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We dedicate this week's letter to Harriet DeHaven Cuddihy, whose old world elegance and impeccably irreverent humor, deep curiosity and optimism made her one of my true idols. Words cannot say how much we will miss her.
Q: “As a woman who was raised in a society where it is implied that women should be agreeable and amenable, where speaking up for yourself can label you 'difficult', I personally have found it difficult to do that very thing. Why is it important to have personal boundaries and make sure they are not crossed? More importantly, how can we keep them while coming off strong and not strident?”
Monica Berg replies:
These are great questions, and we can best answer them by zeroing in on the first issue you raise, the inhibiting effect that society & upbringing have on our spirit, and consequently how we feel about ourselves and what we deserve.
Women are, by nature, caregivers. We have a great capacity for compassion and mercy, and as young girls we are brought up to nurture and take care of others. Most of us learn to become excellent multi-taskers.
But at some point we get the message—sadly enough from our own parents or peers—that we need to excel at everything. Academics, career, mind, body & spirit—and we’re expected to keep it all in perfect balance.
This creates a total impossibility. We become afraid to act because we are afraid to fail. And that’s why so many of us are trapped in prisons made up of beliefs such as, “I can’t disappoint my family,” or “I mustn’t speak up because I will be labeled as “difficult,” or “I have to be perfect all the time.”
I loathe this word: perfect. Mostly, because I tried to be this person most of my young adult life. Unfortunately, this unconscious image of perfection is totally at odds with what our soul wants—to be free, to make mistakes & grow stronger through life experiences, and to express itself fully.
It’s important we see how our seeking for approval gets in our own way. Once we become more aware, it’s then important to set a mandate by which we can live, a certain line that we draw, a set of rules to place for ourselves. This means creating a personal credo that speaks to our soul aspect.
I spent the first 28 years of my life turned too “outward.” I was always worried about what “they” thought about or needed from me, whether it was family, school or work. And because of this, I didn’t fully express myself out of fear of rocking the boat. It wasn’t until I got more in touch with my “inner” aspect that I became conscious of how I was handicapping myself, and more comfortable expressing the power I possess.
This meant getting to know the motivations that drive me each day, the intentions behind my actions and what my purpose is each morning. And perhaps, most important, holding the belief that I deserve to have good things come my way.
That, we all deserve, to experience true love and simple happiness in this lifetime.
When our core beliefs are clear, we find that we no longer worry about coming off “too strong.” In fact, we often become aggressive or act in ways not in our integrity because we react to things and people that we find threatening.
Our beliefs are only threatened when we don’t know what they are.
In addition, in order to create clear boundaries and feel comfortable with who we are, we need to have compassion for ourselves. If we cannot give & be kind to ourselves, we can never love ourselves enough to believe we deserve to be unconditionally loved, truly heard & treated with human dignity.
The result of not creating this compassion for ourselves will be that we don’t think we deserve enough of anything. We’ll have no voice to protest when someone is taking from us more than we want to give, making us feel less than enough, or simply making us uncomfortable with who we are.
If we don’t believe we deserve, simply because we exist, then we cannot and will not demand anything from others.
When we believe that we deserve then what is at stake of being lost is so clear and therefore takes precedence. Putting ourselves first isn't selfish but a necessary step in our life's growth. When we have appreciation for ourselves, others will too. Because we teach people how to treat us.
We women wear so many hats that we lose perspective. We get so caught up in accomplishing the goal of “What has to be done for others” and “how will they see me” that the scale of giving & receiving gets tilted to one side. Learning to find balance is key for us.
An important distinction I want to make is I’m not saying be self-centered, but rather become self-aware and strengthen the soul aspect within, and build strength on that foundation. When you do, questions like, “How do I know when I am giving too much?” will be replaced with, “Am I tending to my deepest needs?”
You will find this balance—and the best version of yourself—when you know who you are, let yourself be seen and believe that you are enough.
This is a favorite aphorism of mine that gives me a lot of inspiration. I trust it will move you too:
"Be who you are, and say what you feel, because those that mind don’t matter and those that matter don’t mind." - Dr. Seuss
– Monica Berg
Monica Berg is a spiritual teacher, writer and guide who specializes in assisting people as they identify and overcome life’s challenges so they can reach their greatest potential. In 2005, Monica, her husband Michael, and Madonna started Raising Malawi, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping orphans and challenged youth throughout Malawi. To learn more from Monica, you can watch her classes on www.ukabbalah.com, or visit her blog, www.askmonicaberg.com
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
It’s not about boundaries, it’s about integrity. And integrity is the fruit of being deeply rooted in oneself. Like a great old oak tree swaying in a gale, being deeply rooted allows you to give-and-take with the winds of fate that buffet your branches. I’ve never been a great fan of strong personal boundaries because they’re too brittle, too surface. They snap off in the breeze and are the usual reason that strength can’t express itself in terms other than stridency. But the alternative to strong personal boundaries is not co-dependency or being walked all over for the sake of some superficial harmony. There’s another way, a better way: strong TRANSpersonal boundaries. This means being so deeply rooted in your essence and your inner honesty that falsehood is not an option. People with that kind of flexible inner strength generally don’t get messed with and can assert their integrity in a situation without the need for confrontation or shows of power.
This is quite a different lesson from what our culture teaches us! We ALL come onto this planet 100% perfect in our essential being. But during the course of our “education” (aka, acculturation), and under the sway of our growing personalities and desire to get into the game of life, most of us gradually lose touch with who we really are inside and develop external egoic facades which are tremendously dependent on external confirmation and tremendously threatened by either invasion or rejection. That’s the reason for the dilemma in the first place; a person who had never lost touch with the vastness of their innermost self would probably not get into this jam to begin with! And trying to shore up egoic defenses in the name of “strong personal boundaries” is unfortunately going in the wrong direction if you’re interested in inner evolution and in the fullness of joy, coherence, and oneness that the great mystics and great romantics all talk about as the real meaning of life. I wouldn’t worry about being labeled “difficult;” I’d worry more about passing through life without ever having tasted who I really am, and how my inner core expresses itself.
As a practical starting point, most people turn to meditation to begin this inner exploration, and to repair the damage that life in our excessively ego-oriented culture has done to us. As they used to say in the Inner Work group I belonged to, “You can’t move a plank you’re standing on.” As long as your personality is the only self you know, you’ll cling to it like a life raft! But meditation, time alone, and reserving some part of each day (or at least each week) to do what you really love (no defenses, no questions), are all part of coming to know that radiant stranger who really and truly lives inside you; the one who, without ever being “difficult,” can be beautifully direct and graceful about living her life.
It’s an important question, particularly for women. Thanks for asking it.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel replies:
When I first read this question it sounded so 1950’s … do we as women still feel this way—the need to please? But then I remembered something that happened some years back … and I thought, “Oh right, I get this!”
Many years ago, in a work-related incident, a man crossed a verbal and physical boundary with me. There were many people around—mostly women. And yet, there was a sort of atmospheric understanding that everyone was expected to be “agreeable and amenable” with this man. He was important in this context. So when he crossed this boundary, everyone was stunned and wondering what was going to happen.
The situation stunned me too—it threw me off guard. I never thought of myself as timid … and yet I didn’t say anything. The fact that I didn’t respond disturbed me more than the man’s words or actions. Why did I hesitate? For some days this became a puzzle for me.
When we ask, “Why is it important to have personal boundaries and make sure they are not crossed?” it is perhaps because we want to have a healthy and sane relationship with our world. How do we create avenues for relationships that support ourselves and others and the work we engage in together?
During those few days I grappled with my dilemma, I realized there was a lot at stake. First, I felt an allegiance to my own sense of dignity. But that was only part of it. I understood that I had stepped into a situation where there had already been an ongoing transgression of boundaries. Everyone (especially the women in this case) was looking toward me for some clarity. I felt a sense of responsibility. Furthermore, I had a working relationship with this man. How could I create a healthy dynamic so that our work together could continue to benefit?
Boundaries can support us. I remember my son once said, in a moment of feeling overwhelmed by his own wildness: “Mom, I think I need some boundaries right now.” I understood that if I helped him focus on a task it would help him calm down and connect with what he already recognized as a state of well-being. It helps us to understand how structure can serve us in this way.
At the same time, boundaries can also be divisive and isolating. We often put up boundaries when we just don’t want to “deal.” When we cut off others to protect ourselves we usually react with a little aggression. This often has consequences. We can sever opportunities and even friendships. Furthermore, we fail to see that we have the resources to bring clarity to a situation where clarity is badly needed.
So what I realized, in responding to my challenge, was that I wanted to work with this situation in a way that created clarity for all. I asked myself, “What will serve everyone involved here?” With this intention I could confront this man without aggression. Because I didn’t blame him, I didn’t have to feel like a victim myself—which was empowering.
Because of this shift in attitude I found a way of communicating with this man that was not harsh or “strident.” This naturally created a completely different tone in our conversation; a different tone of voice, a different tone in speech, a different tone in presence and body language, and therefore a different overall tone in the environment. Because he didn’t feel attacked, this man (to his benefit) could self-reflect. When I asked him for more formality in the relationship—he agreed.
I have found in my experience that when I have had the wherewithal to step back and ask myself, “what serves” rather than simply reacting to a situation, I find creative and surprising ways of responding to life. It is emboldening and important for us as women (and human beings in general) to find inventive ways to respond skillfully to people and situations. This is where we find true strength, compassion and clarity. In this way everyone benefits.
Dr. Karen Binder-Byrnes replies:
I have been contributing to Goop for several years now and this was the first time that the question raised stopped me in my tracks. I found myself thinking endlessly about the topic of women’s assertiveness verses women being perceived as strident. The first thing I did before sitting down to write this answer was to find a definition for the word, strident. Wordnetweb.princeton.edu includes in their definition of strident such descriptions as: conspicuously and offensively loud, given to vehement outcry, raucous, unpleasantly loud and brash. In addition: shrill, grating and obnoxious. So, was the question really how can women be strong and assertive and not be labeled with these negative traits? Next, I found myself talking to friends, colleagues and even my two daughters (ages 24 and 20) about their thoughts on the topic. They all agreed that even in this progressive era, women still have to walk the fine line between being strong and powerful without being labeled “the bitch.” I finally realized that what I was really dealing with was the fact that in 2010, we as women still struggle with this issue. After all, women serve on the Supreme Court, have been Speaker of the House of Representatives and have even sought the Presidential nomination. Women are in power in all areas of the workforce and are an ever growing strong force in the Military.
Why then are we still grappling with the fear of being seen as strident when we are being strong, assertive and powerful in our lives? I went on to scan the Internet to see what was being written about women and assertiveness. One article on how to be more assertive for women contained all the usual tips, but the final line is what got me. "A final word of advice, too much assertiveness can be mistaken for rude, crass and possible disrespectful behavior. Find the middle ground before asserting your newfound confidence." In essence, even when you need to be assertive, dim your lights!
When Hillary Clinton made her historic bid for the nomination to run for President (in 2008), one of her campaign’s biggest concerns was how she could appear forceful as a leader but not strident because she was female. As I think back on over twenty years of being a psychotherapist, I have helped many female patients struggle with the issue of finding their voices, first in their family of origin, then in their intimate relationships and, ultimately, in the workplace and society. From their earliest years, girls in most of the world’s societies are socialized to quiet their voices and maximize their femininity so as not to appear socially unacceptable. In her seminal book, In A Different Voice (1982), Carol Gilligan and her colleagues followed girls from ages seven and up through adulthood and found a distinct shift in girl’s voices as they grew from children, through adolescence and into womenhood. What these researchers basically discovered was that in order for girls to feel they could remain in relationships with each other, males and in society, they had to dim their voices and in essence as Gilligan states, "use their voices to cover their inner experiences rather than convey their inner worlds."
My wonderful suite-mate for many years, Dr. Anna Fels, writes in her groundbreaking book, Necessary Dreams (2004), “that for woman, silence is a subtle but pervasive element in women’s struggles with ambition.” Her basic thesis is that for women, ambition still remains fraught with conflict, and explains how women often choose to nurture and defer rather than compete openly and assertively with men. What so much of the literature on this topic suggests is that traditional “femininity” includes being deferential, supportive, empathetic and caretaking. These traits seem to clash with being forceful and assertive. This all being said, what is the answer? How can women assert themselves and their needs without being labeled “strident?”
Unfortunately, I do not believe there is one simple solution. What I do know is that women have to continue to take initiative in getting their voices heard and forming and expressing their views without being paralyzed by fears of disapproval and judgment. Women do not have to give up their femininity to compete with each other, or with men. Coming to grips with this issue is most likely a learning process for all women from their earliest days on up through their later adult lives. As women we must hold on to radical hope that we will continue to evolve out of our fear of being judged so that our voices, even the loudest ones will be heard and not dismissed!
– Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years. See her website, DrKarennyc.com, for more information.