Too Strong for a Woman
I am a naturalized Turkish American. I moved to the U.S. in 1987 and to Fargo, North, Dakota, in 1990. I was living in Fargo and it was earlier in my career when I got a call to meet the VP of my board of directors of the organization I was leading at the time. He asked me to meet him in his office ASAP! When I arrived, after some small talk, he looked me in the eyes and said he was really troubled with what happened at the board meeting yesterday. The only thing I could recall from yesterday that would trouble him was the tense moment when I voiced my opinion with conviction. And then I heard him say, “You are too strong for a woman, you need to bring it down a notch.”
I was taken back! I had never realized there were degrees of “strength” and women were allowed only a certain amount of it. All of a sudden, a huge proverbial elephant materialized and took a seat in the middle of my chest! I forgot how to breathe!
You see, I was raised in Turkey by a very strong mother with powerful presence as a role model. I had a father who fueled that fire and raised me to be a strong woman. And while living in Turkey, my strength, let alone the degree of my strength, was a non-issue. I was surrounded by strong women with powerful presence. I was in my element. I did not have the need to fit in. However, living in the U.S., I had developed the “need” to fit in. Because I was an outsider despite my naturalized status.
After this incident, I found myself trying to hide my strength more and more, until there was only a trace of it left in me. In the process, I lost the essence of who I am as a woman along the way.
I didn’t set out to lose myself. No one does, really. No one purposely walks away from their heart, their soul, their own knowing. We simply start with tiny little compromises, small decisions to make others happy. We give in to the desire not to rock the boat, wanting and needing other people to like us, accept us, not realizing that those tiny compromises add up to something larger. Then we wake up one morning, take a look in the mirror, and don’t have a clue who the person is looking back at us.
Then I stepped into my current leadership role 11 ½ years ago. I was creating organizational success but I felt exhausted, spent, and so very discouraged. I felt like an imposter. I had no personal life to speak of, let alone fulfillment or fire in the belly. They were all gone. There was only one thing to do, and that was to meet the expectations everyone had of me!
As it is with many transformations or awakenings, mine began with an incredibly painful realization. One day I found myself in my office, watching my team, absolutely miserable trying to meet the impossible expectations I had of them. Mind you, I had the same impossible expectations of myself and I couldn’t live up to them, either, so how could I expect my team to?
This realization brought me to my knees. I knew something had to change. This was not the kind of leader I wanted to be. I wanted to empower and encourage the team I was leading. I wanted to see them soar like eagles, not reduced to fear and walking on eggshells around me. Something had to change fast, and that something was me.
I felt lost and I needed help. So I turned to a very trusted friend, a coach who mentored me while I was going through my coaching training.
She was the only one who asked me the one question no one has ever asked before. She asked, “How do you want to show up as a leader?” Then, “Who are you when you are at home? And who are you when you are at work?” I was stumped. I had no answers.
It was then I realized that all the voices outside of me constantly advising me to be and live a certain way had become so loud that I had forgotten to listen to my own wisdom, to my own heart.
It was crucial that I remember who I was before I was told who to be, so that I could figure out how I wanted to show up as a woman, leader, wife, sister, and friend.
What I painfully and sadly discovered in this process was that the strength I was trying to bring down a notch was actually the container for my authenticity, for love, compassion, and kindness not only for myself, but also for others.
I don’t know if I can say being asked to compromise my “strength” was the best thing that happened to me! I am still pondering that. But I do know one thing with certainty: I am eternally grateful to my executive coach for waking me up and walking with me while I was finding my way back to “me.”
And because of this, I made it my life’s work to help every women remember how powerful and how strong she really is, so that we can all rise strong together!