Your Story Is Your Power
We are at a juncture where we need women’s voices, women’s intelligence, women’s compassion, and women’s courage to help us navigate the difficult challenges that our species and our planet face. It is our deepest hope that these excerpts from our forthcoming book will guide you to the center of your Feminine Power, which has the potential to positively impact the world beyond our wildest imaginings.
Whether we realize it or not, we define ourselves through stories. Understanding your own story is the key to understanding yourself, your world, and your capacity to act within that world.
For women, much of our early collective education resides in the fairy tale. It is as though each of us is given a recipe that shows us what to do to create a successful life, as well as how to behave if we want to find our own happily ever after.
In the classic fairy tale “Cinderella,” a beloved daughter is orphaned, adopted, and turned into an indentured servant while everyone else gets to go to the ball. With the help of a fairy godmother, a dress, and a famous pair of shoes, Cinderella goes to the ball and is so beautiful that the handsome young prince falls in love with her. Despite the jealousy of her stepmother and stepsisters, Cinderella gets the prince, becomes a princess, and is lifted out of her painful life of manual labor.
In the early 1900s, Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, used some of his uncle’s ideas to subconsciously manipulate the people who viewed advertisements. He then applied these insights to the cigarette industry and to women, specifically, because they smoked far less than men. He encouraged women to smoke instead of eat, celebrating images of thin women and gaining doctors’ endorsements that said smoking was better for you than eating sweets.
Years later, the author and activist Naomi Wolf examined the effects of these messages on women. In a research study, women were shown advertisements that featured women of various appearances, sizes, and ages and were asked, “Who is the most attractive?” The overwhelming majority of participants pointed to the women who adhered to unrealistic, unhealthy, and compulsory ideas of beauty.
These stories aren’t new, and they aren’t limited to Disney or even to the last one hundred years. But like any good science-fiction story where the heroine or the hero starts to figure out what’s going on just in time to correct course, many women, and some men, are beginning to realize that roughly half of the human race is being manipulated.
In order to take back your story you first must know yourself.
Becoming more aware is a process akin to looking for a light switch in a dark room. You might pass your hands over the dark walls for a long time, or you might find the switch rather quickly. But either way, once you find the switch, the lights go on in a way that shifts your perception of everything. You can never unsee once you see.
Here are a few questions that we—Susie and Elle—asked as we began to look at our own narrative.
How have we been impacted by a global culture that values and empowers men above women?
As a woman born (most likely) into patriarchal culture, it’s important to understand this dominant world paradigm, and how it affects every woman.
By definition, patriarchy is a hierarchy. There are many types of hierarchies, and some of them are necessary and helpful. But hierarchies stop being helpful the instant one group subordinates another group in the name of authority, domination, or power. These types of hierarchies are sustained, as Gandhi observed, through humiliation of the dominated group. When this happens, these systems become hierarchies rooted in oppression, and patriarchy is one of these hierarchies because it is built on the oppression of women.
From a very young age, girls are exposed to countless messages that reinforce this notion that men are the “head of the house” and women must obey. As a result, men are given more resources, have more cultural authority, and are not held to the same cultural expectations as women.
The most insidious side effect of patriarchy is misogyny. While sexism is a prejudice or stereotype on the basis of sex, misogyny is defined as the hatred of women.
The psychological effects of cultural misogyny on girls are astounding. By the time a young girl is six or seven years old, she has already begun to formulate an internal template based on the countless impressions that have told her men are superior to women. If these impressions are left in the unconscious, these girls could grow up to be women who suffer from a range of psychological disorders:
How has misogyny impacted the story we tell ourselves about ourselves as women?
The origins of misogyny are debatable. While some say it is five thousand years old, starting as early as the origin of writing and commerce, others believe that it is as old as human culture, and stems from the belief that since women can create human life, they must be oppressed to keep them from dominating men. What we do know is that it is a worldwide phenomenon that has been expressed consistently and horribly throughout history.
Was there ever a time in history where women held equal positions with men? Or have we ever had a society where women were in charge? Historians don’t know, but what is evident is that there have been periods in history where women have had wildly different statuses, ranging from being considered nonhuman (meaning they held the same status as animals) to being the leaders of empires.
Here are a few things that have been said about women throughout history by individuals you might recognize:
Oftentimes, when men display solidarity or identification with something seen as overly feminine, they receive social backlash. For example, one of the biggest insults a man can say to another man is to refer to him as “a girl.” Or, if they agree with their wives or are doing something to be of service to them, they might be called “pussy-whipped.” This keeps men separated from women, making intimacy almost impossible. The more aware men become, the more they realize the effect it has on them. Men are starting to realize that women deal with misogyny all the time:
We — Susie and Elle — each discovered that we had internalized cultural misogyny.
After a big breakup, I had a life-changing epiphany. I noticed that whenever I had a boyfriend, I felt great and had life by the tail. But whenever I was single, I felt inferior to others and ashamed. This inspired me to sit down with a friend at a restaurant and quickly jot down what came to mind when I thought about women. When I wrote on my placemat, I realized that deep down, I didn’t really feel that I was a person at all because I was a woman. Rather, I felt like my existence was conditional. I was alive only to be beautiful and/or to procreate. And if I didn’t do that? I needed to be rich. Other than that, I was useless. I continued writing these things down, and once they were collected on the placemat, I studied them through my lens as a trained psychotherapist. This groundbreaking moment was my first real conscious experience of uncovering my own internal misogyny.
After that day, I intervened on my own behalf and began to transform my internal misogynist from a dominant oppressor into an inner masculine partner that would stand up for me and believe in my innate gifts as a woman.
My journey with misogyny began as I started listening to the little voice in my mind that I called my “inner critic.” This voice would pop up while I was painting, or getting dressed, or driving . . . or doing anything, really. But as I began to listen to this “inner critic,” I realized that critic was an understatement. The voice was much worse than critical — it was downright hateful to me simply because I had been born a woman. It told me that I should never age, I should never rock the boat, and I should never speak out on my own behalf because it might make others upset. To listen to this internal voice playing on repeat in my mind was painful, but by bringing it into consciousness, I could begin to talk to it and, with time, transform it. As the psychologist Carl Rogers once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
For both of us, bringing misogyny and its effects on our own minds into consciousness changed the course of our lives in unimaginably positive ways.
Can misogyny get passed down through families?
Psychiatrist and professor Murray Bowen learned that we transmit some behaviors from one generation to the next. If you want to understand your own story, it’s helpful to look at it within the context of your family. What are the beliefs and traits that you inherited from your family? Here are a few questions a family therapist might ask:
Finally, how might we better understand how we block ourselves?
You may think of your personality as just a naturally occurring part of you. But scientists have not yet fully determined how much of personality is intrinsic — just “you” — and how much is learned behavior and responses. What we do know is that both genetics and early experiences affect how we maneuver in the world, and despite how indelible our personalities can feel, the brain remains neuroplastic, or “malleable,” throughout our lives. The purpose of understanding your personality is to find those aspects that are keeping you from the life that you want.
How did you go about getting your needs met as a baby and a child? This provides a window into your personality structure.
As you gradually gain self-awareness, you can begin to observe and evaluate how your personality is functioning. You can start this process with questions like:
What features of your survival strategies are no longer working in a positive way? Do you see any parts that you would like to shift? Are there any aspects that you want to bring forward to play a larger part in your life? From here, you can choose where you want your story to go next.
As you see how stories have affected you, you may gain insight into internal structures of your mind that you inherited from your family or community; you may start to see how your ego built ways to keep you safe; and now, you might be seeing how those same structures, stories, and strategies could actually be obsolete. This path is the meandering, spiraling journey toward the center of the labyrinth.
Imagine Cinderella walking the labyrinth. She’s a woman who wants to change her life — in her situation, that means meeting a prince. Her stepmother’s and stepsisters’ complaints and directives are a metaphor for how the mind works. “You can’t have this, you can’t have that. . . And if you do . . . Then you should . . . ” Imagine Cinderella finally getting to the center of the labyrinth, having let go of those voices, and exclaiming, “But I want to meet the prince!” And, as heroines do, even amidst her horrible situation, she uses the power of her imagination to visualize what she wants, and a plan emerges that will help her achieve her dream.
In some versions of the story, Cinderella sits in her corner of the kitchen imagining a better life. This is our dream for you — that you have access to your imagination to help you achieve what you want from life.
In our own journeys, we discovered a powerful practice to shift the parts of our internal worlds that kept us from the dream. You can do it too, and it will reward you for life if you put the effort into it.
When Susie began dealing with her inner misogynist, she would imagine that it was an inner voice sitting on her board of directors, and she would talk directly to it, as though it was real and present. First, she would give it credit, saying,
Then, she would say specifically how she wanted to retrain it, adding,
Finally, she would tell this very real part of her what would happen if it didn’t start to change its tune, saying,
Retraining old inner voices, giving them new tasks, or asking them to stop doing old things and start doing new things might feel threatening. You might even feel like a part of you is dying. But this is what’s necessary for you to take control of your inner world and your story. As you dialogue with your own inner voices, you will be able to listen as they retire their defenses and get in line, doing what you want them to do and helping you write the story that you want to be living.
As you continue gently bringing self-awareness to your inner world, you are already beginning to take the story back from the storytellers, both real and imagined. And you get to decide what happens next. When you feel you can help choose the direction of your story, or how you feel about your story, joy starts to seep in, allowing for optimism and mirth to become your travel partners as you venture forth.
As we recognized and confronted our own internalized misogyny, the experience rippled through our lives and a beautiful feeling arose — a feeling of having come home.
When I started to firmly handle and control my inner misogynist, I had boundless energy; I felt like I could do anything because I could imagine anything. I connected to the vitality of my own youth and the vitality of a full life before me. The world became a place to play and to learn because I felt unshackled. I could do what I wanted to do because the voices inside of me were now under my direction. I could still ask for their counsel, but for the most part, I had become my own captain, my own queen, my own longed-for friend and confidant. It was like finally getting a vitamin that had been denied.
Power can be used to describe the effort used when exerting physical strength or authority over another person, or it can be used to describe someone’s influence. But it can also be used to describe a person’s electricity or energy. And in a woman, when her natural personality is freed from the confinement of a patriarchal system, a kind of generative energy is unleashed — this is what we call Feminine Power.
As you resolve the conflicts that stand between your defense systems and what is at the heart of your soul’s longing, you will experience the infectious, generative, and inspiring power of being a free woman who is fully alive.
After I identified the ways I was blocking myself as a woman, I had a dream. I was on an elevator in a floor-length red ball gown. Its long silky fabric flowed like waves around my legs. I took the elevator up to the very top floor. I stepped out into what looked like a sea of cubicles. The overhead lights were white, and the geometric shapes extended as far as I could see in every direction. All at once, I began running down the aisles, singing at the top of my lungs, and spinning and twirling in my red dress. When I woke up, I was shocked. I realized that it was the first time in my life I had ever had a dream where I had a voice — my feminine voice.
What if women could wake up to their skills and use them to bring about a world with more compassion, less violence, less hunger, led by both men and women? What would that world look like?
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original Star Trek television series, presented a future world where there is equality between the sexes as well as among the races. In a decision that would have profound implications, Roddenberry cast Nichelle Nichols, an African American woman, in the role of Lt. Nyota Uhura, one of the key officers on the USS Enterprise. At a time when television roles for African Americans were rare, seeing Nichols in this role would have a profound impact on many, including a young girl who happened to be watching.
Because we are all different and have different challenges that keep us from our sense of possibility, our agency, it’s the vision of what we can achieve that lights the caverns of despair.
In Whoopi’s case she saw a woman in a role that was not defined by race — a vision with a dissolved obstacle. Because of this, Whoopi got the courage to pursue her dream, and we got to receive her gifts to the world — her inspiring and invigorating approach to humor, acting, and, most of all, her activism. Gene Rodenberry posed a vision and Whoopi leapt.
Together, we are creating a world that celebrates women’s voices, stories, and lives. It is time for you to exercise your own Feminine Power!
Advocate for other women. Don’t forget the past and the women who fought for equality. Educate yourself about the lives of other women, including their travails and the ways they have overcome them. Seek counsel from other women, especially elders. For the women you know well, remind them of their dreams and beauty. Revel in being with women and sharing in their knowledge. Advocate for younger women and join mentor programs or become a tutor for girls in your neighborhood and beyond.
During the Obama administration, female White House staffers began noticing that their voices were often drowned out or their ideas were co-opted by male colleagues. “So female staffers adopted a strategy for meetings that they called ‘amplification,’” Juliet Eilperin writes. She describes the strategy: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” The strategy worked, and President Obama took notice, calling on more women during staff meetings.
The Women’s March on January 21, 2017, was the largest single-day protest in United States history. Among many reasons for marching — from advocating for racial justice, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigration reform — one of the rallying points was the distress many felt about the election of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president, whose past words and actions were misogynistic. The Women’s March crushed all expectations, and worldwide participation was estimated at five million people. All over the globe, many men joined the women, carrying extraordinary signs, too, and wearing unforgettable T-shirts, reminding everyone that when women’s rights are celebrated, everyone wins.
When people begin to understand the limited nature of living in a patriarchal world, some may feel ashamed of their unwitting participation in it. They might start to feel angry or sad about the things they have said or done that have perpetuated this dominating paradigm that has caused so much damage. Mothers and fathers may feel this about messages they’ve given their young daughters and sons. If someone publicly acknowledges this realization, it can be a moment of transformation. Your job is to support, not to shame.
Tell your story. Use it to inspire others. Be proud of the insights you’ve gained and, when you see the opportunity, consider that another woman is longing to have access to the knowledge that you have gained.
Stories live inside you and shape your life. Be your own new story. Right here, right now, you get to choose what you want your story to be about!
Preorder YOUR STORY IS YOUR POWER here!
Order by February 28th, 2018 and receive a signed* copy of the book and a beautiful companion journal, designed by Elle, to record your thoughts as the book guides you to the heart of your story.