Asking the Powerful Question – Heather Penny

Heather-Penny-askingthepowerfulquestionThere is a movement amongst our society for women to ‘lean in’, for girls to accept and love their bodies, for gender equity in higher leadership, and for increased leadership development targeting women.  Certainly within this past decade, there has been a heightening of awareness where communities, groups, and individuals are intentionally shifting to address the question,  “How do we do a better job empowering our girls and women in areas of professional development and leadership equity?”  Furthermore, we are seeing the effects of well-run organizations and high-functioning groups focusing on the inclusion of all people groups.  As someone who is passionate about the development of women and girls…it is indeed an inspiring time to live.

In considering this inspiring shift, the question begs to be asked, “How do we continue to build on this momentum and contribute to the conversation in such a way that inspires increased synergy and growth?”  There are a myriad of options we can discuss in cultivating the continued synergy of this growing conversation, however, I would like to propose one key focus.  In both my personal story as well as coaching many gifted women, I have observed that the ‘we’ in this question starts with the ‘me’.

What does this mean?  Let me offer a specific example.

When we started working together, Anne could not understand why her professional world was so unfulfilling, her personal relationships felt sideways, and her parenting was so stressful.  Overall, she carried around this general sense of failing in every area.  Being highly intelligent and self-motivated, she had read all the empowerment self-help books and participated in many conferences, workshops, and lectures.   From the outside looking in, her high status in executive leadership within her company as well as her personal relationships looked like she was thriving.  She was ‘leaning in’…she was speaking up…and she was taking the initiative to move forward on her path of success.  What then was the issue?

The more we talked, the more I realized she lived in a question that had haunted her for most her life.  It’s a question that haunts many high-achieving women.  Whenever Anne experienced something not working well in life, or she failed to reach the high standard she holds, her immediate reaction was to question, ‘What’s wrong with me?”  How long had this been going on?  Long enough that it was a consistent part of her inner dialogue.

This question shows up strongest when something does indeed go ‘wrong’:  a conversation goes sideways, a confusing evaluation at work, misunderstandings in a relationship, disappointing someone, missing a plane….you name it.  Whether the issue is big, small, or even non-existent to others, many high-achieving women can get trapped in the cycle of associating what’s ‘going wrong’ externally in their world with questioning ‘what’s wrong with me’ personally.

Why is this happening?  Women often do this because they are highly responsible, they deeply care, and they are passionate about fixing the problem.   It is personal when something does not work as you hoped.  Sometimes we ask ‘What’s wrong with me?’ out of shame, humiliation, anger, or just plain weariness.  In my observations, this is a common ‘go to’ question amongst women trying to live highly successful lives.

Anne recognized how this question , ‘what’s wrong with me’ had permeated her inner dialogue and created a constant sense of ‘never quite measuring up’.  She described it as showing up to school and never being told how to get an ‘A’.  In her words, “I feel like I am never clear on what the standard is or how to reach it….it is some invisibly high standard that is constantly elusive”.

As we shifted the question to “What’s right with me?” her life began to significantly change.  Again, the external circumstances remained static, but there was an internal shift that dynamically influenced her overall emotional well-being and personal fulfillment.  She listened to feedback with ease, misunderstandings were addressed with confidence, job fulfillment increased, and an overall sense of self-efficacy grew.

So, here’s some simple guidelines to try this for yourself.  Next time something goes wrong, we can often hear our inner-dialogue the loudest, so take a moment to pause and reflect:

  1. Notice your inner dialogue.  Are you questioning “What’s wrong with me?” because of something going wrong in your environment?
  2. Shift the question to “What’s right with me?” Recognize that there is nothing wrong with you when something is going wrong in your world.
  3. Release yourself from that impossibly high invisible and elusive standard that only you are holding over yourself.
  4. Use your energy that is increasing from the better question of  ‘what’s right with me’ to get to the solution.
  5. Celebrate how much is right with you.
  6. Continue building on your strengths as you practice inviting in the question “What’s right with me?”

Living in this question is a powerful way to nurture your own personal journey as well as support the individuals and groups who are leaning in, speaking up, finding their voices and successfully showing up for their lives.  When we make a positive internal shift, it is our best gift to offer our worlds.

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