With sling-back shoes, shoulder length blonde hair, and a navy tailored suit that revealed her shapely body, Courtney was all woman and all business. A hedge fund manager, she made good money in her professional life but bad choices in her personal life.
In our therapy session Courtney was crying like a baby. Her shoulders caved in, her hands lay limp on her lap, and her sobs drowned out her words. Blowing her nose, she finally muttered. "Adam is angry with me."
"About what?" I asked.
Wiping her eyes, Courtney explained, "Before we married I had lots of women friends, but now I'm afraid to see them".
I was stunned and questioned her, "Afraid?"
"Don't get me wrong. It's not that Adam doesn't let me see them; it's that I know he doesn't like it. Last night I asked him if I could see Merle and he snapped at me." A sheepish smile fought with her tears.
"Do you ask permission at work to see a colleague?"I asked.
Courtney smiled and quickly said, "Of course not."
I inquired, "Why do you think you're assertive in your professional life and timid in your personal life?"
"Maybe I feel bad that I make more money than Adam. And I'm afraid he will leave me for some woman in his workplace. They're probably air-headed, not threatening, and hotter than me."
A successful, confident, autonomous woman in her work life, Courtney has lost her confidence and relinquished her power and autonomy in her marital life. It seems that at an unconscious level, she assumed a stereotypical male role at work, and a stereotypical female role at home. At work she was the brainy boss and at home she was the child bride.
Like Courtney, many women in the 21st century, still bifurcate their gender roles. They reserve their strengths for their work life and lose sight of them in their marital lives. And so they are half a woman in either case. But whole men want whole women -- women who are strong and soft, tough and tender, secure and vulnerable, assertive and yielding, competitive and cooperative, loving and lustful. It is no wonder Courtney fears her spouse will cheat.
In my practice, I find that young women, particularly college age students, depend on men to shore them up. Their emotional boundaries are blurred and in an effort to please their men, these women go up and down with their moods. That's not to say that women should not try to please their spouses or to depend on them for love, emotional, and sexual fulfillment. It's when the pendulum swings too far and a woman loses her self-worth that peril sets in.
Why then do women not always savor their strengths in all phases of life? For one thing, societal media messages bombard us with skinny anorexic models, sexy scantily clad women, and beauty products or cosmetic surgery promoting unhealthy methods to obtain superficial outer beauty.
What about inner beauty, assertion, independence and autonomy? Not only is this not valued, it has been denigrated in recent days. Take the example Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court Justice's confirmation hearings in which she was denigrated as "emotional' and "empathic." These terms would never be used if she was a man.
The closest the media comes to applauding a strong independent woman is the character of Lizbeth Salander in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." The New Yorker has applauded her as a new kind of heroine that many young women want to emulate. In fact, she is anorexic, pierced, and seeks brutal and pornographic revenge on her abuser; hardly a healthy role model for young women.
These and other societal messages along with old childhood scripts continue to sway how women perceive themselves. The result is that these repeated scripts get lodged in your brain. But there is good news: the brain is plastic and it can change. When you begin to savor your strengths and face your frailties you can counter these old noxious scripts and replace them with positive, life affirming, self-esteem strengthening new scripts. Not only that, but your spouse -- who is connected to you with mirror neurons -- will be thrilled with your new stronger self. By the way, mirror neurons are miniscule brain cells behind the eye sockets that link intimate partners at an internal world, in their unconscious thoughts, needs, desires, attitudes, feelings, and intentions.
Think of your self-worth as a garden that you will weed by countering insidious messages and planting new healthy ones.
Let's begin with denigrating societal messages. For example, you may feel unappealing when you compare your body with the bodies of adolescent girls. In that case, change how you view yourself by taking inventory of your strengths as though you were writing a resume. List your talents, your ability to cope with difficult situations, your kindness, inner beauty, or accomplishments.
Another scenario, similar to Courtney's that may arise is that you feel comfortable being in control in your career but you dumb yourself down with your spouse. If this is the case, I suggest you relish your strengths in your career as this will help build your self esteem. Connected with mirror neurons, once you respect yourself, your spouse can't help but respect you.
Now let's go on to examples of damaging childhood messages. If superficial beauty was more valued than brains or inner beauty you may feel you do not measure up. Or you may not have succeeded as well in school or in the playground and you have internalized critical voices that tell you that you are not good enough. Counter those voices and replace them with ones of approval. Rewrite the message of "I am not good enough" to "I did the best I could do at the time." This will help bolster your self esteem as you focus on your assets.
If your parents did not validate your real strengths and had their own expectations, you may feel ashamed or guilty for not pleasing them. If you rebelled and made mistakes along the way, cherish the freedom you gained by living authentically. Taking risks and falling on your face granted you valuable experience from which you have grown stronger. Plunging right into life and love is much more fulfilling than living on the fringes. Not only that but you won't bemoan any lost opportunities.
Then again, you may have complied with parental expectations and lost your true self. You may now feel that life is constrained and that you are a prisoner to other people's expectations. The resolution lies in freeing yourself and beginning a journey of life and love your way. Imagine what you can engage in now that thought you could not succeed in and do it. Let go of your inhibitions and try things you never would like dancing, singing, playing an instrument, wearing a teeny bikini or a risqué negligee with your spouse.
These are only some of the ways you can savor your strengths on the way to living and loving fully as a strong woman. One of the benefits from following these strategies to rewire your brain and repair you self is the effect it has on your marriage. Your spouse -- linked to you with mirror neurons -- will feel more attracted to you and more stimulated by your emerging strengths. Brain chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, vassopresson, testosterone and estrogen that promote love and lust will flow more freely between you. Remember strong women are not only better marital partners but they are better lovers.