Life Focus Center

Effective Solutions for Life's Challenges

THE ROOTS OF WOMEN'S STRUGGLES WITH SUCCESS AND SELF-SABOTAGE

By Donna S. Melinkoff, MA, MFT

 

One dictionary definition of success is the accomplishment of what is attempted or intended, or the favorable outcome or attainment of one's desired ends. The American writer, Christopher Morley, in Where the Blue Begins, wrote: "There is only one success - to be able to spend your life in your own way." But, to live life in one's own way requires that we be in full possession of our own capacities and powers, our own nature and character, and our own reflective consciousness.

In our culture, while males and females are both socialized to be cut off from some essential aspects of themselves, we, as women, are especially impacted by the historical, cultural and social processes of oppression that combine to rob us of our full nature and capacities. These forces, combined with physical and psychological phases of development, our own unconscious inner conflicts, and our day-to-day difficult, complex and demanding lives, often leave many of us finding that what we most want in our lives, especially in the arenas of love and work, evade us. Even worse, we, ourselves, very often play a role in sabotaging or undermining our efforts to find success.

Author Nancy Good (Good, Nancy, Slay Your own Dragons, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1990), describes some of the ways women are most likely to sabotage themselves:

1. Being overly passive, fearful, listless or indecisive, so that chances of all kinds pass by.

2. Repeatedly having anger get the better of you because it is expressed inappropriately or in destructive ways, such as blowing up at people, or turning it inward on yourself. Even worse, not realizing you are angry and allowing others to mistreat or even abuse you.

3. Having a chronically chaotic financial situation.

4. Being controlled by depression and anxiety.

5. Being continually ill or accident-prone.

6. Being controlled by compulsive behaviors to abuse alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, food, physical exercise, etc. Being compulsively late.

7. You are single and don't want to be, yet love consistently eludes you. Being either mistreated or rejected by men.

8. You are married or living with someone; you are unhappy, but you do nothing to improve the relationship except to keep hoping he'll change or fantasizing about your escape.

Do you recognize something of yourself in any of these? We all sabotage ourselves to some degree - men too. While there are common patterns to women's self-sabotage, every woman is unique and we each have our own deeply buried reasons for contributing to what holds us back, blocks us and keeps us from reaching our desired goals of having satisfying love relationships, fulfilling work or careers, or both. The roots of women's common patterns of struggle with success and self-sabotage are complex, multi-dimensional and much beyond our personal control - such as cultural devaluation of feminine values, how men are socially conditioned, job discrimination, etc. And, the seeds of an individual woman's patterns of self-sabotage were sown long ago in earliest childhood, without her awareness or ability to control.

However, recognizing and acknowledging your self-sabotaging patterns, and exploring your own contributions, choices, thinking, etc., does not mean you are to BLAME! You are not bad, you are not at fault, or wrong, or stupid, or any of the other things your negative, non-stop, self criticism tells you about yourself. Looking at patterns of self-sabotage does not diminish the uncontrollable aspects of our lives, nor does it imply placing personal blame. Self-blaming is not only unhelpful, it is the last thing you need to do. Understanding more about yourself, being sympathetic to yourself, identifying and changing your negative thinking and behaviors contributing to your pain and frustration, are skills few of us are taught - but they can by learned. Self-blame only stifles self-understanding and is another form of self-sabotage!

In the rest of this article, I will be exploring some of the historical and cultural roots of women's self-sabotage. In Part II, I'll be looking at some of the social and developmental factors in women's self-sabotage, especially the impact of modern adolescence on female development. In the upcoming months, Life Focus Center will be presenting, through seminars, workshops and follow-up group experiences, opportunities for you to learn about, identify, and work on changing some of your own patterns of self-sabotage.


Masculine and Feminine are culture-based, constructed, gender concepts that determine how males and females think about our world and ourselves. Seen as opposite ends of a continuum, reverse sides of the same coin, etc., together they create a whole by balancing and complimenting each other. Each male and female contains both masculine and feminine aspects and, depending on the cultural injunctions, expresses these qualities in their self concepts and roles. What is considered feminine or masculine in one society might be quite different in another; and, these concepts do undergo change over time. For example, certain fashions of dress, body adornment, hair styles and lengths, etc., may at one time, or in one place, be considered "feminine" and later on be incorporated into "masculine" behavior and image.

Among many researchers and scholars today, there is growing interest in and acceptance of archeological and mythological evidence that suggests that from about the 7th to the 3rd millennium B.C., the people of Neolithic Europe celebrated a primordial deity in the form of a Great Earth Mother Goddess - and that this Goddess-based religion may have had its roots in the much earlier Paleolithic period. (Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess, Harper & Row, NY, 1989; The Civilizations of the Goddess, Harper, San Francisco, 1991.) The Great Goddess was a metaphor for the Life Force manifested throughout the universe and for Divine Femaleness, a concept much larger than femininity. At that time, and for thousands of years in human cultures all over the world, the Feminine had a very powerful voice and what we think of as feminine attributes and values - non-competitive cooperation and non-hierarchal mutuality, intuitive ways of knowing, emotional connection to others, relationship with Nature's cycles, the Earth, and Nature itself, were honored and respected.

In the early, primordial cultures and in many of the world's mythologies, the Great Goddess was perceived as a whole (or Oneness) of many inter-related parts and manifesting in 3 general aspects - each a cosmic reflection of the life stages, functions and roles of ordinary women: the Virgin-Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone-Wise Woman. Historically and in myth, the "Virgin" did not mean "one who has never had sex" or who was celibate or sexually inexperienced, but rather, the term was used to identify a female who was no longer a dependent child, and, by virtue of puberty and the onset of the first "blood Mystery", menstruation, was transformed into the Maiden. She is the young woman who is autonomous, just beginning to be her own person, exploring and tasting her grown-up potential. She is budding, unfinished; she is Becoming and in-process, full of wonder and joyous potential. Virgin Consciousness is about being expectant, full of life, creating, pregnant with possibilities. She is her own person, not limited to what men desire from her nor to any predetermined societal plan or purpose. She is the agent of her own life and as the Virgin-Maiden Goddess, she modeled these attributes and ways-of-being for males and females of all ages. But, we long ago lost what the Virgin-Maiden Goddess gave to our consciousness and, as a result, I believe we have all suffered a significant loss, which is explored more fully in Part II.

Some time around the 5th millennium B.C., the basically agrarian, sedentary, matrilineal cultures of Old Europe began to undergo a process of transformation. With the introduction of the pastoral, patriarchal, hierarchical, warrior, "horse" cultures of Indo-Europeans from the east and southern Russia (Gimbutas, 1991), the sacredness of an immanent earth mother goddess was replaced by the worship of a transcendent heavenly father god. This transition was reflected in a number of major social changes which led to the subjugation of women and Nature and the rise of an overly masculinized society where the feminine was undervalued and suppressed.

By about 1200 A.D., the last outward vestiges of the revered Feminine values, and the worship of the Goddess, had all but disappeared from European societies and the psyches of both males and females. The legacy of this shift is that we now live in a culture which is out of balance in its pervasive and encompassing masculine values and metaphors: an either/or society ruled by separateness and distinctions, control and controllability, power, science, the machine, logic, rationality, predictability. Feminine values are devalued, not good enough, less than, suspect, bad.

Both males and females struggle with the feminine inside their selves. While we socialize males to disown their softer, feeling, intuitive inner feminine side of their natures inorder to be fully male/masculine, females face a very complicated situation. Confused with gender, to be female is to be identified with being feminine and expressing the feminine. In order to identify with the feminine, females must incorporate into their sense of themselves that which society devalues, making something inherently wrong, bad or less than about being female! This double-bind, no-win situation has deep psychological and social consequences for females and for which we all (males as well as females) pay a heavy price. Women are caught in a trap: discouraged from developing the masculine side of our natures, we must also disconnect from the central aspect of ourselves. The result is far too many women who come into adulthood feeling worthless, inadequate, stunted, empty, hungry, rootless, self-denying, self-sacrificing, without ability to hear or trust our own inner voices - cut off from the essential nature and capacities of ourselves. In our culture, women of all ages - even professional, highly accomplished women - say they "feel like a fraud". While men are often anxious about "measuring up" and performing in their roles, they don't report feeling like "frauds" and they don't seem to suffer from the same low levels of self-confidence and self-esteem as do women.


Our culture is ambivalent about the achievements of women. "Feminine" qualities continue to be defined quite narrowly, and devalued, with the result that women come to devalue themselves, and, far more than men, discount their work, their dreams, their accomplishments. Today's young women pass through adolescence into adulthood with enormous pressures from culturally loaded messages to meet standards over which they have no control and which, all too often, leave them feeling disconnected from their authentic selves.

Why is this so? What happens to girls in adolescence that causes the now clearly recognized drop in self-esteem and self-confidence? (Condren, 1997; Gilligan, 1982; Chusid, 1998). How is it girls go from being strong, confident and clear speaking about what is on their minds during pre-adolescence, to being obsessed with their bodies, scathingly self-critical, often feeling overwhelmed by fears and a sense of personal inadequacy, incompetence, and self-doubting as they emerge into adulthood?

From the work of a growing group of researchers, writers, etc. (Gilligan, 1982; Jimenez, 1998; Chusid, 1998; Brumberg, 1997), comes a picture of our social history. As recently as 100 years ago, women experienced their lives in a society of repression - that is, of limited life choices, rigidly structured roles, few opportunities for non-conforming self-expression, and the biological reality of an average life expectancy of about 40 years. At the same time, the very forces that limited women's lives and psychological development also provided a kind of security in knowing what one's life would be, what would be expected of a girl as an adult woman. Most girls had no formal schooling after age 10, and were socially conditioned for one primary dual role - wife and mother. Even very young girls were apprenticed to other mothers as helpers while they clung to their own mothers as role models and sources of support.

During the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution, there was a resurgence of separate spheres of role and function - those of males and those of females - when the men left the farms and small villages to go to work in the cities and factories. Women were given one chore, one role - domesticity. At the same time, a socially constructed concept of feminity emerged that largely prescribed what qualities were acceptable and required to be a 'true' woman: delicacy (= body size: small, petite, slender, weak, etc.); purity (no sexual capacity or appetites); submissiveness (to men); piety; lack of anger; being of greater or higher moral character than men. Males, on the other hand, were freed to be even more aggressive, decisive, in charge and in control, angry, dominant and dominating (Jimenez, 1998).

Also in the 19th Century, the concept of adolescence did not exist, as we understand it today. Puberty was not recognized as a transformative passage; adolescence was perceived as a waiting period, or holding pattern. Females went from a gendered childhood with no expectations for adolescence, to a gendered adulthood with no expectations for diversity. Interestingly, there is almost no evidence of the intergenerational hostility between teen-age girls and their mothers (with which we are so familiar!!), and nothing to resemble the current concepts of 'natural' teen-age rebellion (Condren, 1997).

In the 20th Century, adolescence has taken on a major significance as being far more important - and dangerous - as a life passage. Girls now experience a more androgenous childhood where they can "try on" many roles and fictitious lives through play. But, on balance, there are no longer clear roadmaps for negotiating the adolescent passage in well-supported and successful ways; no clear models or roles for adult women. In other words, no rules or guides for how to "...be all you can be". Still, we continue to live with the cultural imperative that girls must emerge from adolescence as feminine according to today's socially constructed standards and respond to the powerful, pervaisive cultural message that a woman must organize her thinking about herself around her body and what is of sexual value to males. Dr. Brumberg (1997), drawing on 150 years of girls' diaries, makes the point that from an age of repression, women now find themselves in an age of obsession, with a kind of pathological insecurity that is almost a "feminine" reflex. Dr Chusid, and others, have indicated that even more recent research is revealing that anxieties about being "feminine" are becoming more and more similar across all cultural groups in our pluralistic society. On the other hand, individual women who stand very far outside the criteria of impossible standards and ideals (tall, slender, "hard-bodied", heterosexual, middle class, "nice", "up" all the time, etc.), may in the end, be better able to negotiate a more whole and fully expressive self with a greater amount of success.

In looking at the research, we get a startling picture of what happens to both boys and girls in early adolescence (Condren, 1997; Chusid, 1998; Jimenez, 1998; Gilligan, 1982). By 2nd grade, boys learn they are the more valued gender, and start avoiding female activities at all costs. By the time of the transition from grade school to middle school, boys see being born female as a liability, feelings of misogyny emerge, and they begin seeing women with scorn. Girls say things would be `better' if they'd been born male. Young adolescent girls begin showing increased levels of depression and disturbed body image (as many as 90% of girls report some level of body hatred). Girls are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than boys. In a survey of 3,000 boys and girls, ages 9-15 years, 1/2 of the boys and 1/3 of the girls reported being "happy the way I am". Of what they did like about themselves, boys named their talents; girls tended to name some singular aspect of physical appearance. Dr. Brumberg (1997) writes: "Today ... they (girls) believe that the body is the ultimate expression of the self". At the same time, girls evidenced significant drops in self-esteem, from which it is believed they never recover. Boys begin dreaming bigger dreams while girls report not feeling themselves smart enough to dream big. By age 15, girls show a significant drop in earlier interests in math and science with only 1/2 feeling confident about their abilities in these areas. This drop in confidence has been equated to drops in achievement, with specific correlation between math for girls and later achievements. For example: taking 2 higher level college math classes has been equated with achieving pay equity with males (Condren, 1997).

By early adolescence, 2/3 of girls have entered puberty with the onset of sexual maturing and bodily changes that visually bring disconnection from childhood and transition to womanhood. Boys, at puberty, get physically excited, increase in size and strength, and gain access to greater control and power. For girls, however, their developing sexuality leads to increasing visibility and, too often, a sense of increasing vulnerability and powerlessness. Rather than be experienced as a sacred mystery to be revered and respected as a source of powerfulness, maturing sexuality brings girls an awareness of the cultural messages embedded in the images of women as idealized models of beauty and the objects of male fantasies and desires. Girls become aware of their bodies as sources of attention - wanted and unwanted - of embarrassment, harassment, or worse.

At the same time, girls learn to silence their own voices. As Gilligan and others have written, boys to not develop psychologically in connection with others, but rather through separation and individualization, and in the socialization process they are cut off from their emotions. For girls, psychological growth occurs in the context of being emotionally connected to others (Gilligan, 1982), and by age 11, girls are beginning to sense these emotional connections to others will be threatened if they speak with authentic voices (that is, tell the truth) about their lives - especially about experiences of devaluation, violence, control, oppression, inhibited or denied aspirations, loss of self-confidence. Adolescent girls respond to the pressures to be popular, to get the right boyfriend, to be part of the group by silencing the inner voices to be what others want them to be.

Adolescent girls begin slipping away, losing their sense of groundedness and self-knowing as they shift to seeing themselves as others want to see them. They, and the larger culture, begin labeling their own needs as "selfish", bad, wrong, shameful. To find approval, acceptance, "love", girls learn to give up the parts of themselves that do not fit into the cultural norms of ideal femininity and they grow into women who feel guilty for taking time for themselves, for not always being in the service of others. For many, the myth that Romance = Survival means subjugation of the self inorder to attract and attach to a man. It means listening to the don'ts of femininity: don't be ... too angry, too sad, intensely intelligent, loud!, BIG!! Adolescent girls are dying inside, and often it isn't until mid-life that the anger, aggression, and full range of a woman's feelings, voice, talents and aspirations can begin to emerge.

What the experience of adolescence brings to the real lives of girls in our culture today is a far cry from the mythological archetype of the confident, self-possessed, belonging-to-Herself, full agent-of-her-own-life Virgin aspect of the Great Goddess. I think, however, this idealized image illuminates something important about what has been lost by females in our time and culture, and why it is not surprising that so many women struggle with authorizing themselves, finding their own voices, and authoring their lives to be what they want them to be.

Yet, having said all this, and in the face of enormous historical and cultural forces and the developmental experiences that shape female lives, women can learn to live more authentically, in closer connection with themselves, as well as with others, and achieve higher levels of success and satisfaction in love and in work. With greater awareness of the contexts of our lives, increased self-knowledge about our own patterns of self-sabotage, and a desire to overcome our own obstacles, we can change much about our selves and our lives. To tackle some of your own self-sabotaging behaviors, begin by providing yourself with sources of positive feedback. Here are some ways of getting yourself started:

Imagine a realistic vision of yourself and the life you really want. I mean a vision of your whole self as a person, not just someone 10, 20, 120 lbs thinner! Include some of the pitfalls and downsides, along with the joys and rewards. Use visual imagery - see yourself as you'd like to be in a variety of situations; see the ways you prevent yourself from getting what you want.

Practice objective self-observation; take a step back from yourself and just notice behaviors, reactions, feelings, etc. Suspend your harsh, critical judgements, self-blaming.

Give credit where credit is due! Acknowledge and pat yourself on the back for all that you do to risk making a change.

Bring others into your life who can be on your side; others who can be positive, supportive "other voices" to counteract your own negative self-talk.

Make your physical, mental and emotional well-being a priority.

Consider getting some form of therapy - group or individual - to help you to: reduce your anxiety and/or depression; identify and gain some separation from unconscious family emotional patterns and messages; uncover and express what has been lost and hidden in your past; move beyond what is "wrong" in your life and discover what resources and strengths you have for a more satisfying future.

Later this year, Life Focus Center will again be presenting, by popular demand, our workshop, and a follow-up support group experience, for women who wish to explore in greater depth their own patterns of self-sabotage and gain new skills for changing thinking and behavior that blocks living more authentically expressive and satisfying lives. YOU are invited to join us for this exciting, uplifting and life-enriching experience.

References: To further explore the historical, cultural and developmental contexts of women's lives, and the experience of adolescence in our times, I have drawn largely on the work and seminar presentations of the following: Mary Ann Jimenez, Ph.D, LCSW and Hannah Chusid, Ed.D., who have studied and spoken about the history of female adolescence and self-esteem (Aviva Conference, 1998); Debra Condren, Ph.D. who has specialized in life transitions and societal pressures impacting girls and women (Seminar, 1997); Dr. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project, Random House, 1997; Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice, Harvard University Press, 1982.