"Women can be powerful. Women can be likable. Being both is hard to do." says Fortune editor Patricia Sellers in a post earlier this year that has stuck with me, "Facing Up to the Female Power Conundrum."
My Own Power Struggle
There is a positive correlation for men between power and likability. The two qualities frequently go hand-in-hand. Where women, more often, end up having to make the choice of one over the other.
I totally resonate with this battle. And it's not just a theoretical fear. From experience, I know that as others perceive me in leadership, power, or influence that my relationships more frequently have experienced jealousy, competition, and criticism. As a people-pleaser, it's a temptation to choose popularity at the expense of my power.
I was raised being told that I could be anything I wanted, but somewhere along the way I received messages that it wasn't acceptable to look like I wanted it. Rather, I felt like others celebrated false modesty, encouraged giving all credit to others, expected me to undersell my contributions and wanted me to pretend I didn't care for ambition and accomplishment.
To be truthful, I know I have a greater power and force than I am currently embracing. My fear? As the article nailed on the head: losing likability.
It's Lonely at the Top All Too Often
We don't want to feel misunderstood, be seen as arrogant, or come across as bitchy. And we definitely wouldn't want to add loneliness to that list.
The common assumption is that loneliness, or a sense of social disconnection, is for those people. We picture some angry, hurt, unfriendly, socially awkward and un-lovable woman sitting in a dark house, with the curtains closed, alone. Maybe a dozen cats.
Unfortunately, the truth is much closer than that. Women who are beautiful, networked, popular, powerful, and inspiring are now the new lonely. Indeed, most of the members of my womens friendship matching site, GirlFriendCircles.com, are business owners, amazing mothers, coaches, authors and change-makers in a variety of ways looking for new friends because our lives are changing so rapidly.
Many of us know what it feels like to be looked up to, but not seen. Some of it is the fault of those who simply want to be near the popular and powerful for what it does for them: making them feel more important, giving them greater access, and using the friendship to their own gains.
But some of it is also the fault of those who are the adored. The desire to reveal the best image, to stay likeable, and to be seen as a role model puts an inane amount of pressure to keep up the smile and guard our vulnerabilities.
There's a reason they say it's lonely at the top. Whether the person at the top starts to feel too amazing to connect with those beneath them, or those beneath them begin to treat the top as though they are on a pedestal; both responses are different sides of the same coin of insecurity. In my work as a life strategist and spiritual teacher, I have seen first-hand the loneliness of those who are too beautiful, too talented, too powerful, too famous and too wealthy. We cling to our power or our likability and feel too insecure to risk one for embracing the other.
Surely there is a way for us women to be both powerful and likeable? We need not lose our friends in order to make our most significant and impressive contributions to the human experience.
The Role of Friendship in our Power Conundrum
For those of you who are practiced at stepping into your power, I remind you that even if difficult and awkward, you must still create friendships around you that truly matter. Some of your best friends may be women who can keep you grounded and remind you that they love you beyond the image everyone else sees. Choose to let people in, holding to the belief that power isn't lost by loving others.
And I want to challenge those of you who have chosen likability over your best self to become cheerleaders for your friends ambitions. Model to them the encouragement that they can reciprocate as you keep taking your own risks. It's not always our first impulse to cheer for someone when it makes us jealous and taps our own desires. But we must hold to the belief that when she wins it will inspire my own wins. It's not an either-or where only one of us gets what we hope.
Lastly, I invite the women who have found it easier to dismiss potential friends because they intimidate you (too beautiful, too successful, too much money) to give yourself the gift of getting to know them without jealousy. (Jealousy shows up in two forms -- we either devalue the other in order to make ourselves feel better about what we don't have or we ogle over them making them feel guilty for what they do have.)
We may not be able to solve the media bias or bring equality per se, but in our own small way, we can offer each other friendship that can be sustained through whatever ambitions we each choose to chase. We must stop critiquing others for their great and bold attempts, forcing them to stay small in order to gain our approval only when they don't threaten us.
The numbers of loneliness are staggering. And it's not because we have a world filled with little old ladies sitting in dark houses. It's because we're intimidated by each other, scared of being used, fearful of feeling inadequate next to one another. As we love ourselves, holding our value and worth securely, we will be able to receive that from others.
I will choose to own both my power and foster my friendships. I invite the same for you.