When a woman’s sense of authority rests predominantly outside of herself, it creates a tremendous amount of stress both physiologically in the nervous system as well as psychologically in the mind and the emotions.
The field of neuroscience demonstrates that the brain’s need for safety and security will invariably take precedence over the potential for creativity, imagination and possibility.
When there is a perceived threat in the environment it hijacks energy away from valuable generative activities and keeps it occupied with attempts at creating safety and security instead.
This function and adaptation of the human brain is brilliant and works really well in times of acute danger. The challenge is that these survival instincts, which were quite literally designed for survival, also kick into gear as a result of stressors in the environment, even if they aren’t realistically life threatening.
When a woman does not feel like her own authority, but instead feels that authority lives outside of her in the form of teachers, institutions, parents, friends, partners, etc. it sets her up to experience chronic states of stress. Many of the women I work with reveal that even non physically-threatening stressors such as an overly critical boss, an organization or company that doesn’t have systems in place to support a woman’s professional advancement or a shaming/unsupportive spouse have a similar physiological impact as perceived physical danger such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, feelings of helplessness and wanting to run.
There are innumerable social, historical and political factors that have contributed to why women experience a disproportionate amount of stress when it comes to claiming internal authority. I am a huge advocate for the societal changes that so many are working tirelessly on to address some of the underlying causes of women’s disempowerment and I am simultaneously an ambassador of taking matters into our own individual hands and doing what we can as women to ensure that our precious human potential thrives.
One of the greatest hidden costs to women not feeling empowered in the seat of their own authority is that it thwarts expression and contribution, therefore robbing both the individual, but also the world of a very vital resource: the unique intelligence, creativity, voice and impact that this woman has to offer. Given the level of challenge that we face as a human specious right now, we need as many creative and useful resources as possible and women are an inexplicable and instrumental force whose potential should be maximized, not diminished.
If you suspect that you or a woman you love is challenged when it comes to abiding in the seat of her internal authority, consider these 4 steps as a way to cultivate a stronger sense of empowerment.
Many years ago one of my teachers in psychology and human development posed that awareness is 50% of the cure. I have yet to prove an exact percentage, but I do agree that awareness is the starting point for any type of personal change or growth. Become aware of what creates stress or distress inside of you, specifically related to this inquiry of authority. Some common examples might be telling your parents that you are doing something you imagine they will disapprove of, asking your boss for a raise or time off, speaking up to a friend or colleague who has said something that had a negative impact on you.
Ask yourself, “What exactly am I afraid of?” Sometimes it can be helpful to write down your free form responses to this question. Some common examples are: fear of not being liked/loved, fear of losing someone or something important to you, fear of being perceived in a way you are uncomfortable with.
3. Face the fear:
Imagine and consider if your fear were to come true, what are some different ways that you could rise to the occasion and face the fear? Think about specific ways you might approach or handle the issue. Some common examples would be things you might say or do with another person, ways you might take care of yourself, either internal or external resources you might utilize.
The function of the above exercises is to create space for the fear in a more conscious way. Fear is typically one of the most common forces that drives women to abandon their internal authority and subordinate to an external authority because the perceived losses associated with the fear seem much worse in the moment than the perceived loss of authority.
4. Check in with the internal authority:
Once there is increased consciousness around the fear, it lessens the intensity and power of the energy and creates a greater capacity to listen to the internal authority and what she has to say about a given question or challenge.
In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) there is a concept known as Wise Mind. This is the presence or force of the inner self who is not weighed down by the various internal parts of self-doubt, fear, self-criticism, anger, resentment, etc. When Wise Mind is more accessible, it feels like the presence of a kind, wise, generous and compassionate mother, aunt, friend or grandmother who is able to hold the whole picture and see through the fog into a clear, clean answer to life’s most difficult questions.
One of the easiest ways to access your unique Wise Mind is to settle the thoughts and the body. The previous exercises help the thoughts to settle by giving space to the fear. If you notice yourself still feeling frantic and revved up inside, I also recommend taking a round of 5 slow, deep breaths. If you are able to elongate the exhale to be twice as long as the inhale, this will support the physiology to calm down swiftly so that Wise Mind and all her intelligence has space to shine through.
To be crystal clear: strengthening one’s sense of internal authority is not a magic pill that ensures you will always get your way and be able to negotiate whatever you want with life and others. With life experience and ever increasingly amounts of maturity, we come to recognize that the very nature of being human promises that we will face loss, challenging decisions that are far from ideal and situations in which we will be required to do things we greatly prefer not to.
When the relationship to internal authority has been fortified, however, these hardships become more workable and we have the opportunity to find our seat of power even in the midst of unwanted circumstances. This is the difference between shriveling into a disempowered misery and as the magnificent Brene Brown says, “Rising Strong.”
Identifying and building trust with your internal authority is requisite for both personal and professional fulfillment. Whether you are answering to a parental expectation, a boss or a culture in which you were born, it is courageous to take a step back and to ask yourself what it is that you actually want and perhaps even more courageous to listen.