Choosing your own purpose and going for it is the best form of resistance and revolution possible. You taking up space in the world for good and in line with your purpose, in and of itself, is a huge step toward defending your career from harassment and setting an example for other women who want to do the same. When you become small and get out of the way for harassment, you let harassment take up space. When you become big, and you set impossible, outrageous goals for what you want to create, harassment has to get smaller to get out of your way.
You can’t talk about purpose without talking about Viktor Frankl, who used his time in the Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Dachau, to reach enlightenment. Don’t worry. If you’re not yet enlightened from the harassment you’ve experienced, there’s still time. Among other earth-shatteringly brilliant advice in Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl says, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl says that choosing who we are, even in the most abusive circumstances (or particularly in abusive circumstances) is what creates meaning, and meaning is more motivating and fulfilling than comfort or happiness. Frankl says, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” We are not fulfilled by ease, we are fulfilled by fighting toward impossible goals.
Women are often taught that our purpose is to get married and have children. Even if you were not directly taught this, like I was, you still have probably absorbed some of this message if you’ve ever seen a Disney movie. Or any movie ever. I was raised to believe that women had some kind of evil in them that required them to defer to the opinions of men, who were not cursed with the evil. So that was kind of intense, but not actually that different than a lot of the messages that are just assumed in TV, movies, and advertising in popular culture. Take the conversations about Hillary Clinton over the past few decades – no one is exactly sure what’s wrong with her, but they’re sure there is something wrong with her. It all assumes the lesson that it is wrong for women to have a public, visible, creative purpose beyond having children. (Obligatory clarification that there’s nothing wrong with being a mother or having children. Obviously.)
But, your children are not your purpose. Your children are wonderful, I’m sure, and wrangling them into the respectable humans they are today was an amazing feat that I have tremendous respect for. Still, they are not your purpose. I’ll tell you why: because no matter how much time you’ve poured into them, no matter how much you’ve sacrificed for them or how amazing they are, it is too much pressure to put on another human to require them to be your purpose. Your children are supposed to mess up, and that is supposed to be out of your control. If you require your children to be your purpose, you become their victim when they can’t follow through for you.
That’s miserable. It makes you powerless over what your life is meant to create because you’re relying on the judgment of a child, and it puts pressure on your child to pretend to live your life, not hers, just to maintain a relationship with you.
The other major trap I see people fall into is waiting for their purpose to announce itself. Like, we think we’re going to walk into Starbucks one day, and Barack Obama is going to come up to us and be like, “You look like you were meant to be a famous foreign correspondent for CNN,” and then we’ll be like, “Whoa, Barack, I hadn’t thought about it before, but you know, you’re probably right. I do have a knack for packing travel shampoo without spillage.” No, that is not how you find your purpose.
Luckily, it’s easier than that.
Here’s how you find your purpose. First, consider what makes you weird and awkward. What were you embarrassed about in high school? What did you try to hide to fit in?
For me, I am too opinionated and contrary. In high school, I pretended to have a smaller vocabulary than I actually had because my friends didn’t understand the words I used. Boys didn’t like me because I argued and pointed out the movies they liked were dumb. These are just a couple of examples of what I wanted to stifle in myself so that I could fit in. But, these were exactly the things that make me a great lawyer and coach.
I spent years fighting those parts of myself, and that fight early on manifested in suicidal thinking. I poured energy and time into struggling with and resisting suicidal thoughts. And, there are many ways that I see the women I work with choose small deaths – small suicides – no matter how hard they have worked or how successful they appear on the outside. Some of the most successful, and some of the most spiritual people I have worked with struggle with suicidal thinking, and it makes sense. It often starts with noble “self-sacrifice.” We take the weird things about ourselves, the things that stand out and actually make us beautiful, and hide them so that other people can be comfortable. We start to think of the sacrifices we make as the value we are contributing to the people around us.
Not to ruin a classic for you, but this is what Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is about and why it is pretty problematic. Look at yourself as a giant oak tree in a forest of spindly pines. As you start growing, you realize that your gnarly, sprawling branches grow out toward your neighbors, while your pine tree neighbors take up as little space as possible and are basically sticks, stuck in the ground. You think, “There’s something wrong with me, and I better not crowd my friends.” You try to tuck your branches in on themselves, but it doesn’t work, so all you’re left with is cutting them off. This is like how we try to cut off the parts of ourselves that make us big and unique in order to make other people comfortable.
There is nothing wrong with trying to contribute positively to the lives of the people you care about, but that is very different than assuming your wild branches hurt other people. Cutting off what is wild and embarrassing about you is cutting off your purpose. It is its own form of suicide.
Especially when it comes to men, this can be very difficult because men are often raised to be too sensitive and fragile to know how to handle women being human. Men are often raised to think they deserve to have women obey them, and so when women do not, they can go so far as becoming violent, like Lundy Bancroft’s man who thinks he owns the park. In order to choose life and purpose, it often requires us to let other people, including men, feel anger, grief, humiliation, shame, and other negative feelings of their own. Choosing life and purpose does not mean you have to bulldoze people or be a jerk, and it does not mean you have to put yourself in danger, it just means setting free those parts of yourself that you have resisted and tried to cut off. It means spreading out your branches. You can do this in small doses, and just test out your own thoughts and feelings about the reaction you get and then stop if things become too intense.
It means failing, failing again, and failing better, as Pema Chodron says. It does not mean being graceful the first time. When a baby takes control of her arms and legs to learn to walk, it is not graceful or pretty, but each fall strengthens her. Every time she crashes into something and face-plants and picks herself up again, no matter how many tears are involved, it is part of the inevitable process of her learning to walk. We have no doubt she will learn, and the painful process is worth it.
The same is true for capturing your purpose. When you decide to cultivate the weird, embarrassing, vulnerable part of you that bumps into your neighbors too much, it is not supposed to be pretty or easy, but it is definitely worth it.
When I am talking to my clients about choosing to be big in their purpose, they often object, “But, I don’t want to be selfish!” They think that the alternative to being self-sacrificing is to be selfish. But, really, those two extremes are not the only options. In some ways, also, cutting off parts of yourself to avoid feeling embarrassment can be selfish. For example, my opinions, contrariness, and willingness to tell men when they’re wrong has created incredible results for my clients. What if I decided to keep killing off those parts of myself just to avoid feeling embarrassment? That seems very selfish. At the same time, my willingness to contradict men in authority positions for my clients is not comfortable for the men in authority. It is so worth sacrificing my comfort and the comfort of men in authority to get my clients great results.
In order to follow your purpose, understand that you are agreeing to embrace failure and discomfort. Your failure and discomfort will inevitably create great things for the people who need you and they will probably create a ton of discomfort for people who want to keep you small. Do you want to be selfish for your people or for the people who want to keep you small?
If you are “avoiding” being selfish by silencing, limiting, or restricting yourself or cutting parts of yourself off, just understand that you are taking the side of your harasser. You have joined his team, instead of doing the hard work to become strong and big enough to serve the people who need you.
Most of us take the side of our harasser and are our own worst critics, at least at some point in our lives. It takes deliberate work to become your own advocate instead of your own prison guard.
Another way to capture your purpose is to think about it this way: Picture yourself as a disembodied soul, floating around before this life and hanging out with God or the Universe or whoever, before you decided to come to Earth. It doesn’t matter what your spiritual beliefs are because it’s just a thought exercise. And then you decided to choose this lifetime because you knew it would give you exactly the challenges you needed to grow into who you wanted to become. Why did you choose the exact harassment you are experiencing right now? Why do you have the qualities that stood out and were embarrassing in high school? What was this harassment meant to bring out in you and what are you meant to bring to other people through this experience?
Or, here’s another way to look at it. There’s a future version of you. She’s solved all of the problems you have right now, and she’s living the exact ideal life for you. She’s looking back on what you’re experiencing right now, and she thinks, “Wow, I never could have gotten here or become this strong if it weren’t for those challenges.” What was she meant to bring into the world because of the challenges you are facing now? In other words, why was it important for her to go through what is happening to you now? How is she uniquely qualified to share something important with the world?
I do not mean at all to trivialize your experience. My clients have experienced death threats, sexual assault, physical violence, kidnapping, stalking, and the daily humiliation of sexist ridicule, touching, and financial threats around being overlooked for promotion or losing their jobs for standing up for themselves. This is serious, sometimes life-threatening cruelty. I don’t know your experience, but, in some ways, I may because I have experienced threats, kidnapping, stalking, and the humiliation of unwanted, repeated, back rubs, too. It may sound like I’m saying, “Don’t worry about any of that and just show up as a free-spirited interpretive dancer!” That is far from what I’m saying. Unless somehow you are literally employed as an interpretive dancer, in which case, I support you in continuing to do your job.
What I am actually saying is that this is very, very serious. This is a crossroads in your decision about whether you will fight against yourself and be on the side of your harasser or if you will fight for your own life and take massive action to fulfill your purpose. It may seem like you can stay in a safe-zone of inaction, but really that is giving space to your harasser and choosing his side. Developing your purpose and taking concrete steps towards strengthening it and building it is the best way to fight harassment.
This is a selection from Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. For a free copy of the book, visit www.CareerDefense101.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).