the art of the deep yes (my TedxOlympicBlvdWomen talk)
(On Dec 5, I spoke at one of the 220 independent TEDXWomen events that were organized around the world. I plan to blog about the day — it was an amazing day! — but in the meantime, here is the transcript of my talk.)
I have a confession to make.
When I was a little girl I would write obnoxious things in my diary.
Things like: “Life is so exciting when you’re someone like me, good at school and writing and sports!!!!”
Or: “When I grow up I’m going to be a world-famous novelist.”
Or: “One day I’ll rule the world.”
Actually I never wrote down that I wanted to “rule the world.”
But I thought it. I was that kind of kid.
I wanted to be great.
(Or a career as a soap opera actress. But I would settle for greatness.)
Then, a few years later – when I was maybe 12 – I came across that same diary when I was cleaning out the drawers beneath my waterbed. (This was the era of waterbeds.) I saw those scrawled words of my younger self, and felt…
I couldn’t believe how egocentric and deluded I had been. I felt the need to destroy the evidence. I tossed the diary into a big black garbage bag with the rest of my junk, and never saw it again.
Recently I came across a quote by singer Edith Piaf:
I had a very high opinion of myself. Perhaps with good reason.
That kind of blew me away. For a woman to not just think and believe such a thing, but to say it out loud? That takes ovum!
Modesty, after all, is a feminine virtue.
One thing I’ve noticed in my conversations about women, reading books and magazines about women, listening to other people talk about women, is that the culture seems to take it as a given that women as a group have low self-esteem.
A lot of this is attributed to the fact that, bombarded as we are by an insane beauty standard, most of us don’t look like supermodels. But Edith Piaf didn’t consider herself beautiful either. She said:
I’m ugly. I’m not Venus. I’ve got sagging breasts, a low-slung ass, and little drooping buttocks….But I can still get men.
I love that remark, because it demonstrates what I have come to think of as “the deep yes.”
The deep yes is the right to dream your dreams and live an authentic life as the hero of your own unfolding epic. It’s a yes to all your imperfections and the knowledge that you’re fabulous anyway.
Somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13, I misplaced mine.
Somewhere along the line, my Yes got drowned out by other voices, external voices, that told me I was too much. I thought too much. I read too much. I used too many big words.
Boys told me I was too competitive – when I didn’t even know that we were in a competition. Or what we were competing for.
Now I know that when people tell you you’re ‘too much’ of anything, it can serve as a sign of your strengths. In my case, I was a budding young thinker and writer who hungered for the world. I was rewarded for this in some ways.
But I also learned to hold myself back and play myself down.
Modesty is a feminine virtue.
I once told my therapist, proudly, that I had never been the type of girl to ‘play dumb” in order to make herself more appealing. I will never forget her response. She said, Playing yourself down — undercutting your own abilities — is a form of playing dumb.
And we have a way of becoming what we think we’re only pretending to be.
We have a way of rising or sinking to the level of expectation the culture holds for us. We like to claim that we’re not influenced by the world around us, but truth is we’re hardwired to adapt to the herd. As a girlchild in a small town in the early-to-mid 1980s, I wasn’t expected to like math. So I stopped liking math.
I wanted to be the star of my own epic life. But even as some people told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, I grew up absorbing a different kind of message.
Women are not the heroes of Big Stories. We are, instead, the mothers and lovers and wives and mistresses, the muses and personal assistants, the femme fatales and fantasies and manic pixie dream girls, in someone else’s Big Story. This someone else is usually a dude. Even the smart, feisty, bookish girl (if she’s not careful) gets cast as the Hermione to someone else’s Harry Potter.
There’s that saying: You have to see it to be it. So if you look into the culture, and you don’t see how you’re entitled to your own Big Story, you might just wake up one day, and smile, and say:
That’s all right. You go ahead. I’ll stay here and organize the snack committee. After all, somebody has to.
But to define yourself as a supporting player, to live your life in the shadow of someone else, is a precarious position.
Divorce happens. So does widowhood. Kids grow up. Odds are good that any woman will spend a significant period of her life alone. Ask twentysomething women about the possibility of being single at 40, or 50, and chances are they’ll gasp in horror. But if we don’t see single life as a real alternative, we are just as ruled by marriage as any generation that came before us.
And if you can’t say No to something, you can’t truly say Yes to it either.
I was married to a man who became extremely successful. And as I watched him rise, I noticed two things: he worked very hard – much harder than the average bear – and he said No a lot. He said No to people who wanted his time, his energy, his attention. He said No in a way that protected his very limited resources so that he could channel them toward his own goals.
I realized that behind every No is a deeper Yes to whatever it is that you do want. No is a bright line that, when used properly, marks off where you end and others begin.
We learn this young. I have kids, and when they want to assert their own power and individuality, they say: No! But when you lose the deep Yes, you also lose your bright No. How can you say No to protect what you want if you don’t know what you want?
I started wondering if maybe the reason I had trouble saying No to people was because I didn’t think I was worth a Yes to protect.
This could have cost me my life.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I was in a car accident. I managed to total an obscenely expensive car while going 8 miles an hour. I made a right turn at the wrong time and got hit by a car that knocked my car into another car. But the real problem was my exhaustion. I was meeting a friend when I should not have been driving at all.
(I should have said No.)
There was something else. After the sickening crunch of impact, when I realized that – bam – I had just been in an accident, my first thought wasn’t: Thank God I’m alive.
It wasn’t: Thank God nobody’s hurt.
It was: My husband is going to kill me because I wrecked the car.
Sitting on the curb, trembling, drinking bottled water that a police officer gave me, I started to realize that this was more than an accident. It was a wake-up call.
How had I gotten to this point, more concerned about my husband’s disapproval than the fact that I could have killed myself or someone else?
In the days that followed, I remembered that moment when I found my childhood diary. And I realized something. The day I threw it out was the day I made a bad decision. I decided not to trust the voice that filled those pages: the unfiltered voice of my deep Yes, my own high opinion of myself.
Instead, I put my trust in other voices, external voices, that let me know in a dozen subtle ways that I should remember my place.
Because modesty is a feminine virtue.
I learned to look outside myself for the kind of validation and authority that can only be found deep within.
I am calling it the Deep Yes, but other people call it self-worth.
In the novel THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker, a character writes letters to a friend named God, but she is also writing to the strength within herself. I’ve heard it referred to as your inner GPS. In my blog I sometimes describe it as the voice of your soul.
You might think of it as your Higher Self.
It is a creative force that is constantly driving us toward wholeness. We ignore it – or allow other voices to override it — at our peril. To deny it is to deny your true nature, and also to alienate yourself from the love of self that enables you to receive love from others.
The deep Yes is an innately creative act. I believe that the way to reconnect with it, and to free your inner voice, is through creative expression. There is a saying: Show me who you love, and I’ll show you who you are. But I also believe: We are what we make.
In my case, it was my writing and blogging that led me back to myself. My writing reminds me who I am – and who I want to be.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for Marie Claire magazine. I told a story – my story – in which I was no longer the Hermione to someone else’s Harry Potter.
Before the piece came out, I was terrified. I sent my editor an email at 3 am asking her if I could take it back. (She said no.)
But when the issue came out, I learned something else: when you move into your own deep yes, you inspire other people to move into theirs.
The emails, comments and responses I got were telling. What they told me was this: women want to play a bigger game. Women want permission to pursue dreams and goals and greatness of our own. And when I say permission I mean a story that supports us, a story that manifests in the kind of social, economic and political structures that make female greatness possible. You shouldn’t have to feel like you might sacrifice some or all of your womanhood. You shouldn’t have to feel like you’ll get massacred for admitting, out loud, that you have some greatness in you. You just need the time and space and energy to bring it out (– and someone else can get the snacks).
Women want, I think, a grand and inspiring call to adventure that points the way to a bigger, deeper life, even if it’s still unclear – in the year 2013! – what that kind of badass womanly life is supposed to look like.
But the call to action is there. It is waiting. We only have to get very quiet – on a day to day basis — and listen to the voice that lives within. We have to trust it enough to act on it. This is, of course, much easier said than done. But it can be done.
The last thing I would like to leave you with is this:
When we have only ourselves to find the way, make the way or lead the way —
We need to trust the deep Yes, so that we can trust ourselves.
We need to trust the deep Yes, so that we can trust each other.