As a therapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, I was thrilled to hear the theme of this month’s magazine: women empowering women. While men certainly suffer from eating disorders, the patients that I see are mainly women. Whether someone is struggling with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, or any other issue, men and women often present differently. While many men thrive on competition, women seem to have earned a reputation of “catty” or manipulative, which I would like to explore and challenge.
It seems that even with so many accomplishments made this century, women are still considered a minority in many areas. With so many obstacles on the road to gender equality, we don’t need to create another one by getting in our own way — despite our culture’s nasty habit of trying to pit us against each other. Without playing the victim card, I would like to recommend a few ideas to give women the confidence and power they deserve.
While stretching in my barre class yesterday, I noticed the woman’s socks to my left: they read “I am enough.” Classic therapist, I couldn’t help thinking that this new trendy phrase is so much more conducive to health than others out there. People seem to need this reminder that they are enough– smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, successful enough, etc.
The question is, where does this inner feeling of lacking come from? And how can we empower others to succeed when our belief in ourselves is shaky?
In Stephen Covey’s bestselling 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he calls the fourth habit “Think Win-Win”. He points out that most people generate their feelings of self-worth by competition and comparing themselves to others. If someone else is succeeding, then she must be failing.
With the Win-Win mentality, we learn to start seeing life as a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. It isn’t about simply being nice or selfless, but rather, a frame of mind that seeks mutual benefit in all situations.
Creating an abundance mentality for ourselves is the strongest way to battle this feeling of competition. When we start to understand that other women’s successes are not a threat to us, we can begin to embody the integrity and maturity that Covey describes in his book.
By drawing on support from other women, you can harness the collective energy of your peers to help you feel less alone, because it’s rough out there.
Trying to minimize someone else’s success, with feelings of competition and jealousy, is ineffective and beneficial to no one.
In Sefer Mishlei, as well as several other Jewish sources, we learn that when people act in this manner, it reflects more poorly on them. When people are filled with positive energy, they are able to gracefully help each other and support each other. This, in turn, brings more positive people into their lives.
While so many people don’t hold this abundance mentality, we need to strive to hold ourselves to a higher standard. As Michelle Obama aptly said, “When they go low, we go high.” She shared that:
“As women, we must stand up for ourselves. We must stand up for each other… I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity”.
We all know that not everyone is as fortunate as to grow up with support and love surrounding them. Those in the helping professions will especially understand, the painful outcome of raising girls with negativity. Too often, women are raised in atmospheres of abuse, resentment, and taught that they must compete to make it to the top- or even to survive.
Many Jewish women know the story of how Rabbi Akiva became a talmid chacham, a great scholar. Starting out with no knowledge of Judaism, he gleaned strength from watching drops of water fall onto a stone. He saw that even though each drop alone rolled off, after enough time, all of the individual drops would accumulate, eventually having an impact, forming a hole through the stone.
With so many lessons to learn from this story, I would like to focus on one. In this day and age, we are learning not to underestimate ourselves and more importantly, that courage can be contagious. I’m not naive enough to believe that all of these issues will be solved overnight, and I’m not saying that it’s as simple as being positive and all problems will go away. But what we see from the story of Rabbi Akiva is that when we make even the smallest, seemingly insignificant changes in our lives, they can make a tremendous impact.
In her new book Radium Girls, Kate Moore tells the story of the radium scandal in the 1920’s, weaving in the stories of the women involved. These women, essentially, were tricked. They were intimately exposed to radium on a daily basis while being told that they were in no danger. They were told, if anything, the radium would give them beautiful, glowing skin. When these women found out, in the most horrible ways imaginable, what radium exposure lead to, they developed the most unimaginable strength. In the face of physical illness along with so many other kinds of trauma, these women rose above anger, fighting for the health and the rights of the women who would come after them. They knew that their efforts wouldn’t help them much, but so many women (and men) were saved from their fate, thanks to these brave souls.
Sometimes, we don’t understand challenges we face and we can’t see the fruits of our efforts. Sometimes, we can fight every day to be strong for ourselves, for other women, and it seems to go nowhere. It takes a lot more emotional strength to take the advice to stay above the fray. It takes a lot more strength to encourage and support other women when we’re feeling down about ourselves. But this strength will not only strengthen others, it will bring out a strength in ourselves that we may not have known was there. And as challenging as it may be, it will be worth it.