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Embracing Your Full Self in the Workplace

An excerpt from the book, Deserts to Mountaintops: Our Collective Journey to (re)Claiming Our Voice, an anthology of empowering stories from women on survival, tenacity, and resilience.

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Like most young women who grew up middle class in the U.S. during the ‘70s and ‘80s, I learned early on that speaking up and showing too much emotion was not seen as a strength, but quite the opposite. These traits were treated as liabilities. We were taught: Don’t speak up, don’t say too much, don’t argue, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t be overly emotional, don’t cry, don’t be too loud. Stay small, stay hidden, don’t make waves, don’t rock the boat. If you do, you will be seen as out of control, hysterical, crazy, or unbalanced. To this day, I still hear the whispers that society has turned into sentiments in my head.

My mother’s family background encouraged hiding feelings and putting up a happy front. She was not permitted to own her emotions, and, like most other women of her generation, she was the product of a culture where labeling women as emotional or sensitive was a way to discredit them and steal their voices. When this happens generation after generation, eventually it becomes a behavior, and belief inevitably follows that behavior; mother then passes the false belief on to her daughter.

At one point in my career, I was working in an organization that had all the trappings of my dream job: a short commute, partial teleworking option, prestige, and a big salary bump. The job was in my area of expertise, and it meant working with other teams and collaborating to fix a broken process. I was well-regarded and sought after for support on multiple projects. I loved it, and I was good at it. As time went on, I started to notice the toxicity more and more, and I began to soak it in. One particular manager had a volatile and demeaning leadership style. He had many power-plays that he kept in his rotation, but humiliation was his favorite, preferably in front of an audience. As someone who absorbs others’ feelings on a deep level, this was disastrous for my wellbeing.

One of his favorite power plays was to direct message me and have me scurry up to his office to join a meeting with him and others that was already in progress. Each time, I could only hope I was prepared and had the right answers. Knocking, I put on my invisible armor. I would send up a prayer that this time would be different, and I would be heard and acknowledged. During one meeting with him, when he was tearing me and my team apart, I sat up straight, took a breath, looked straight at him, and said, “Okay, thanks for the feedback. Now, please tell me something I did well.”

He stopped, coffee cup midway to his mouth, staring at me as he wiped dripping hot liquid from his hands onto his pants. Then he asked me to repeat myself. With a deep breath, and quelling the Muppet show that was going on in my head, I exhaled, and said again, “Tell me something I do well.” We sat in awkward silence for at least a full minute. He couldn’t do it. He could not bring himself to tell me one blessed thing I had done well.

This type of work environment is anxiety producing for even the most desensitized person. For me and my emotional sensitivity, it proved to be overwhelming and damn near killed me. On a daily basis, my chest and throat felt like they were on fire and closing in on me. I was diagnosed with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), brought on by binge eating and stress. My physical reactions were a result of my not being able to communicate effectively for fear of being ridiculed and disparaged.

I kept thinking about my daughters and how I was encouraging them to be strong and outspoken, yet I wasn’t being genuine. I continually hid my authentic self and shut down. What could I possibly do differently? How could I show them the right path, not just talk about it? ​​Climbing out of my car each morning, walking through the parking garage, it felt like I was entering the Hunger Games. The workplace atmosphere was one of primal self-preservation, and I was starting to take on the personality of someone fighting for their place in the office instead of collaboration, teamwork, and support. If I took someone out first by taking part in the blame game, then it kept me from being in the line of fire. 

This change in me only added to my shame over not exhibiting the behaviors I wanted to model for my daughters. I wanted to show them they could be their authentic selves, that they could use their voices, and they would be heard and accepted. They didn’t have to fall prey to or support the dysfunctionality in the world around them. That they could indeed be the change they wanted to see in the world. What would I tell my daughters to do in this situation? Leave. No one deserves that treatment. No job is worth losing yourself for. I resigned and walked away from that poisonous atmosphere. Leaving was a start to my recovery, but there was much more I needed to do. I went searching for answers, solace, and validation, a journey that pulled me into the exploration and acceptance of divine feminine energy.

Work cultures that inspire masculine attributes and dismiss feminine attributes undermine their own success and result in women who become hidden, traumatized, and sick. I always knew I was living in a “man’s world,” but it wasn’t until I started this exploration and soul-searching that I began to fully embrace and discover how profoundly misunderstood and undervalued feminine energy is in the workplace. Forgiveness, acceptance, reflection, empathy, and collaboration are part of what’s missing in our professional lives. Downplaying the value of nurturers, healers, and compassionate peacemakers in our workplaces creates an uneven, inequitable world. I hope that the modern workforce stops viewing the expression of feminine attributes as weaknesses, but instead recognizes these valuable strengths as qualities that create a more balanced, cooperative, and empathetic work environment.

This sometimes feels daunting and unattainable. The system, after all, has been in place for thousands of years. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think the first step is to come out of hiding. We have been conditioned to hide ourselves away, not speak up, not rock the boat, not make waves. By starting to break out of these patterns and embrace our divine femininity, we can start to take back some ground. We must be brave. We must unlearn how we have done things in the past. We must shut down the whispers that reside inside our heads, as much as the ones that float around on the outside. We must embrace the feminine side and acknowledge the importance and the power that comes when we are in the fullness of true self-expression.

Deserts to Mountaintops Book Cover 2

For more empowering stories of women standing in their own power, check out Deserts to Mountaintops: Our Collective Journey to (re)Claiming Our Voice by Jessica Buchanan, who shares her own healing journey after being kidnapped in Somalia.

About The Author
Alice Meehan head shot

Alice has worked in the government consulting world for more than 25 years. She is also the author of Embracing the Feminine, an essay in Deserts to Mountaintops: Our Collective Journey to (re)Claiming Our Voice. After finding herself in toxic environments and experiencing mistreatment at the hands of male leadership, she delved deeper into her spiritual work. As the mother of two daughters, it is extremely important to her that they are able to live in this world as who they truly are and not be silenced by the patriarchy. She hopes her work experience and her spirituality will inspire other women to be their authentic selves and discover their magic. Her greatest joys are spending time with her husband and daughters, working out, collecting crystals, reading, and sitting on the beach absorbing the sounds and energy of the ocean.