Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Debold
Wf1: I’m so excited that you agreed to talk with me. This is really an honor. I have been following you for many years.
Elizabeth: Oh great!
Wf1: You’ve been a wonderful role model for so many women through your activism and pursuit of your passion. How do you define authenticity?
Elizabeth: I think what it means to be authentic is to let go and have access to the deeper dimensions of who we are as humans, and then allowing that to be what directs you. I think authenticity is actually something quite mysterious and can go beyond simply honestly expressing what I’m thinking and feeling.
Wf1: So how do we, as women, create authenticity in our lives?
Elizabeth: To author is a creative act. It’s the act of bringing into reality that which hasn’t been seen yet. Being deeply authentic means being open to that part of ourselves that is here to create the future. That means being true to the fact that our lives are not simply our own, and that this whole creation didn’t happen just for us as little pods on this planet. That’s not what our deeper purpose is.
To have a deeper authenticity, or to actually express authenticity is to allow the bigness of what life is to motivate us – to act through one’s self in order to enact a new potential, a new possibility for humanity. For women, that means living from the realization that we’re not separate from life. We’re not separate from each other, and yet we’re in a very sophisticated and very complex process that wants to move us toward a more global culture – a culture in which men and women are equally sharing the creation of culture.
Wf1: That’s beautiful, and I completely agree! When you talk about purpose, you talk about meaningful, conscious purpose in our lives. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Elizabeth: I think that we want meaning. As a famous feminist from the 60s said, most women are one paycheck away from welfare. We all suffer from the insecurity that comes from financial uncertainty; those issues are very alive for many of us in this economy, especially for women. However, we are so far from the kind of survivalism that has been the lot for most women and most human beings on this planet for tens of thousands of years. It’s freed us to be able to now ask, “Why are we here?” and, “What are we doing?” We’re asking these things from a global perspective, and from a perspective of humanity and world. Purpose means choosing to be an agent of change and to make one’s life be an expression of higher values for the sake of the next generations.
Wf1: We all have our individual perception on what it means to be authentic, but how do you connect the heart and spirituality with all of these brain-centered philosophies? My own example, and why I am asking, is this: My parents are PhDs. I was raised with intellectuals, so I rebelled against the concept of being an intellectual, and I really went into just feeling the heart space. I still have the inner rebellion around intellectualism all the time, but my personal goal now is to bridge those two – the heart and the brain. How do you bridge those two? How do you, as an intellectual, come into the heart?
Elizabeth: I think it’s unclear often what we mean by “heart.” Sometimes people use it to describe what they feel, as in, “I’m going to share what I feel, feelings of tenderness or some kind of deeper sense of connection.” The thing that’s interesting is that whatever it is we mean by “heart” is interpreted. Whatever experience you’re having that you say, “This is a heart experience,” that is something that you’re doing with your mind: you’re interpreting, “Oh, this feeling is heart.”
Wf1: Right. So it’s still your mind.
Elizabeth: You know, I think that Descartes did us a real service in allowing a certain kind of development to happen when he theoretically split brain from body, mind from heart. When you begin to have the capacity to interpret and understand reality in certain ways, it makes you able to be self-aware of your feelings. That basically is what occurred in the 19th and half of the 20th centuries in the developed world. It was a little more complicated than that, of course, but I think our capacity for self-reflection and having access to our feelings is very new. Most human beings on this planet don’t have that access. I remember talking to a young Indian friend, I think he was 18 or 19 years old at the time, and he looked sad. I said, “What are you feeling? What’s going on?” He had no idea what I meant by that question.
Wf1: Right. It wasn’t even in his brain to think that. I mean, in his perception.
Elizabeth: Yes, he didn’t have access to that.
Wf1: Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor talked to me about that several times, so I get what you’re saying. It is a perception thing. But as Dr. Jill talks about, you’ve got the left brain and the right brain; I don’t know if you know her story where she had a stroke …
Elizabeth: My Stroke of Insight?
Wf1: Yes. She has developed what we would label as a “spirit,” “heart-centered” side of herself. She was a neurological scientist studying the brain, and after her experience, her goal is to educate the world about the brain and perception. The brain is the heart. There’s no differentiation, if that makes sense. Is that what you’re saying?
Elizabeth: Yes, that’s what I’m saying. The heart is something we interpret through our minds, so you can’t actually split mind and heart in a way that is actually really true; it doesn’t work. But more than that, we think of the heart as the center of “care,” the center of concern about life, about another; and I think that there are different levels of care. As we see evolution of culture and evolution of human beings within culture, we see higher and higher forms of care emerge. I think the fact that you have a global vision, Kelly, is an example of a very high level of care.
It’s interesting. I know if some members of my family and I were to sit down with a newspaper or we were to listen to the news, you know, they aren’t interested in the international news because those aren’t really “their” people. I would get an “I don’t connect with them,” or, “Oh my god, what are they doing over there?!” kind of response. But you have a heart center or care that extends beyond your tribe, extends beyond your ethnic group. It extends beyond your country. That is a capacity of perception, and therefore of mind, that opens us to larger and larger capacities for care. Care, in some ways, is everything.
The life process as it’s unfolding on this planet is shared by human beings who disagree with each other and who have different levels of care. Therefore, we hear perceptions like, “I can only care for my family,” or, “I don’t care about you.” You know, there are whole parts of humanity that function in that way, and yet because I, or you, have a larger capacity for care means that I care about them too. I care about the whole thing working together so that we begin to create one working humanity on this planet.
Wf1: That’s a really good way to put it. It makes me want to learn more about my authentic self and holding this global vision. It helps me stay out of my narcissism, my narrow-mindedness. It’s great, because if we’re doing that to consciously evolve, like you’re talking about, and making a choice to be agents of change, we’re setting that example so that others can actually do the same thing for themselves. That’s beautiful. Thank you for that.
So what path are you currently on to serve the world?
Elizabeth: I worked as an activist in New York in the feminist movement in the late 70s and began to wonder why the doors were opening and we as women weren’t walking through. I saw that we kept recreating the same problems, and women weren’t sticking together. In some ways, women were our own worst enemies. The competition with each other and tearing each other down … the way we worked with each other undermined the foundation of trust and support we were supposed to be building.
I think this is still going on. I mean look at the way people are responding to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg. If she was a man writing to men about how to be successful, the response would be, “Great! I want to listen to him, because he knows what he’s talking about. He’s got a million dollars and he worked his way up and got there!”
Elizabeth: I would bet that most of the women who are writing very negative things about her don’t feel that they are being competitive and tearing down another woman. We do this so automatically and we think we’re making a good point, but we don’t realize the bigger context that we’re working in and the fact that women supporting each other just has not really happened.
Wf1: I completely agree. It hasn’t.
Elizabeth: We don’t realize that we’re playing out dynamics between women that were important for survival probably millennia ago, and we are now really getting in our way. I constantly see how women backstab each other. I had to find out what the secret would be of women being able to come together, support each other and create a foundation in culture that would allow for a different dynamic between men and women.
We are so programmed to be competitive around men and to relate to men in certain ways that to have clean, straightforward, non-manipulative, powerful relationships with women and with men … that’s not our template. How do we rework our template? And how deep do we have to go in order to do that?
First I was involved in political action, then developmental psychology, and now it’s spiritual development – looking for and going deeper and deeper to find the answer to that. I think something mysteriously compelled me to have to find out why women can’t come together and make a difference, and you know, every time I would move in that direction I would find myself burned or find myself in the very uncomfortable position of having burned someone.
Elizabeth: It’s like finding out that you’re also …
Wf1: That you’re part of it.
Elizabeth: Exactly, that I’m part of it. And that’s a very uncomfortable position to be in, particularly for someone who’s saying the things that I’m saying about women coming together. It’s like, oh my god, it’s not those women … those women are me.
Wf1: Well, you’re shining the light and so it comes back on you. I’ve even noticed that personally about myself. I have a friendship with a group of women, and there’s this feminine … I went to energy healing school and one of my teachers called it “distorted feminine,” which is the back-stabbing, the manipulation, that behind-the-back talking – you know what I’m talking about. I’m noticing I even do it, but I’m noticing it more. It’s the awareness of it that makes you say, “You know, I’m going to make a choice to not do that anymore.”
Do you think one of the solutions is having women really get strong as a network when they’re interacting with others, and then being able to unite and be very assertive in interactions with men? Or do you think it’s a much deeper place than that?
Elizabeth: Well, I think actually to do what you’re saying is a very deep place. We can come together. Women are awesome together in any survival situation. We are massive survivors. As soon as the devastation is over or the war is finished, women in all kinds of desperate situations have taken action and said, “We’re going to take care of it together. We’re going to set things up so we can survive, so our kids can be OK.” That’s why this is so complicated. You know, we all have best friends who are women.
Wf1: Yes! So that’s the first step, really: Feeling safe knowing we have each other’s backs.
Elizabeth: It’s not even safe; it’s feeling strong.
I remember in graduate school, meeting with a group of women about a male professor. The way he was teaching wasn’t working and he wanted feedback from us. I met in a small group of women, and they were like, “You say it! You’re good at that! You say this thing!”
Wf1: (Laughing.) I get told that a lot. “You tell them! You can do that!”
Elizabeth: I said, “Look, I’m happy to do that for my team. I’m happy to say it, but you have to back me up. You have to have my back so that I’m not one who’s unpleasant and out on a limb alone.”
Of course I spoke out, and I was very diplomatic, but some of the women started backpedaling and saying, “Well, I don’t think she means that.”
They started to soothe him and make it all OK for him and I was like, “That’s it! That’s it! What you are doing right not, that’s the sell-out.”
Wf1: That’s the sell-out! I’m right there with you. You were talking about strong instead of just safe. In all of our relationships with both men and women, we need a foundation of strength and respect.
Elizabeth: I think it’s important because you don’t know if something is safe until you test it.
Wf1: That’s true.
Elizabeth: I think that often women say, “I don’t feel comfortable speaking unless I know it’s safe.” You’re not going to know until you take the risk. Often what happens is it isn’t safe, but then you find out you’re stronger than you thought. Then you work it out and create a much stronger bond. That’s the real work of relationships.
Wf1: I think that’s a place where women can start with one another and with the world: having each other’s back. So what are you personally working on for women and the world, and how do you think women can work on themselves to support one another more authentically?
Elizabeth: I think this is where being an example is so important. We are so deeply accustomed to other women not having our back in ways we aren’t even conscious of. I did a meditation workshop with a colleague and another spiritual teacher, Diane Hamilton. Afterward, a number of my spiritual sisters and she went out to dinner. She was struck! She was like, “Oh! There’s something that I usually feel between women that isn’t here with this group of women!”
There’s a slight tension that’s usually between us women, a slight jockeying for position. It’s a constant, almost below-the-radar positioning with each other. We’re so accustomed to it that we often don’t even notice. You don’t know that it’s so present until you’re not with it. We have to develop the generosity of heart and spirit to give that to other women.
Elizabeth: If a woman does something outrageously wrong or offensive, having each other’s backs does not mean that we say, “Yeah Honey, I’ve got your back I’m totally with you.” I’m not talking about that. We’re talking about “having each other’s backs” meaning, “I hold you to your highest.” So, for example, I would say to you, “Kelly for a woman who is aspiring to create a global network, I’m not going to let you not do that.”
Wf1: We’re holding accountability, respect, and seeing the highest in each other.
Elizabeth: Right, and that’s what it really means to have each other’s backs. And then also, if you’re in a situation where someone is undermining another woman, another person, another colleague, we have to be able to stand up and say, “Wait a minute. No. We don’t do that here.”
Wf1: And you know, I’m at the place now where it is impossible for me to not call that out when I see it. I believe I surround myself with several women who are like that, and I love it because we don’t go behind each other’s backs. It feels really good to be that transparent.
At Women for One, we have defined our guiding principles. One of them is transparency, and one of them is authenticity. We go back to those guiding principles if there’s an issue. We have to start here if we’re going to multiply this and draw this type of energy to us.
Elizabeth: Yes, exactly.
Wf1: It’s very relationship-oriented for you. That’s interesting to hear.
Elizabeth: Well it has to be. We’re social creatures. We don’t live on this planet alone, and the world will be remade by human beings doing things together. That’s why how we are together is so important.
Wf1: It’s amazing to talk about. It’s got me thinking about so many other things. You’re writing a book currently. Are you allowed to talk about that, or can you not talk about that yet?
Elizabeth: Yes, God help me, I’m writing a book. In it, I explain that how we are as men and women, and what we think is the “right way” for men and women to be, is the result of cultural evolution. Cultures have gone through different stages. Men and women were different people in the past than they are now.
We really do think that the difference between us and the way people were 10,000 years ago was that they just didn’t have technology. But no. We are as unlike people 10,000 years ago as we are unlike chimpanzees. What men and women were, and who they were supposed to be in society, and who they were to each other was very different. Once you understand that there have been different ways of being a man or woman at different points in cultural evolution, you realize that we can be different as women and men now. And that making conscious choices and changing our understanding of what it means to be a man and means to be a woman is a very important part of culture change. Right now, we are at a point of incredible confusion – incredible, incredible confusion. We really need to think about who we are and what we’re doing.
Wf1: When you speak about confusion, what are you talking about?
Elizabeth: I’m talking about, for example, young women who experience freedom by falling into the most primitive sexualization and sex traps that there are. We’ve got women who believe the line that strutting around in your underwear is your empowerment. No! It’s your objectification and it’s keeping you from being the threat that you could be. You’re not a threat in your underwear; you’re doing what they want you to do when you’re walking around in your underwear. It’s not about freedom of style.
There are young men who are very confused at this point. Generation Y is the first generation that’s grown up the expectation that young women will be the better students; young women are expected to go to college more than young men do, so I think there’s a real confusion among young men, “So what are we supposed to be doing now?”
I think that a lot of parents are very concerned, for example, with the lack of ambition in their young men. They say, “He’s in his room on the computer all day.” What’s going on in there is pornography and World of Warcraft and whatever. It’s fantasy. It’s a fantasy world that’s very gendered. I mean, the females do the things that the males do, but with big boobs that jiggle all the time. The message is: female is toy. The kinds of things that they’re engaging in are not equipping them to engage with real women, and the kind of pressure from increasingly pornifying young women is very evident.
Now we have norms among progressive, hip women of things like Brazilian waxing or to have your labia surgically altered so that you look like a porn star. That’s what young men see every day.
We’re living in a culture where there are even more extreme gender differences, but at the same time, more and more people are having transgender operations. Parents are trying to allow their children to find their own way with gender. Some of them are giving their children names that are not identified with male or female so that they can find their own way. There have been a number of articles about gender-fluid boys, you know, boys who are eight years old and like to wear dresses. It’s not necessarily that they’re gay, it’s just that they like dresses sometimes, but other times they play baseball.
Wf1: It’s almost becoming more polarized.
Elizabeth: Yes, and also people are trying to embody two poles at once. That ends up making things very confused, and it’s because we’re still very much in a context that has polarized gender into “masculine vs. feminine.” Our culture says the world of work, the world of family, ambition, relationships, independence and dependence (or interdependence) are gendered, and they’re not. They’re human things.
How do we get into a place where we create a world where men and women are upholding wholesome values of autonomy and communion? The answer is to take those labels off.
We want all human beings to be caring and nurturing. We want all human beings to aspire to use what has been given to them in productive and exciting ways. We want that for boys and girls, men and women. So when we identify traits with men or with women, we’re assigning labels that don’t need to be there: “It’s masculine energy,” or, “It’s feminine energy.” Really, it creates an enormous amount of confusion. We can’t get to the world we want where people are able to engage with each other with respect and creativity; we will not be able to deeply connect and also be creative and autonomous unless we get beyond these ideas of polarization.
Wf1: OK. And so that’s what you’re writing about. Getting beyond the labels. You speak about the confusion, you talk about the ideas. What then is your proposal for what we need to do?
Elizabeth: We need to identify with a deeper part of ourselves, because spirit has no gender. It’s life. Life has no gender. We come with the body we are in, and we have to say, “What am I going to do with it?” You know?
Wf1: Right! Right!
Elizabeth: We have to ask, “What does this unique embodiment, as a female, as a woman of a certain generation – what do I have to give that will take things forward?” It’s a non-gendered way at looking at being gendered.
Wf1: Right. That’s very interesting! I’m very interested to read it!
Do you have one piece of wisdom or advice that you can give to our community?
Elizabeth: I think we actually can create the future that we want to create, and it’s not a future that’s about personal happiness and having the perfect house and the perfect husband and the perfect everything. It’s about a much bigger vision of what it means to be the product of planet earth, this human species that is together on this watery planet that is floating in the middle of space.
Wf1: That’s beautiful. That’s a large vision!
Elizabeth: When we think that way, it gets us through all the little bumps. (Laughing)
Wf1: Thank you so much for speaking with me Dr. Debold, and for all of your work. Good luck with your book, and hopefully we can talk in the future.
Elizabeth: Let’s definitely stay in touch, Kelly.
Wf1: I would love to. Thank you so much, Dr. Debold.