I am fortunate to have an amazing circle of female friends, and to count among their number the wonderful thought-leader and neuroscience nerd, Ellen Petry Leanse. Some of us were recently having a conversation about the future of women, and another friend, ocean rower and speaker Sally Kettle, raised the subject of the language we, as women, use about ourselves. This brought forth a stream of thoughts from Ellen that was so good that I asked her permission to share it with you here.
I hope that you all – men and women alike – enjoy this. Thank you, Ellen!
Hello wonderful sources of life and strength,
I am so glad to read that Sally brought up something about the language women use to talk about themselves. It’s one of the things I think most about – along with the conditioning that brings it about.
My belief is that women are conditioned from the time we are very small to “prove, please, pretend, and protect.” These are the behaviors we’re taught to use to “make ourselves worthy” in societies that both consciously or unconsciously teach us that we are “lesser than” certain other members of those societies.
At the core of our thoughts as women is the unseen belief that we need to be cared for and protected by other people – men – who are here to keep us safe: to defend us and our virtue by both their actions and by the underlying rules that shape our lives.
I said at the core of our “thoughts” ….and thoughts are one thing. But at the core of our BEINGS, in our hearts, in our souls, and epigenetically in our cells, we know this isn’t true: we are full equals. We are ALL full equals; no one is dominant or superior to the other by anything but a mental construct. And mental constructs are stories: fabrications made by one source and shared with others. Stories can be changed.
This conditioning is so pervasive we’ve perhaps come to think this is how we “are.” I am not convinced. Yes, we can track certain anatomical and organizational differences between female and male brains. I’m comfortable with that and if these things are true I am especially proud that my brain is female. However, my belief is that the brain is the ultimate “recording” machine, constantly seeking and taking in information from the world around us and converting it into a construct of the environment around us and what we need to “be” and do in order to survive in it. From the time we are small we, all of us, record messages from the environment around us that teach us “this is how you need to be you”…this is a survival mechanism that allows cultures to sustain themselves, and that gets individuals within it to play by the rules of those cultures. But every light has a shadow (and every shadow a light…). The rules we have been conditioned to the mental constructs of a specific time in human history where we shifted from a life a true partnership – between genders, between the known and the unknown, between the concept of the individual and that of the collective, between matter and mystery – and into a world view where ambiguity could be conquered through what all boils down to patriarchy: the ruling by “fathers” looking after us all.
We have no evidence that this is how humans are “supposed” to be. In fact we have considerable evidence to the contrary, gleaned from the archeological record, as Roz references in this wonderful read, from the beliefs and lifestyles of intact hunter-gatherer societies who have sustained themselves for tens of thousands of years, from the behavior of high primate and other mammalian life forms.
One thing that thrills me about The Sisters, and our contribution to it, is the chance to rewrite the narrative about who women are and how we and men interact together. The change begins here, with us, and with the way we create a new way to hold our power as equals with each other in our actions, language, and beliefs.
There’s a saying attributed to Lao Tse that is with me…well, constantly, since the first line of it is permanently marked on my left wrist:
Look to your thoughts
For thoughts become words.
Look to your words
For words become actions.
Look to your actions
For actions become habits.
Habits shape character
And character shapes destiny.
Thoughts are internal and often unseen.
Words are external, and thus heard. Looking to them, we can “see” our thoughts.
When we women speak of ourselves in the conditioned language of proving, pleasing, pretending, or protecting – or in other roles we’ve been taught “are” us – we can reverse engineer our way into the thoughts that underly our words, and see that these thoughts reflect what our hearts, bodies, and beings know is untrue.
We are not lesser than anyone. And, equally, no one is lesser than us.
I believe THIS is the most important change we can make as a species today: changing the myth that ever suggested anything else.
It begins with us and with our language. The language of equals is kind, encouraging, expansive, reflective (not reactive), and sustainable. That reflects thoughts and leads all the way through to our destiny.
What a beautiful invitation we have as sisters, and Sisters, to begin this new conversation together.
Thank you for the opportunity to reflect and let these thoughts coalesce in your honor. I hope you find them of use and even value.
Ellen Petry Leanse is a Silicon Valley pioneer – an alum of Apple and Google and a wide range of entrepreneurial journeys – who now teaches at Stanford, coaches leaders on creating impact, and writes and speaks on neuroscience, gender, and life purpose. Her best-selling book, The Happiness Hack, shares both the neuroscience and the timeless wisdom that guide intentional living and the path to satisfaction. Follow her on Twitter at @chep2m. If you want more Ellen, here she is speaking at TEDxBerkeley. And speaking with Megyn Kelly on the Today Show about The Happiness Hack.
I’m away in Scotland this week with my mother. So am doubly grateful to Ellen for letting me share her thoughts, as it means I have more time to spend with Mum!