As a career and executive coach dedicated to the advancement of women, it's not often these days that I'm surprised by women's behavior. I know women -- especially those in midlife -- quite well, or so I thought. But I've been rocked recently by a finding that's emerging from my research on Women Succeeding Abundantly. This study explores the stories of working women across the country, ages 25 to 75 who are experiencing abundant success on their own terms as they define it, and are thriving and living joyfully.
As the study progresses, I'm learning that women are much more comfortable discussing things that are not going well in their lives than they are sharing stories of their successes. They are simply very reluctant to come forward and admit, "Hey, I'm really successful, and I'm proud of that!"
A friend of mine recently told me that when Shirley MacLaine won her Oscar in 1984 for her role in "Terms of Endearment," she was certainly grateful in her acceptance speech, but also declared, "Thanks, I deserve this!"
She told the audience:
I don't believe there are such things as accidents. I think that we all manifest what we want and what we need. I don't think there's a difference really between what you feel you have to do in your heart, and success -- they're inseparable ... Films and life are like clay waiting for us to mold it, and when you trust your own insides and that becomes achievement, it's a kind of principle it seems to me is at work with everyone ... God bless that potential that we all have for making anything possible if we think we deserve it. I deserve this. Thank you!
There was a strong backlash about her declaration -- how dare she say she deserves to win?
Wow ... I guess we had better not even whisper that we've earned our great success and that it's well-deserved. Today it remains unacceptable for women to do so. And this is not something we've "made up" in our minds. Unfortunately, national research shows that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. In other words -- women who are successful aren't liked as well as successful men.
When I was researching my first book "Breakdown, Breakthrough" about the top professional challenges women face today, women by the hundreds eagerly shared their stories of crisis and turmoil. It was healing for them to come clean about how things weren't working, and talk about how they overcame or handled their crisis. And I was grateful that they did. I know from direct experience that telling our painful stories can heal our lives. Turning our mess into a message is a powerfully cathartic experience.
But what about talking about our successes? Can't this be strengthening and empowering as well? Can't we access important dimensions of ourselves and offer inspiration to others in the telling of our success stories, just in the same way as telling our tales of woe?
I'm thinking -- but I'd love your help here -- that women's reluctance to talk about their success is rooted in a number of contributing factors, including that women:
1) Don't recognize or "feel it" when they are successful
2) Don't want to sound as if they're bragging
3) Have as a top priority their sense of connection and relationship to others, and don't want to alienate anyone who isn't feeling successful
4) Don't want others to envy them
5) Don't want to jinx their success by speaking openly of it
6) Don't want to sound like they are "more deserving" than anyone else
7) Aren't sure they really measure up to some outside standard of "abundant success" ("Wait a minute, am I really that successful?")
The women who have come forward to tell their stories of great success in my research study are courageous indeed. Their stories have been anything but conventional or empty bragging -- they've been about vulnerability, surprise, risk, heartbreak, resourcefulness, ingenuity and being a "finisher" -- going the distance, walking straight through their deepest challenges and fears.
Help me get to the bottom of this and share your thoughts and experiences. Are you reluctant to talk about your successes? If so, what holds you back most? What are you concerned will happen if you openly share and discuss your achievements?
I hope that in 2012 and beyond, women can begin to speak more openly about what they've accomplished, and not shy away from tooting their horns in a positive, compelling way. In the words of Shirley MacLaine, we deserve it.