“An insight the size of a mustard seed is powerful enough to bring down a mountain-sized illusion that may be holding our lives together. Truth strikes without mercy. We fear our intuitions because we fear the transformational power within our revelations.”
Caroline Myss, Author, Mystic
With “#MeToo” trending, sexual harassment and abuse are FINALLY at the forefront of discussion. Many people want to reject this movement because it seems like yet another way to separate people, make some individuals victims and others perpetrators, and focus behavior on an us vs. them dynamic. Sometimes that is what “Me Too” becomes. But at its best, it is a way for many women (mostly) to move through denial, into healing and ultimately to resolution and for improvements in societal behavior. Step one is to acknowledge the extent of the problem, and allow many to express this sentiment: “This is happening; this has happened to me and to a lot of us. It has hurt, it has been wrong, and it needs to stop. Please help.”
Women are speaking up about being suppressed and disrespected in the media and at home. It is finally time for transparency. These women are generating discussion that, while it is uncomfortable and sometimes shocking, is necessary for change. Not only are they challenging those in power in churches, the sports and entertainment industries, in politics and more, they are confronting this in the home as well. Awareness of the scope and magnitude of the problem has the potential to move us in the direction of much-needed healing and transformation.
You may wonder, “What causes so much sexual harassment and abuse and what can be done about it? Why are so many men (primarily) perpetrating acts of coercion upon so many little girls, women, little boys and men? What is it in our education, family, religious, political, and community systems that perpetuates this unconscionable problem?” Below are just a few reasons I believe this behavior is so prevalent and has been for centuries. Social programming is core to this epidemic of disrespect, and how it plays out in thoughtless, complacent, and harmful sexual harassment and abuse (among many other forms of abuse).
We are born openhearted; curious beings who constantly absorbed a myriad of experiences from life and from the conversations and behaviors from others, and, interpreted what we saw, felt, and decided was true. We then created an entire belief system we continue to work hard on reinforcing. Unfortunately much of what most people witnessed included scenario after scenario promoting apathy towards others. It is in the violence of our movies, the ruthlessness at many sporting events, the striving to win in business no matter the cost to self or others (including one’s family), the economy, or the environment. It is in our dirty politics, and our pursuit of copious amounts of money for what Thorstein Veblen termed “conspicuous consumption.” Sadly, it is also heavily promoted in the power-systems prevalent in our parenting, educational and management models.
Simultaneously, in the face of apparent callousness, we speak the idea, “He (or she) just does not care.” I never assume this to be true. I assume instead that one who appears uncaring has pulled on the protection and mask of apathy taught. Here’s an example of how to remember this and then teach love and new ways of behaving, rather than reinforce apathy.
I caught my 8-year-old grandson cheating at board games. Rather than shame him, I asked how he thought this made me feel. He shrugged as if apathetic. Then, I asked him if he loved me, and he became shamefaced. When I asked why he cheated, he admitted that he agreed to play but that he didn’t really want to. This turned into a conversation about consent and authenticity. His mistake turned into a dialogue about how it’s ok to say no, or change one’s mind, and that being true to oneself is a difficult and courageous goal, and something most adults struggle with too.
I taught him that when one betrays him- or herself, they always end up betraying others in both subtle and overt ways, often through resentful compliance or outright rebellion. I showed him how and why he did so with me when he was not true to his convictions, and how he then betrayed me in the game. This became a teachable moment. I ended by asking him to choose honesty in his commitments, including when changing his mind, and to stop cheating. These issues around clarity of preference, straightforwardness, disclosure and consent are frequently murky when taught to children. This ambiguity carries over into adult life and they play a role in the abuse and harassment of women. Some women are not sure how to be direct about consent (or lack of same) and some men are confused by the absence of clarity from some women.
We need clear leadership. We need corrective teaching. This is what I did with my grandson, and it was delivered in a manner that allows for social interest (care about the consequences one causes to others) and learning rather than placing an emphasis on fear, shame, and self-protection. This was an opportunity to reinforce that he has personal power, that it is good, and he will be happiest when he uses it to be his authentic, loving, trustworthy self and to keep his heart open to the effects he has on others. He ended up crying a little as I hugged him. He felt embarrassed. I encouraged him to quell his embarrassment to better learn the lesson instead. I believe his little heart is intact because I taught him important lessons and did so harmlessly.
Men and women both need this same training and development in personal responsibility. Every day we have opportunities to remind each person we meet that they are, and want to be, great and how to be so. Instead, we are conditioned to rush past opportunities for teaching and instead do what’s most expedient and what’s most convenient to us. I could have done what was easy and shamed my grandson or used my power as an adult over him, something propagated by patriarchal norms..
Victimization is about power and core beliefs that children (often and especially females) are less than. This is apathy taught, from which significant harm arises, including toxic masculinity. I was not willing to teach this to my grandson.
Shame and Punishment, Taught
This leads me to a separate concept worth examining: a common and persistent belief in using shaming and punishment. Most people don’t know what to do besides inflict pain, withdrawal, and shame on people who misbehave. First they become annoyed, angry, hurt, worried and insulted by another person’s behavior, and then they either react with harshness and withdrawal or permissiveness. This teaches adults and children that it is okay to use power over others, which is perpetuated later in our relationships between parents and children, bosses and employee, and men and women. This is where the problem begins. This is shame and punishment taught.
What most people don’t realize is that as a culture, we fail to question our current structures for punishment and shaming in our homes and schools, and we fail to be open to alternatives, which do exist. We set limits on both genders from the earliest childhood experiences, stunting the expression of authenticity in men and women, and then carry the same shame-based patterns into our communities and businesses.
Shaming and punishment cause feelings of inferiority, which lead to widespread internal and external conflicts and abuse of power. It pains me to see how people are not shown the path for guiding themselves and others simultaneously but instead, believe they have no recourse but to develop apathy that’s required in order to inflict (and receive) punishment and harshness. There is a way out. It is through guidance and tools that keep our hearts intact and bring about healing in both the responder and the one misbehaving.
We fail to believe in or teach authentic community. Rather, we live in a world that believes raising children and managing adults requires control methods such as being autocratic, dangling carrots, using shaming and praising, and over-compensating and spoiling, all in an attempt to get positive behaviors from others. We are taught this is the “right” way and that you should not expect to be a “friend and a parent” or be a “friend and a boss,” and, I would add, “a friend and a man or woman.” If you suspect I exaggerate, I tell you that just a few weeks back, I saw a sign in someone’s front yard that said, “Be a parent; Not a friend” as if the two were antithetical. These beliefs we blithely toss around are core to shutting our hearts and minds to others or to new ideas for how and why to manage behavior differently. This belief in controlling others is modeled every day in homes, schools and businesses. These control methods are inherently aligned with a hardened heart and apathy towards others. This is power-over taught.
Pleasure Taught (vs. Joy Through Love)
Most people don’t realize the difference between teaching and modeling the pursuit of pleasure versus teaching and modeling real joy. To find pleasure alone often requires we put on the armor of apathy towards the needs of others. Our pursuit of pleasure becomes a singular goal for many. We then become transactional and justify trivializing the needs and wants of others. Again, this is modeled in our movies, in books, and on our news.
In contrast, teaching joy through purpose and service requires recognition of what our actions cause others and, simultaneously, us. The path to joy requires the vulnerability of loving with an open heart, and full awareness of how we use our power in service to something greater than our individual pleasure, and the success of all. It fosters the joy of loving, and sharing, instead of transactional getting.
The tragedy is we fail to teach that pleasure alone is a dead end. I remember vividly an episode of the TV show “The Twilight Zone.” A man dies and is transported to the pearly gates, and greeted by a benevolent being who assures him he is there solely to bring him whatever he requests. Imagine the man’s delight!
He asks for a huge quantity of gold, a red convertible sports car, a mansion, a beautiful woman and more. Soon, he becomes bored and unhappy and eventually says to this benefactor, “I thought heaven would be more fun.” To which the being replied, “Who said this is heaven?”
When we create conditions focused on achieving pleasure as the end game, we fail to teach people that their greatest joy is to serve and support one another. We rob them of the joy of open-heartedness, practicing reverence for all, and love. This is pleasure (not joy through love) taught.
Consequences To Me, Taught
We foster fear and a focus on self when we say, “There’s got to be consequences!” What we really mean is you will suffer consequences should you act badly. This is not about the consequences one causes to others. This puts our focus on self-protection and does not promote a team mentality in which we care about, and for, one another’s wellbeing.
I saw this so clearly when I witnessed a mom who told her 5-year old son, “We can’t park there in that handicapped spot because a policeman will give us a ticket and then we will have to pay a fine of $500.” She missed the opportunity to teach him how he is part of a caring community who wants to cause the consequence of helping anyone in the area who cannot walk well, so that they are supported to shop, socialize, worship, etc—in other words, to be part of the larger community.. This is because she has been taught to guide her son (and herself) through fear of the consequences “to self.” This is consequences to me, taught.
Rejection of the Feminine, Taught
“She’s a man-hater.” “She’s hysterical.” “She’s a radical!” I believe the feminine essence at its best and most holistic is and has been rejected for a very long time. Women are taught to be “sugar and spice” and to stay submissive to men as the primary leaders. My own father, God love him, said to me as a teenager, “Why do you need to go to college? You will likely just get married” as if I am an appendage to a man’s life. He and many others unwittingly contributed to the persistence of restrictive gender norms.
The healthy feminine in each of us (men and women both) promotes positive relationships, teamwork, care and love for others, nurturing and healing. She sets healthy boundaries, as a mother bear guards the safety of her cubs. She is soft, creative, and receptive. She is vulnerable, but not a doormat. She embraces and promotes spirituality, social action and justice, and morality.
Unfortunately, these positive feminine attributes are undercut by the Barbie-doll version of women promoted in movies and advertising and also in our day-to-day discourse, as women are depicted as power-under in intelligence and leadership. Women are often encouraged to keep quiet about injustice and abuse through disdain, name-calling and marginalization, and they often conclude their worth comes from their looks and validation by others, especially by men. This focus on the superficial helps maintain a state of objectification of women in everyday life.
That is why there are fewer women leaders, an epidemic of eating disorders, lower pay for women, and much more. That is why there is victim blaming and hostility towards women who speak up. Women have habitually rejected their own value and divinity and have experienced degradation by men (most traumatically through sexual misconduct and abuse) and stayed quiet (until recently). Too often, men diminish women, overlook disparities, and brag about power over, and use of, women. This is the rejection of the feminine, taught.
Rejection of the Masculine, Taught
“Be a man.” “Men don’t cry.” “Man up.” I believe the masculine essence at its best and most holistic is also rejected. The masculine in each of us (men and women both) brings focus and action, and seeks results. He builds, guides, protects and serves. He is the mover and shaker. He is courageous and fearless. He is the hero and change agent.
Unfortunately, these masculine attributes are undercut by an exaggeratedly macho version of men; one that glorifies power-over other people and things, who is ruthless, who is callous, and who uses force without concern for the consequences this causes others. This version of man is the conqueror of those weaker or those who hold some advantage or material goods, that they determine is their right to plunder.
Men and women alike foster this ”toxic masculinity” that will physically, emotionally and sexually harass and assault girls and women, as well as boys and other men. In this state, these men believe it their right and their badge of manhood, to do so. They have rejected their own loving heart. This is rejection of the masculine, taught.
Inauthentic Community, Taught
In my practice, we teach that many people operate from pseudo-community: keeping the peace at all costs, acting like things are ok when they are not, being bystanders regarding injustice, and failing to “tell it like it is” when there are problems. For too long, women have been quiet, and men have turned a blind eye.
When you do work to get out of pseudo-community, you may be like many, and step right into chaos; reacting and trying to fix, convert, heal and change others. You may get angry and retaliate. People do not wish to be false, but they do not want chaos either. They don’t seem to know how to get beyond this artificial dichotomy and this leads to distrust and hardened hearts.
Until we learn how to bypass both of these states of interpersonal dynamics; transforming to become open and empty, ready and able to build a trusting dynamic with one another, we will repeat history again, and again, and again, ad nauseum. This is inauthentic community, taught.
Imagine what would happen if we all made straightforwardness, receptivity, respect and recognition of our differences and gifts priorities? What if we made seeking excellence more important than winning, people more important than beliefs, empathy more important than competition, and sought to prove we could be counted on, and honest, to show we care, as highest priorities? It would be a new and incredibly beautiful world!
Let’s Create a New Community TOGETHER
The idea of rejecting negative judgments of others, believing in their goodness, taking time for training, finding alternatives to control, punishment and harshness, and promoting awareness of relationships, love, and teamwork are feminine traits whether they are expressed in men or women. You may believe, “What’s the harm in locker room talk or laughing at a joke that demeans women, or another race or religion?” and fail to say, “Stop it. Please change the subject.” We are better than this. Yet, these very concepts are often rejected because they challenge centuries-old, imbalanced, patriarchal systems many people rely on as the way of life. They require ethical maturity and leadership that is declared (and lived) as powerful, responsible, and respectful.
The challenge is, we have a leadership problem of great magnitude. Taking our power as men and women and putting our money, our focus, our prioritizing, and our actions into ending the old system, and standing for a new, safer and more ethically and morally sound system, is not for the faint of heart and requires effort, education, and practice. It is heroic and determined, which are the best of the masculine traits whether they are expressed in men or women. Again this challenges the centuries-old, power-over systems many people assume is how life just is. And the solution is not to be permissive either. It is to be socially and emotionally intelligent and to develop this in others.
We have a crisis today and it’s not affecting women and girls alone. It is damaging our men and boys too. It is time to stand up and stop being bystanders. The most powerful leaders (often men, but women too) in all walks of life, need to lead this charge. This must be at the top of every agenda. As a culture, we need to dedicate time and money and daily behavioral change to impact it and reverse it. The committed heart finds a way; the uncommitted heart finds an excuse.
I observe people resisting self-examination because it leads to feelings of uncertainty, self-doubt and guilt, which feel vulnerable, and has been traditionally responded to with punishment and shame. It is vulnerable and it is necessary! It is past time to get uncertain and doubtful about what we have been doing. Until we do, NOTHING will change. Radical change in our basic foundational systems of operating IS the way out of the darkness. And this waking up need not be accompanied by punishment and shame. In fact, it should not be.
Transforming our transactional, controlling world into one that honors all people and conditions in word and deed, requires awakening, determination, education in social and emotional intelligence, and right action, which adds up to hard work and perseverance. It is not expedient, it is not convenient, and it is not permissive. While it is not yet mainstream or welcomed, it is desperately needed, overdue, available and EFFECTIVE. It is our only way out and our saving grace.
So my final questions for men and women alike include, “Will you gain courage and determination to examine our systems, challenge others to do the same, leave pseudo-community (acting like everything’s ok) and chaos (trying to get others to change first) behind, build trust and compassion, join hands in friendship and respect with men and women alike, and protect, reassure and heal our children and our men and women, rather than hurt yourself and others? Will you do this and more in order to save our planet and our peace and happiness?
Women, will you stand beside men, not desiring to hurt them but to lovingly and firmly confront them, support the best in them, grow and learn with them, and receive the same in return? Men, will you spend time listening to, appreciating, and validating the gifts in women, acknowledge that you need them, and for more than how you can get pleasure alone from them? Will you listen until they are completely heard, without an agenda to fix or repay a debt, to learn from them and grow with them, and receive the same in return? Will you take your positions of power and use them to reverse these problems that sometimes you alone are best suited and able to fix?
The masculine without the feminine becomes brutal. The feminine without the masculine becomes passive. We need each other. We must come to see that the beautiful solution to the sexual harassment and abuse issue is one that will solve not only these, but many other destructive problems we face today. I ask you: Are you ready to stand beside me and one another, roll up your sleeves, and take the necessary steps to create a more loving, caring and supportive world where everyone can love their lives? Let’s do this, people!
Judy Ryan has been the founder of LifeWork Systems, an award-winning training and consulting company specializing in leadership development and culture transformation since 2002. Judy is an author, columnist in two publications (since 2012 Your Extraordinary Workplace, and 2005 Emotional Intelligence) and a consultant, trainer, coach, and keynote presenter, with frequent guest appearances on TV, podcasts and radio. Executive leaders, business owners, educators and parents hire Judy Ryan and LifeWork Systems because they want the advantages of a healthy culture and conditions to expand people into their greatest potential. They know that conscientious people improve businesses, better serve customers, educate effectively, and raise up good citizens. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 314.239.4727. Judy’s mission is “to help create a world in which all people love their lives.”
As published in Women’s Journals, March 2014, on the cover and pages 11-13.