist William Harvey is called the father of modern cardiology because he asserted that blood circulates through the body, rather than ebbing and flowing in the blood vessels. I was therefore stunned to read just recently that a woman, Hildegard of Bingen, beat Harvey by five hundred years in a scientific treatise that suggested not only the circulation of blood, but also a link between diabetes and sugar, and transmission of signals from the brain to the bodyalongthe nerves.
Although Hildegard was well versed in the medical theories of her era, her scientific insights were actually a sidebar in her career as a religious leader. Hildegard, born in 1098 in Germany, began experiencing religious visions at age three. At thirty-eight she became abbess of a Benedictine cloister. Five years later she reported to her confessor that her health was suffering because she had refused a command from God to write down her revelations. She subsequently began to record them in a body of work titled Scivias vias domini (Know the Way of the Lord) and was formally declared by the church to be the recipient of divine revelations.
Once she had been confirmed as a bona fide mystic, there was no stopping Hildegard. She founded a new convent and "persuaded" the abbot to vacate the monastery and turn it over to the nuns for their new order by telling him she'd had a vision that God's judgment would destroy him if he did not comply. She was successful in opposing the male hierarchy of the church on numerous occasions by exploiting her status as a mystic this way. Hildegard worked as a public preacher and teacher, writing two more books describing her visions. She composed a symphony consisting of a cycle of seventy-seven songs to be performed on the feast days of the saints; these works are still being performed and recorded today, and are widely available commercially. She remained active throughout her long life; at age eighty, for instance, she was involved in a dispute with the local church officials that led to their placing the severest form of sanction, an interdict, against her abbey. Hildegard succeeded in having the sanction overturned by once again invoking divine revelation.
What motivated Hildegard to accomplish deeds we're still reading about some nine hundred years after her death? She must have been fiercely intelligent, and yet there have been countless women of great brilliance who lived and died unnoticed. She was well educated for a woman of her day, but the vast majority of highly educated women do not become historical figures. She was born into a family of religious distinction but could have just as easily become another nun, living quietly in the shadow of a male-dominated church.
What distinguished Hildegard was not only that she had a unique and bold vision but that she felt irresistibly compelled to express her vision and was able to maintain the stamina to do so throughout her long life. A product of her time and her religion, she experienced her compulsion as coming from God in the form of visions and revelations. Her achievements sprang from a conviction that she had an obligation to live a life of significance, to use every ounce of her being to express the views and values that defined her. She was driven by a sense that her life should have meaning and purpose. At the most fundamental level, Hildegard became who she was because she was able to say in the most vigorous way: "Hey, listen to me. I have some great ideasso great that they actually came directly from God. And if you don't pay attention to my great ideas, God is not going to be very nice about it."
The biographies of great women and men show that all outstanding achievers share one trait with Hildegard: They have all been convinced of the importance of their ideas, and they pursue those ideas with great tenacity. In most cases, in fact, their lives began in rather ordinary circumstances, and the ideas they devoted themselves to were not always brilliant, original, or unique to them. But because they were sure their ideas were worthwhile, they steadfastly persisted in getting others to recognize them. During their lives of achievement, they surely felt deep anxiety at many points and from many sources, but the conviction that their personal journeys had great meaning allowed them to overcome this anxiety.
Harriet Tubman was born in 1820 on a slave-breeding plantation in Maryland. She began to work the fields by age seven but was brutalized many times; on one occasion her skull was crushed, which resulted in periodic epileptic seizures that plagued her all her life. She married a freedman at age twenty-four, and experienced powerful yearnings to be free herself. Aware of this, her father began to teach her how to survive in the woods.
At age twenty-nine, after learning she was about to be sold, she escaped the plantation with her two brothers. Though they turned back, she continued her escape alone. Subsequently she made nineteen round trips to help slaves escape and relocate in Canada, resulting in a forty-thousand dollar bounty on her life. After the Civil War began, she served as a spy, scout, and nurse for the Union army. On numerous occasions she wore a disguise and led groups of black men behind Confederate lines; one such campaign resulted in the rescue of eight hundred slaves. After the war, Harriet campaigned for women's rights and worked on behalf of orphans, the elderly, and freed slaves. At age eighty-eight she established the Harriet Tubman Home for Indigent and Aged Negroes.
The year of Harriet's birth also produced another great woman, Florence Nightingale. Throughout her childhood she yearned to have an occupation other than the typical social obligations common to girls of the British upper class. At age sixteen she wrote, "God spoke and called me to His service." Due to opposition from her family, however, it was not until another fourteen years had passed that she was able enroll in nursing training. Three years later she was appointed superintendent of nursing at the English military hospitals in Turkey, where the Crimean War was being fought; she was the first woman ever to have been employed to nurse wounded soldiers. Due to her ceaseless efforts both to reform military nursing and to personally provide bedside care, she became a national heroine on her return to England. She founded the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in London in 1860. In 1907, she was the first woman to receive the prestigious Order of Merit.
Hildegard, Harriet Tubman, and Florence Nightingale all shared a core set of values that they might have described in this way: "I have been created with particular talents and strengths, and I feel compelled to develop my strengths in order to live my life most fully. I wish to make a contribution that will enhance my life and the lives of others. I am more than willing to endure discomfort for the sake of achieving my goals."
I would doubt that these women could have predicted at the beginning of their journey how far they would actually go; as young women, they could not possibly have foreseen what they would eventually achieve. I suspect that beyond the wish to live lives of passion and meaning, they simply decided to go as far as they could go, one day at a time, decision by decision.
The Scope of Your World
"Wait a minute," you're thinking. "Hildegard, Harriet Tubman, and Florence Nightingale made history. Very, very few such people exist, male or female. I don't have a sense of world-changing mission. I'm not that talented, that special, that brilliant. Am I really to be motivated by the same sense of meaning that inspired them?"
My answer is yes, you may indeed find and define great meaning within the scope of your world, a world you create for yourself, defined by the people whose lives you touch: your family, friends, and the people who are affected by your work. If you're a teacher, your world includes the children in your classroom. If you're a nurse, it includes the patients in your care. If you're a journalist, it includes your readers. It is within the world you have created that you live out your destiny. If you are a teacher, you can be a great teacher. If you are a nurse, you can be a great nurse.
As you look back on your own life, you will probably see that the size of your sphere of influence is inversely proportional to the impact you have been able to have on a single life. In my own life, I spent five years in a private psychiatric practice engaged in psychotherapy with twenty or so patients in any given weeka rather small world. Years later, when I began my radio show, my voice reached thousands. Yet the impact I could have on any one listener was very, small relative to what I offered my psychotherapy patients. If you have chosen for yourself a small world, the influence you can have on each person may be enormousand those individuals will eventually pass your gifts on to others.
Clearly, society needs both those who have a small impact on many people and those who have great impact on very few people. For many women, much energy in the early midlife years is spent on mothering, a small word/high impact activity, while later midlife offers opportunities to expand their sphere of influence. How you define your world reflects your values and aptitudes, and you may anticipate that your scope will expand or contract from time to time.
Meaning and Motivation
Just as our foremothers needed physical stamina, you require a source of psychological energy to fuel your ambition, energy that is derived from a conviction that your work has meaning. This energy will be obvious in all aspects of your life, not only in your work but also in your friendships, your parenting, and your romances; paradoxically, women who approach their work with passion find that that passion spills over into all the important areas of their life. High energy becomes the norm. The achieving woman naturally and consistently engages with life, moment by moment, encounter by encounter. She abhors passivity, choosing instead to dive into experience, pursue learning, and seize opportunity. Faced with the question "Does my life count?" the motivated woman answers: "Of course it counts. Of course I am here for a reason. Of course I want to leave my mark."
Researcher Sally Reis conducted an in-depth study of twelve women, ages fifty-five to eighty-nine, who had achieved eminence in a variety of fields after the age of fifty. Among their remarkable traits, the quality of emotional vigor was particularly notable. Reis found that all of these women had exhibited great determination throughout most of their lives. They demonstrated the ability to strive for success and to work hard despite setbacks. These women cited a variety of motivations as driving them. Some described a need for a sense of purpose in life, others a desire to produce, to leave a mark upon the world, or to experience the sheer joy of creativity; the overarching motivation of all of the women was to improve the human condition. Reis commented on the vigor these women displayed:
[A]ll of the women emanated a type of energy and an enjoyment of life. Some were enthusiastic while others were quiet; some laughed frequently and moved constantly, others were very calm and almost reserved. However, each exuded an energy and intensity about her life and work, and a spirit of satisfaction about the direction her life had take.
My own interviews with great women achievers revealed that motivation is derived from a personal system of meaning. I was impressed that when I asked these women how they attained a sense of meaning, they were rarely surprised by the question, and in many cases had already grappled with it. For instance, Anne Darby Parker, a renowned photographer, explained to me how her passion for her work came out of her sense of meaning in this way: "My goal is that in every creative process, I bring an everyday dignity to the person I am photographinga dignity that allows the soul of the person to be experienced. I feel that way about everything I do. If I'm setting the table, my act should reflect the celebration of our family coming together. My work is successful when the beauty or dignity of the person or environment is pulled out. My passion in life is to be a creative personwhether what I am creating is my art or my children. I think that creativity is central to the meaning of life."
The psychologist Jacquelynn Eccles, who has studied women's achievement motivations for twenty years, has determined that personal values and confidence of success are the two biggest influences on women's achievement-related choices at all levels, from what courses they select in high school to what occupation they choose to enter and how energetically they develop their career. Gender-role socialization may lead men and women to develop very different core values, to give various long-range goals different weights, to define success differently, and finally, to show different degrees of focus vs. scatter in the breadth of goals selected.
And what are these gender-specific values? Gifted women typically endorse social and aesthetic values, while gifted men endorse theoretical, economic, and political values. Further, women tend to value having a job that allows them to help others and do something worthwhile for society, whereas men tend to value becoming famous, making lots of money, seeking out challenges, and doing work involving math and computers. Significant gender differences in a sense of meaning begin to appear in adolescence. In studies of American high school seniors between 1977 and 1991, girls were more likely than boys to express concern and responsibility for the well-being of others, less likely than boys to accept materialism and competition, and more likely than boys to indicate that finding purpose and meaning in life is extremely important. These differences were observed across social classes throughout the period from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s and have shown little sign of decreasing.
Women's Need for Relationships
The impact of values should be considered not just in terms of male vs. female differences but in the hierarchy of values that women develop for themselves; herein lies part of the answer to why women have traditionally not achieved on a par with men. Eccles's findings demonstrate it is not so much that women as a group do not value achievement, but rather that relative to men, they value it less than they do family and relationships. When a choice has to be made, it is often the achievement-related alternative that is sacrificed. This pattern can be traced throughout the life cycle of females; beginning in childhood, for instance, girls rate making occupational sacrifices for one's family higher than boys rate it. A body of research has documented that women are much more likely than men to limit their careers for the sake of family. The Terman Genetic Study of Genius, which followed exceptional boys and girls from 1922 to 1972, traced the patterns of familial sacrifice made by gifted women and found that many of these women later regretted the career opportunities they had missed.
Nancy J. Chodorow, an eminent psychoanalyst who has written extensively on the development of gender identity, concluded that psychological differences in gender development are based on the different social environments for boys and girls that result from the fact that the first and strongest relationship is usually with the mother. Girls maintain this relationship throughout their early years and base their feminine identity on this unbroken connection. Boys, on the other hand, must break their identification with their mother in order to identify with their father. As they pull away from her, they lose their deep sense of attachment to their first and primary love. As a consequence, a boy's sense of maleness is connected to a sense of detaching from his closest relationship, Chodorow wrote.
Building on this concept, the psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller explored how the masculine emphasis on independence has led to a devaluation of the feminine emphasis on relationship. Miller called for a "new psychology of women," noting that "eventually, for many women the threat of disruption of an affiliation is perceived not just as a loss of a relationship but as something closer to a total loss of self." While acknowledging a considerable body of literature that suggests this equation of self with relationship leads to a variety of psychological ailments in women, Miller noted that women's priority on relationship contains "the possibilities for an entirely different (and more advanced) approach to living and functioning ... [in which] affiliation is valued as highly as, or more highly than, self-enhancement."
Pursuing this line of thought in another direction, Harvard psychology professor Carol Gilligan explored how the need for relationships influences the development of a sense of ethics and morality in women. Gilligan observed that for women, moral issues are experienced as reflecting the need for inclusion that all humans experience. Males, by contrast, experience morality as reflecting "certain truth" without particular reference to attachments. Faced with dilemmas such as whether to invest time and energy into one's own development or in the welfare of their family, women are more likely than men to choose the latter.
To return now to the central question of this book: At a psychological level, why have women as a group, throughout history and to the present day, failed to reach their potential as achievers? I suggest the following:
We women routinely invest our emotional energy so heavily in the quest for love relationships that our capacity to invest in achievement-oriented personal development is significantly limited. It is not that we fear success per se, but that we have failed to develop a value system that includes high achievement to begin with. Our capacity to surmount obstacles is weakened by our halfhearted commitment to the pursuit.
The psychoanalyst Ethel Spector Person has suggested that this issue comes into play even during childhood, shaping the development of basic skills and abilities:
[Girls] are preoccupied with social relations in childhood and adolescence, during those crucial years when many boys are laying down passionate interests and acquiring techniques of mastery. A preoccupation with relating crowds out other pursuits. The acquisition of social skills too often takes priority over the acquisition of other skills. Active aims are bent toward being chosen by the male. Vague ambitions persist but without clear-cut goals. This constellation of goals and interests predisposes to a fear of failure.
Person delineated a number of dynamics that may inhibit a woman's ambition:
Role conflicts related to the shift in social definition of the ideal feminine role.
Ambition without clear-cut goals, occurring when vague ambition combines with passivity to block the delineation and pursuit of specific interests.
Fear of failure, which is commonly associated with a low self-esteem that makes the risk of shame and embarrassment unbearable.
Fear of deviance, or anxiety that high achievement will result in a loss of feminine self-perception.
Fear of success, whereby a woman fears she will lose the love of others if she succeeds.
An individual woman confronts external obstacles to success with a particular psychology that diminishes her capacity to challenge them. Faced with work-related problems that contain a unique twist for women, she lets her anxiety-charged wish to protect her love relationships above all else influence the way she solves them. For example:
Kimberly graduated from a prestigious medical school at the top of her class and desired a career in academic medicine. Married to a business executive, by age forty she had relocated four times as he climbed the corporate ladder, for she and her husband had decided that his would be the primary career. By the time of the fourth move, she had come to see herself as a benchwarmer in the world of academics; confronted also with the reality of a system in which only 11 percent of full professors were women, she had fundamentally abandoned her goal of attaining the highest rank at a university. Five years later her husband left her for a younger woman, and at that point Kimberly finally began to invest herself more fully in her career.
Nancy, the daughter of an attorney, had herself considered becoming a lawyer. A straight-A student in college, she had plenty of intelligence and drive. She was, however, engaged to a young man who also wanted to become a lawyer, and they could not financially sustain both of them in school simultaneously. Troubled, she consulted with her father. "Sweetie," said he, "law is really a tough business for a woman. Look at my firm: Only three out of twenty partners are women, and they've really had to sacrifice their family life." Lacking support from her fiancé and her father, anticipating an uphill fight to become a respected attorney, and driven, above all else, to establish herself as loving and supportive to her future husband, Nancy chose to become a paralegal instead.
These examples of challenges to a woman's capacity to choose a path of achievement may seem unusually dramatic, but many women do experience similarly stark choices. Further, such big decisions are set within a context of the daily, tiny choices women make that are so different from those men face. Will I spend my lunch hour reading a report or picking up a gift for the birthday party my child has to attend? Will I leave work at five to be home with my children, or will I stay until 6:30 like the men in my office? If I take time off to be classroom mother, will I be seen as a lightweight by others in the office?
Whether the decision is large or small, the psychological process underlying these choices is often the same. To the degree that a woman believes it is women's lot to be sacrificial, she perceives these choices in a narrow either-or frame of reference, as entailing a painful threat to either her love relationships or to her commitment to her work. Such beliefs will unconsciously lead her to constrict the way she conceptualizes her options. No matter what she chooses, she will feel unhappy.
The result of such either-or thinking is an inability to formulate creative solutions to problems, so-called third choices that happily answer both aspects of a woman's life. She might, for example, choose to delight her child's friend by slipping a ten-dollar bill into a birthday card and thus be able to meet her work deadlines. She might choose to ask her boss's permission to do some of her work at home after the children are tucked in at night so she can get home earlier in the day. She might not be able to be a classroom mother, but could take her daughter on an annual weekend trip of her own choosing. She might ask her husband to buy the birthday present, come home at five, or be a classroom father.
How we arrive at these large and small decisions affects our work life and our love life as well. Clearly, the goal should be neither to reflexively make the self-sacrificing choice every time nor to always avoid that choice. Rather, the goal is to live a life that reflects a balanced sense of meaning, allowing for a free range of choices and creative problem-solving that begins with the assumption that it is possible both to love and to work without feeling like a martyr in the process. Developing such a value system involves both clarifying and developing a sense of meaning that honors both love and self.
The central purpose in clarifying a value system is to disentangle whether relationships are a rich, mutually satisfying experience of love and intimacy, or whether you're using them to answer anxiety-based issues. A hypertrophied valuation of relationships might come from expecting a relationship to help bolster self-esteem, to ward off depression, or to serve as a buffer from fears of independence.
Developing a value system involves accepting, or even welcoming, that throughout the life cycle, whether or not you have children, the way you experience a sense of meaning will evolve. Women accustomed to defining their sense of meaning as supporting and helping others may be surprised to find a shift to other values in midlife. One of the most delightful parts of being a woman is that we are allowed a broad range of choices in defining a sense of meaning, and as externals in our lives change, we may permit ourselves to alter how we define meaning.