This is the story about how I took control and began to understand my own worthiness.

Before you read I’d like to place a few cautions for this post: This is MY story about how I started seeking the control I’ve felt like I have never had, but always knew I needed. And how understanding my worth and power changed my life. I’m posting it in hopes that others might also see themselves in this story and affirm that you aren’t “the only one.” And most importantly, I fully understand my privilege as a white, cis-gender person in this story. I can absolutely not speak for anyone else and especially want to caution you to be open to listen to other’s stories. Women of color are facing similar challenges to mine as well as others because they have black or brown skin. Please LISTEN to everyone’s stories and validate them as they are.

My early experiences.

Lessons about culture start early for all of us as we watch the adults in our life. They teach us how to interact in relationships, what our gender means for our success, and what we can do or be as adults. My experience was no different.

Many of the women in my life shared the experience of being stuck in unhappy relationships and in careers they hated. It was ubiquitous. The women in my family were simply doing what they needed to do to raise their children and build successful lives, even if it meant not being fulfilled themselves.

There are a lot of factors that went into this, but most prominently it’s important to realize that at some point in the life of every woman in my family, she had to fight to make ends meet. Both of my parents grew up working class. The women — my mom, aunts, and grandmothers — also all experienced strained relationships with men that either weren’t there, experienced alcohol abuse, or simply did what all men did during this time in the 20th century, they worked and interacted very little with their young families. Each of the women in my life had periods in their own of high stress that was seemingly completely out of their control.

I grew up with this stress and strain around me. It was palpable. I saw the women in my life fighting to make ends meet. I saw the men around them work their asses off and pay little attention to their children. I saw each and everyone of them work in jobs they did not like in order to feed their family. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, even in my own family, but at some point in the life of each of the women in my world, they shared these experiences.

The culture around me showed me that men in my community lead the way financially and the women took care of the household. However, because much of my family was working class the women also had to work, which lead to many of them being overworked because they had full time jobs in and out of the home.

The women that taught me to be fierce.

Even with all the strain and stress, I was lucky enough to see the women around me fight like hell for their families. Each and everyone of them faced a culture driven by their husbands and a society built against them, but all of them were fierce and unstoppable.

My aunts. Each of them was taught by their mother to get what they wanted and live a life of grace and dignity. Each of them has built their own business (or nonprofit) and fought like hell for their families. They are the entrepreneurs I got to see growing up. Their stories weren’t always easy but they always conquered the issues in their own way to ensure their families were on track for a better life than they had. Although, many of them are entrepreneurs, I also saw them lose themselves in the lives of their husbands and children. Now that many have no kids left in the house though I’m seeing this change and their true selves emerge a bit more.

My paternal grandmother. To keep the story short, she never had it easy. She grew up poor in Oklahoma and then in West Michigan and was the oldest of nine. She got married at 18 and gave birth to four kids before she was 23. She started out with all the odds against her, and fought like hell to keep a marriage together for a long time, while practically raising her kids on her own. She didn’t know any different, but her ferocity was inspiring. She got herself out of a bad marriage and into a career that she built. She raised five successful children and was a sage to all of us. She fought like hell against breast cancer too, only losing her fight after years and years of a battle. My grandmother didn’t take shit from anyone, she stood strong in her values and purpose.

My mom. She raised my brother and me on her own and although she wallowed in confidence and emotional issues that lead her to some bad decisions with men, she always fought for herself and her family. She never backed down and she taught me how to do the same. My mom is a warrior if nothing else. She worked full time, dealt with the crazy and chaos my brother and I brought her, and supported her own siblings and parents the best she could. She will forever be a fighter.

Each of the women in my life and these are only a few, showed me what it was like to be a women and to conquer a world not built for them.

My struggle to own my place in my career.

Despite seeing so many ferocious women growing up, the story I saw played out gave mixed signals. The women were fierce, but they had to be because the cards were stacked against them. They all grew up in a world not built for them. They each took the only jobs they could get, none of them went to college, and the males in their households dictated family structures and finances. None of them really had many choices about how they lived and where they worked.

These mixed signals made me understand I needed to fight, but I always believed it couldn’t be for myself. It had to be for others, for my husband, for my kids, for my coworkers.

I brought my fierce attitude into my career, but some early experiences fueled the fire that I was only there to support others, to drive someone else’s agenda, and ‘dress’ like a proper women.

There was the time my first boss told me that the only way I could be successful is if I dressed professionally and wore nylons. She truly believed that if we were going to raise enough funds from corporations that we had to dress properly and show them we could lean into their cultures. We can talk later about whether or not she was right.

There was also the time I had female colleagues that I work with put me in “my place” over-and-over, by nit-picking my work and directly telling me I wasn’t ready. In each workplace I have been in there has been in-fighting amongst women and a strong sense that “you had to pay your dues” in order to get anything work that actually mattered.

Finally, there was the time I gave an organization eight years, ending in the role of director of marketing. For a year I worked — without any additional pay — to re-build the organization’s brand, led efforts to rebuild three websites (two of which represented national programs), and ran the daily marketing and communications efforts for six different departments with only two staff members. The entire time I was not allowed to be a member of leadership, my decisions always needed a second opinion, and I was offered a salary $20,000 less than the previous male in my role simply because as my supervisor told me “this was a resume builder for me”.

Over-and-over I got the message that I wasn’t ready or worthy or experienced enough. I was the young one on the block and needed more education or wisdom (or whatever) to get further. It was a bunch of bullshit, but I started to believe it. I was steeped in it and my confidence was waning. I felt completely out of control.

Breaking out.

By the time I got to my role as pseudo director of marketing, I was lucky enough to have had peers in the community that helped me understand that women had power and that I deserved better. I didn’t fully believe it yet, but I had this feeling in my gut that I wasn’t being given the opportunity to reach my full potential.

That was when I finally got the courage to lean the f*ck out and start my own thing. I had just written a book on talent development with a colleague and by this point had taught hundreds of nonprofit professionals about talent, marketing, and intercultural competency just to name a few topics. I had been building my resume for years to be a consultant and be able to work on my own. On top of that, I had a huge network in the nonprofit sector in my city that made it seem easy to step out.

So, after eight years, with no clients, one kiddo at home, and two months of funds in the bank I leaned out.

Hindsight is definitely 20/20, but I was seeking control over my life. I needed my power back. I needed to feel like I could do something great and prove it to myself. And even without a super solid foundation at home, I just had to do it. There was no turning back. There was no other way.

For the first two years out on my own, I struggled. We made ends meet financially, but I was lost. I didn’t have any internal guidance and I wasn’t given the opportunities I needed to move forward. Remember, in the workplace I continually got the message that I wasn’t ready or wasn’t enough. When I took the leap out on my own, my ferocity wasn’t quite where it should have been. I was more tip-toeing out or leaning over slowly, just enough to hold myself together and make it work.

On top of that, it was a struggle at home. Financial stress and anxiety that I could get another contract to make the bills work the next month overtook both my husband and me. Neither my husband nor I had the confidence or the mature emotional intelligence we needed to navigate this new life we were building.

I’m not sure exactly what the straw was that broke the proverbial camel’s back, but I started to seek out advice. Advice from psychologists and therapists, from well known authors talking about feminism and emotional support. I devoured as much as I could on these topics. I needed to find a way to be myself and to own my abilities. My businesses and personal life depended on it. Without being whole myself, I could never run a healthy business and raise a healthy family.

So, I finally gave myself permission to take my control back, to stop giving it away, and to own my shit. It was not easy. I have been to a lot of therapy. I devoured a ton more literature on the topics. I have pages and pages in my journal of affirmations to myself. I needed so many damn pep talks.

On top of that, there was a ton of strife at home. I was mixing up our balance. I was seeking power I had previously given to everyone around me. Everyone around me was accustomed to me giving myself to them. Some demanded it throughout my life and to others I gave it to willingly. When I flipped the table it upturned everyone around me.

Then something miraculous happened, with all my studying, with all my intention and focus on myself, I began to feel empowered. I gained strength I never knew I had. I had always been considered a strong person, but that was because I always “just handled it” and never showed emotion. Now I can have all my emotions, let them out, and still handle my shit.

What it feels like now that I have my control back.

What I realized throughout the last decade was that there will always be demands on me. Especially as a woman. I will be expected to do more and with less support. That isn’t going away anytime soon. Although today I feel more hopeful than ever. Fempreneurs are rising and coming together all around me.

What we need though, is to realize that it’s not me, it’s them. Even if someone tells me I’m not worthy, I need to realize that this is their own anxieties and fears talking. When someone puts me down it is way more about them then it is about me.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I’m perfect. I have tons of learning and growth to do, but I can do that now knowing that I am worthy of that growth. I have the control I need of my emotions and the support of a tighter tribe that lifts me up and challenges me to be better in all the right ways.

I’m living in a society that wasn’t built for me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not worthy. I can revel in that. I can keep the control of my worthiness and confidence and hold it tightly for my own. It’s mine damn it.

That is why I lean out. It’s never fucking easy. But I now know that being me is the only power I have. It’s what I need, it’s what my family needs, and it’s what I owe the world.

I will never stop leaning the fuck out. I’ve seen the light. I can’t go back. And I help others do that too. There are those among us that might not have this luxury. They haven’t been given the opportunity to support themselves in this same way. We need to keep supporting those individuals and inspire others around us. It’s the only way we can build a new world.

I am worthy, you are too, together we can make a difference, let’s keep lighting the bitch up!!