The eating habits of women’s souls in the workplace

People with eating disorders (especially girls) have a biased perception of their body. They feel fat and unfit and no feedback (from a mirror, from parents, or from friends) seems able to shake the perception that there is something wrong with their body. Their body needs to be controlled, shaped and disciplined.

At the same time, they are extremely sensitive to feedback (from peer, media, advertising) that reinforces their biased and negative body image (Debbie Notkin and Laurie Toby Edison, who I met at Blogher, blog about this on Body Impolitic). The loving and caring act of nourishing their body becomes a harsh act of self-discipline and self-mortification.

I started to wonder if a similar mechanism operates on women’s self-image at work. Do women have a biased self-image when it comes to their skills and talents? Do they have a hypersensitive negative feedback loop and a high-threshold positive loop?

I don’t want to generalize to all women (we had many examples of strong, assertive, successful women at Blogher). I am talking about women who are clearly talented and highly skilled and yet substantially underestimate their value and their abilities. I am talking about the women who attribute their failures to themselves and their successes to chance and circumstances.

From time to time, I receive emails from women who seem to have an underestimation bias that is eating their lives and their enthusiasm at work (and I receive such e-mails because I write about my own struggles with self-esteem and recognition at work). These women are starving for recognition and appreciation and at the same time have a “high-inertia” to change their biased negative or “not-good-enough” self-image at work.

Their supply of recognition and appreciation seems so low that to reach a functioning level they need an amazing amount of reassurance and positive feedback for long periods of time.

When they write, they are not looking for praise and recognition. They describe their situation of desolation, depression, and self-doubt. They usually don’t ask for anything; if they ask for something is “objective” feedback, improvement advice. As the girls with eating disorders, they are looking for a way to change themselves so they can be loved and appreciated, rather than demanding the recognition and appreciation they deserve. As the girls with eating disorders, they have unrealistically high expectations of what being “good enough” means. This is at the same time deeply endearing and absolutely heartbreaking. (By the way, this also accurately describes my own behavior as a young writer looking for feedback)

As the anorexic girls, we transform the caring act of nourishing our soul through other’s recognition in an act of self-improvement and discipline. “If we could just get better,” we tell ourselves, “if we could just collect some more feedback about our weaknesses and improve, perhaps people would start loving us again.”

In replying to one of my young friends, I wrote that recognition and approval were her birth rights. And in writing it, my words started to become true. Of course, I thought. Recognition and appreciation are our birth rights, and we need to learn how to ask for them as a right, rather than to beg for them as a favor.

I noticed that one of these women wrote about her lack of “approval” rather than her lack of “recognition.” And this made me think. Approval assumes a difference in power between the approver and the person who receives the approval. Recognition is a hierarchy-free term: recognition can come from a peer, from a subordinate, or from a superior. So, perhaps too often we ask for approval and permission from the people who have power on us, rather than immersing ourself in the free exchange of appreciation and recognition that permeates most human relationships.

So, there seem to be two issues at work in this soul-nourishing disorder: (1) we are good at asking for feedback on our weaknesses, but not that good at asking for (demanding!) recognition for our skills and good work; (2) we worry too much about what our superiors/distant fathers think of us, rather than getting recognition and appreciation from multiple sources, and focusing on people who are willing to provide positive feedback and support.

One last thought, triggered by the closing session at Blogher. The panel of famous and successful women was asked how they made the important decisions responsible for their success. Part of their answer (not all of it, thankfully) was that it was because of luck, intuition, and their good parents. As I mentioned earlier, women—even very successful women—too often attribute their failures to themselves and their successes to chance and circumstances (Margaret Heffernan talks about this extensively in the Naked Truth).

So, what’s the big deal? It’s their success, not yours, right? The problem is that by avoiding to take full responsibility for their success, these famous and powerful women won’t be able to mentor other women. If you wanted to make enough money to retire comfortably, would you ask for advice to somebody who inherited a fortune or won the lottery? Or would you rather take the advice of somebody who earned her money through her skills and talent?

Successful women need to take full responsibility of their success to mentor other women. They need to understand what made them “lucky” or gave them their “intuition.” Of course part of their success is due to good genes, supportive parents, and some luck (this is true for men and for women alike). But their good genes, supportive parents, and good luck are not going help other women become successful.

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