The Challenges and Rewards of Showing Up Big as a Woman
I came out of the womb showing up big… sort of. I had a teen mom who tried not to have me several times, so the family folklore was that I must have a big purpose in life, because I was determined to get born. My family narrative did not, however, match my reality. That “big purpose” my family talked about? It was making my teen mother feel “good enough” through my successes.
I got to be mothered as long as I allowed myself to be exploited and never outperform or outshine my mother.
That lasted until adolescence, when the jig was up—but the battle scars still trip me up as a woman doing big stuff in the world. (I am cringing that I even dared type “doing big stuff in the world.”) If you have a similar story, I welcome hearing about it. Write me in the comments. Solidarity, sister. It is good for me and good for you.
Oh…and then, there’s the gender training.
How many of you have your own experiences of being shut down by men who are threatened by you? I remember when I was a competitive runner at the ripe old age of 11, and at the last meet of the season my track coach said, “Traci, we want you to run the 800 meters in the boys’ heat so you can qualify for state.” Well, I ran with the boys. I smoked them. I also qualified for state. Do you think the boys cheered? No. They scowled. (Well, except for Shawn H., on whom I had my first crush, bless his heart.)
Recently, I got a text message from a man (mind you, I had asked him to no longer contact me) who told me I was never going to amount to anything more than an “egomaniacal boss-lady,” followed by a bunch of spiritual teachings about how I needed to be more spiritual. This all stemmed from a boundary I set by turning him down to be a leader and sponsor of a project I oversee.* Women in leadership generate all kinds of interesting responses from men. I fact-checked the feedback, took what was useful, and moved on.
*Note to people everywhere: Everyone understandably acts out and gets messy when hurt. Don’t act out in writing. It lives on forever.
Showing up big as a woman is a mixed bag of grace and grit.
Bottom line: When you are a woman leading stuff, you have fewer women to talk to. It gets lonely. I am finally in a mastermind group with women doing things as big as I am, if not bigger. Their support is not only necessary, but also an unexpected jewel in my life. Why? They challenge me and love me in unique ways compared with my other relationships with women. They tell the truth. If I ask for their opinion, they give it. They are not threatened by me, so they willingly champion me and share their network and contacts with me, and I with them. They expect me to do big stuff, so they challenge my fears. And then we just share similar realities that come with playing higher stakes (being sued, copyright infringement, firing people, etc.).
For the most part, I have a good sniffer for picking great men to work with. I really do work alongside some of the most amazing men. And I am married to one. The piece that has been trickier is my own internalized sexism. “Who do you think you are, little girl?” rolls around in my head, or I feel the old unconscious habit of just “acting male” that I learned from my corporate days take over my vocal chords. An unexpected benefit of going big has been a complete celebration of both my masculine and feminine selves. Another is a deep and abiding empathy for how much men have been shouldering—sometimes against their wishes.
I am middle aged. I am in the unenviable position of being “put out to pasture” in the eyes of some of my younger peers. Some idealize me, while the others just write me off or “borrow” my ideas because I am “less marketable.” After all, I ain’t no spring chicken, and “cute” and “precocious” sell. Mostly, I am OK with it. Or I am just too tired to be cute and precocious. I am not sure…more to explore. I am gaining the opportunity to study and notice how the crone in me emerges and how what is surfacing is a slow, deep hum of wisdom and patience. It’s coming, slowly.
Selfishness & Generosity:
We are all selfish at times. I used to think that if I celebrated speaking invites/TV interviews or set a firm limit with someone, it meant I was a selfish narcissist. Nope. That’s the old stuff from my childhood and gender training and a bunch of other “who-knows-where-it-comes-from” stuff. The flip side of the coin is how we “hustle for worthiness,” as Brene Brown says. I used to seek out women I could be overly generous with and give away an idea, a part of my business, or credit for my work, replaying the old pattern with my mother, in hopes this friend would stick around and “mother” me. Going big has given me an amazing opportunity for healing a very old and very deep wound. I probably would have spent my life being disingenuously generous had I not decided to show up big and then work this one over in my own therapy.
In the end, the lesson I am left with is a new definition of “showing up big.” I do not need to run a company, lead a nonprofit, or possess any of the trappings of external success to be “showing up big.” Living the truth of my convictions with doggedness is the most meaningful kind of “showing up” to me, and I now measure everything I do against it.
To all you women who are doing anything other than “pleasing everyone” and “self sacrificing”—I bow to you. Seriously. Living boldly in the direction of one’s conviction is a hero’s journey, and we needn’t measure what the conviction is. It is living it genuinely that matters.
I was invited to write this piece but I am curious about you, the woman reading this. I really want to know…how do you show up big? What have been your challenges and rewards? Share with me in the comments.
Traci Ruble is a psychotherapist who directs a therapy center in San Francisco and runs a global nonprofit called Sidewalk Talk. She is a rascal who likes to challenge the status quo, curse a bit too much, and be the anti-guru. Her earnestness and authenticity are what draw truthtellers toward her.