Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook asserted in her best-selling book that if a woman works hard enough and asserts herself enough, she can thrive at home and at work. In other words, you can have it all. The toxic subtext? If you don’t, the fault is squarely on your shoulders. You aren’t working enough or assertive enough or just plain…enough.
Frankly, I think it’s time we move away from this messaging and look at what would happen if we all began to lean out a little more. We need to explore what it means to lean out and see the systems behind some of the biggest workplace diseases that disproportionately plague women and underrepresented populations, like Imposter Syndrome and an unbalanced relationship with work and life.
As a stress physiologist and CEO myself, I know what it takes to make it, and what I’ve had to give up early on. At least for me, it meant compromising my more authentic self in ways that allowed me to better fit in and rise to the top. I always felt like an imposter in part, because I never really did fit the mold. I had to train myself to become more assertive, more dominant, more stereotypically masculine. The problem, of course, wasn’t so much with me, as it likely isn’t so much a problem with you. If you’re feeling the pressure of not being enough or having enough time to have it all, the problem is the system. NOT YOU.
Let’s start with the issue of Imposter Syndrome. Even when many companies are now more aware of and working on their culture to fix issues around belonging, diversity, and inclusion, the very word “inclusion” means that there is some dominant culture to which I need to be included or assimilate into. So who’s including who here? And what if I don’t want to lean into the “we” of the dominant white-male-hetero-cys working world? To not have to feel like an imposter in my own work? What would happen if we all leaned out instead and realized – ah – this isn’t that I’m a fake or a fraud or an imposter…but rather that I’m simply often not even represented. Not having anyone else around you who looks like you, sounds like you, or thinks like you can very often feel isolating, and it’s a breeding ground for Imposter Syndrome. No amount of leaning in creates a healthy fix here – only temporary code shifting, where we likely become an inauthentic version of ourselves in order to belong for a little while. Let me be more direct about this. If you’re suffering from Imposter Syndrome, the problem most likely isn’t you – it’s the system around the space that you’re in that makes you feel like not enough. Think about it: have you ever found yourself code switching? That is, have you found yourself changing how you speak, behave, or interact with others in order to enhance a sense of belonging at work? Have you found yourself altering your more authentic version of you in order to fit in?
Then there’s this work-life balance bit. This myth that women are sold on particularly. So for instance, you wake up at 6am, shower, grab some breakfast, get the kids ready, drop them off, and are to work by let’s say 8am. You work until 5pm, you fly home in 30 minutes (no traffic), snag the kids on the way, and cook dinner. It’s now 6:30pm, you eat, bathe the kids, tuck them in, and now it’s 7:30pm at best. You get to work out, or say more than two words to your partner, and if you want to get those eight hours of sleep, that means you need to be in bed by 10pm. So essentially you have, what, two hours a day to yourself at best? And that’s with no bills paid, no homework, no sports for the kids, no laundry, no shopping, no dishes, no cleaning, no phone calls to family, no time with friends…shoot there really hasn’t even been time for you to just breathe in that day. But that’s supposed to be your life, right? I’m right there with Michelle Obama when she said “I tell women that the whole ‘you can have it all…nope, not at the same time’ – that’s a lie. It’s not always enough to lean in, because that sh*t doesn’t work all the time.”
What if we leaned out long enough to realize that you are already working harder than you realize, and it’s not this work that makes you enough or worthy of having life. There’s not some magical scale there that says “okay you’ve you’ve worked hard enough now you can have a couple of hours to yourself.” And if there was, I think we’d realize that this thing called life we are supposedly supposed to be balancing with work simply doesn’t have nearly enough weight on its side. Leaning in should not mean giving in to more of the rise and grind culture – the never stop hustling memes don’t feel like a call to greatness, but rather the only way we can survive. It just doesn’t feel like there’s an option to opt out, and there’s not until we begin to lean out – to lean back from the systems and ask why does it matter if I work 12 hours a day in the office or two hours from home, as long as I get the job done? And yes, this needs to be done, because you are worthy of living an authentic and full life.