"I am such a failure. I can't believe that I've made this mistake and it's cost me months and months of time... Why didn't I see that coming? I sure should have." On and on, she went. My colleague was clearly suffering because of a recent fiasco.
She had come to me supposedly to problem solve. But she could only focus on how this incident made her a failure. I got frustrated listening to her. Not because I lacked empathy but because of the message she was sending herself.
Most of us talk to ourselves in ways we'd never talk to anyone else. More than likely, you are unkind to yourself when you've had a failure. You expect yourself to "get it right" -- every single time. You hold yourself responsible for the whole of the failure. You believe you should have seen it coming.
But, let me ask you - would you speak to someone else this way? Would you talk to them in an unforgiving, demanding, and invalidating way? Likely not. Were you to say it to someone else, you would almost see him or her shrivel up from the inside. A label given to another person can transform a person's sense of self and their ability to contribute and create. So can a label you give to yourself.
We know that talent of all sorts is valuable to an organization only when people feel free to bring their differences to work. But too often, difference is not seen, nor valued. Instead, our difference makes us unseen. I myself fell for this, when someone powerful told me "as a brown woman, the likelihood of you being seen in the world is next to nothing." I wrote about that experience in a piece on cultural bias. But what I didn't share then is how much it formed a new weaker narrative in my mind. The "you'll never been seen" narrative changed my power from what I call a "strong I" to a "weak I."
After this, I was a mess for many months. When I didn't get the role I wanted on a particular board of directors, I thought to myself, "Yes, there! That's proof that he's right!" And I started to step back, to stop trying, to deny my own creativity. I had so easily adopted another's frame of the world, as my own. It was disempowering.
The problem is when we accept someone else's narrative as our own. When we hear the argument made that - for example - if there were strong women leaders, OF COURSE they'd get the job, maybe even put them on our board. But since they're not on Boards, they must not exist.
The debate then follows: Maybe the people -- those not being seen -- have not done enough, accomplished enough, or tried hard enough. Instead of the truth, which is people who are talented, accomplished and ready are simply being obscured by bias. And unfortunately, this "not enough" narrative plays to some fears on the part those not being seen. Myself, included. I have more than once convinced myself that this is something I can control with more 'leaning in', and a better action plan. It's just a matter of jumping a higher hurdle. The thinking goes... once that is done, then I will finally be seen.
But accepting their truth as the truth doesn't actually change anything. It only means we "lean in" more, get more tired and the results over the years will not change at all. It is knocking politely at the existing door of opportunity and hoping it opens. And, doesn't it put the power of you being seen into someone else's hands?
What if the first step in being seen is learning to see ourselves? What if, in our desire to be seen by someone else, we have forgotten how first to belong to ourselves? The more you believe in yourself, the less you need others to do it for you. This doesn't mean that I deny the role of structural power or cultural power that limit many from being unseen. To make all power about the individual is to privatize power and to imply that if a group of people is unseen, or less seen, that it's somehow "their fault." But if you understand your own capacity, you'll maybe find a new door, or a new path.
You can't ask other people to make a "weak I" go away. Only you can live your life. And only you have lived the life you've lived thus far, only you can have the dreams you choose to have. By asking someone else to validate that, you give away your power and ask someone to validate something that they can't possibly understand. Each of us is standing in a spot unique to us; it's a function of our history and our vision. Until you own this spot - your onlyness -- in the world, you will never stand in your power, your own "strong I." Until you celebrate who you already are, you will always be hustling your way to worthiness, as notable researcher and storyteller Brene Brown would say. She defines hustling as the need to please, perfect, pretend, and to prove your worth. All this is an effort to show the world what you think it wants, not what's really happening because you don't believe that your experience, your reality is already good enough.
You do not need to "be seen" before pursuing your ideas. Enjoy yourself. Work. Create. Add value. Do what you can, consider everything an experiment to be held lightly, and then see what it leads to. Trust that in the doing, you are learning and growing, and being powerful. While it is quite possible you will be left "unseen" by some of society, at least you'll see yourself. In this way, power stretches to become dignity.
Own your story, and you own your life, Justine Musk wrote. Talk to yourself as a friend, not an enemy. And remember, you cannot change anything unless you first see your own self as powerful enough to act. The way we talk of ourselves and to ourselves grants power - narrative power -- to what happens next.
This post is part of a series on women's leadership produced by The Huffington Post and the Simmons International Leadership Conference. The series aims to inspire an inclusive conversation and global support for closing the gender gap in leadership. For more information, visit here.