The Emotional Issue that Gets in the Way of Women’s Leadership

We don’t even know how deeply we’ve been shaped by the emotional, relational realities of our families. And since much of that shaping wasn’t verbal but experiential, we rarely name it or the ways it expresses itself in our daily engagement. But it’s real and it affects how we relate to one another as men and women.

Let’s unpack one way that those deep family patterns might complicate leadership for women.

Negative Emotions

Take a moment to reflect on times when your Dad expressed strong negative emotions.

How did you respond?

Now take a moment to reflect on times when your Mom expressed strong negative emotions.

How did you respond?

Is there a difference in your responses?

It may not be the case for all families, but in many cases we see it as our job to get out of Dad’s way when he’s angry or unhappy. We want to either stop doing what is bothering him or just do it in a way he doesn’t know about. 

But we all—men and women—have a different response to our Mom’s emotions. Again, it may not be true for all of us but many of us want to please our Moms. We feel bad when they’re upset, especially if we feel responsible somehow for it.

But that doesn’t always lead us to respond to our Moms’ emotions in a way that’s helpful. We may want so much to please or protect our Mom that we feel burdened by her emotions, as if we’re responsible for her happiness, as if her unhappiness is our problem to fix. And so, in the moments when our Moms express negative emotions, we care—but not always in a way that empathizes or that’s actually helpful. We just want to make it go away because we feel guilty or we feel we’ve failed. We may even resent her because we feel she’s dumping emotions on us. While some Moms do offload their emotions onto their kids in unhealthy ways, not every way a child feels that burden is from the mother’s intention.

At Work and Church

How can we learn from these old habits in our engagement with one another at work and church? They may get in the way more than we realize.

So take a moment to reflect on a time when a female colleague or leader has expressed negative emotion. 

How did you respond?

Were you able to empathize? Were you able to ask, “Help me understand what you’re feeling”? Or did your response come from a place of enmeshed emotions, unable to discern her emotions without reading them through your own emotions?

As a leader I feel a lot of pressure to contain my emotions. I’ve learned somehow that it’s a burden on others if they see me frustrated, angry, sad, hurt. It’s an awful lot of pressure to pretend I’m even-tempered all the time. (Even as I type this paragraph I’m aware of how hard I’m working not to sound whiny or accusatory). And so I do a lot of emotional and spiritual reflection every day to be sure I’m not bringing emotion into my work. And I work to hone my words to be sure I’m not overreacting. No one has ever told me, “Mandy, your emotions are not welcome.” But these are deep patterns in all of us. So I want to name them to release us all from the unrealistic pressure they put on us.

Of course, we all have responsibility to consider our own “emotional wake.” And so I want to own what is my part in stepping out of these patterns. And I also want to name the broader system so we can all step out of it. A cultural system which doesn’t have room for female leaders to be emotional beings is not a human system. It’s not good for any of us. A cultural system which doesn’t have room for female leaders to be emotional beings is not a human system. Click To Tweet

So I’m asking: 

How do I feel responsible for the emotional equilibrium of the women in my life? 

How can I empathize with them instead of feeling burdened by their emotions?

How can I walk alongside those women, so we can bear one another’s burdens without being enmeshed in one another’s emotions?

And I’m also asking:

How can I release others in my life from feeling this kind of responsibility for my emotions?

How can I communicate to them what I need and don’t need from them?

How can we make gracious space for one another to process without having to check every single word or emotion?

I’m sure all this sounds more like psychology than theology. My love for God makes me want to name every human structure and habit which gets in the way of good theology. Good theology means living out what God has for us as men and women. I believe that he welcomes us, as we are—emotional, spiritual, physical beings—and that there are ways for us to engage with him and one another in wholeness. I believe that God welcomes us, as we are—emotional, spiritual, physical beings—and that there are ways for us to engage with him and one another in wholeness. Click To Tweet

It’s what motivates me in my work as the Director of the SheLeads: ChurchTogether Summit on November 10. It’s what makes me want to name whatever gets in the way of the beautiful union God has created for men and women to live out his mission together. Won’t you join us?

Join us on Nov 10 for Church Together, a She Leads Summit in Pasadena. Regional venues also available across the nation.


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