I made my way to the gym this week for my yoga class and one of the women who works there stopped me with a gentle touch on my arm. "You're moving slowly, Melissa, tell me what's going on." I shared how a running injury was still healing and that I probably would have to give up running altogether. I meant to share that information in a way that conveyed my comfort with the whole idea, but apparently some level of frustration showed through.
"Take your time, sweetheart," she said in a soothing, gentle voice. "You're too hard on yourself." She's a mother and a grandmother and as such, I have a tendency to stop and listen to her words on any given day -- she's a very insightful soul. But something in the way she spoke to me on this day reached me just a little bit more deeply. I smiled and opened my mouth to say thank you, but emotion caught in my voice. So I just smiled and waved my thanks as I made my way to my class.
There's something so meaningful and affecting when a woman offers true compassion to you as another woman, because she truly understands your plight.
I hadn't realized I was being too hard on myself. Which doesn't surprise me, because like most women, being hard on myself is often just the by-product of getting things done. Throughout class I thought about her words and I could see what she meant. I didn't have time for pain or to time to heal, there were too many other projects and people to care for. I started thinking about how most women demand so much of themselves, and typically without the support and compassion we would readily offer someone else.
I started thinking about all the women I know who can be too hard on themselves and I realized something interesting: They seem to be hardest on themselves when something goes awry or when someone else in their life doesn't behave. Whether it was the betrayal of a spouse or a friend, a bad boss or a poor economy, somehow they found a way to blame themselves. And they didn't even realize they were being hard on themselves until someone repeatedly pointed it out. It was just an innate reaction, a bad habit gone unchecked for too long.
Our empathetic compassion for others and our ability to take on the role of Super Mommy and Wonder Woman is clearly a strength our gender possesses, but we allow it to become a hinderance as well. Here are some things we can do to put our strengths to good use while allowing Wonder Woman's dark side to take a back seat:
1. Share the load.
Through mothering my children and leading companies, one job far more difficult than the other, I continue to learn that life, corporate or otherwise, only works if your time is spent empowering people to do for themselves. I'm constantly amazed at the creativity that team members and family members can contribute toward the common goals and daily processes. Plans and results alike always end up being far more rich and successful when others participate in their development.
I wouldn't think of charting a corporate marketing course without involving our team members from all levels. The insight from their vantage points are invaluable. On the domestic front, though it often requires more repetitive effort to get everyone to participate, it eventually happens. Like all women, I have to fight the temptation to take the 'easier in the short-term but oh so dangerous route' of just taking care of things myself. I have to consciously remind myself that when everyone contributes, we give birth to living a meaningful way of life that makes us happier individuals and a better family. Children can clean up after themselves, they can help cook, plan an outing or a vacation and even tell you what they want to learn next if you involve them in the process. Sharing the responsibility can become a truly significant process for everyone concerned. You just have to remember that living this way is a practice and a commitment.
2. Realize that people learn, grow and change in their own way in their own time.
As women I think our empathetic nature often equips us to have unique insight into others' emotional and learning needs. But our desire to care and take care can take the wheels right out from under the very opportunities that might help someone the most -- especially when that opportunity embodies suffering or struggle. We need to remember how critically important it is for people to take responsibility for their own growth and learning. We can inspire, model, show examples, be available, encourage, assist, set boundaries and so on, but they have to be the ones to reach out and take the proverbial fruit to make it their own, and they'll do it only when they're ready.
3. Know that people have the capacity to broaden their intelligence and to take responsibility.
As I look back throughout my life, my least favorite people have been those who felt they needed to control my environment, when I should change, how I did something or ultimately, me. Perhaps they genuinely thought they were helping, but folks who think they have all the right answers for someone else's life rarely are. The most meaningful people in my life have always been those who have helped me to use my own creativity and intelligence to get a problem figured out. They offered plenty of advice, guidance, insight and opinions, but they honored the intelligence within me as a flame to be fanned, the key to moving forward. And I don't remember them feeling hard on themselves if I didn't do it exactly the way they wanted.
One of the most skillful women I know is a teacher at my children's school. She has a wonderful way of offering advice and wisdom then stepping out of the way to see if and when the other person will reach out and take it. She doesn't badger anyone to change or learn something or do differently. She knows from years of experience that they will take the wisdom and apply it when they are ready. She's motivating, inspiring and always learning new ways to reach the children. But she never forces it. I love how she leaves the responsibility for change and learning and growing with the other person, that's a gift they get to keep for a lifetime. She is so wise.
When we find the time and the space to take care of ourselves the way we need to, a funny thing happens: The world moves on. And some of the problems we thought we needed to take care of tend to take care of themselves -- because we chose to do the same thing.