Why Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' Sets Women Up For Failure

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Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' sets women up to fail
Ignoring vulnerability—as Sheryl Sandberg insists—is not a remedy for imposter syndrome.

From a historical perspective, Sandberg's message is simply a remake of the social activist feminism advocated by Gloria Steinem and other prominent feminists in the '70s who campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment and co-founded political organizations such as The Women's Action Alliance, The Coalition of Labor Union Women, Choice USA and The Women's Media Center. In their own unique ways, each of these organizations put out a clarion call for greater entitlements for women: they could not only have it all, but do it all.

Today, in the aftermath of a housing bubble and an economic recession from which we've barely begun to recover, these assumptions are being seriously questioned and Sandberg justifiably criticized for placing more pressure on women who are already struggling to fulfill impossible demands and blaming other women for not trying hard enough.

Sandberg's most important critics to date are Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic who argues that she's holding women to impossible standards for the attainment of personal and professional success, and Amanda Neville in Forbes who faults Sandberg for obsessively pushing women—or leaning on them—to achieve while ignoring their genuine need for a sensitive, respectful response to the real stress of their everyday lives. Neville also believes that "a change in conscious (and sometimes unconscious) behaviors will encourage the partners (in Sandberg's groups) to become more self-aware and vigilant when it comes to issues related to leaning in, such as competiveness, cattiness and caginess, as well as envy and resentment." What Neville doesn't say in her critique of Sandberg is that virtually all of these conflicts are a consequence of women's unconscious struggle with impostor syndrome.  

At first blush, one might consider Brene Brown—a fifth generation Texan whose family motto is lock and load—to be the last person in the world to have a deeper handle on imposter syndrome, let alone an appreciation of why gung ho messages like Sheryl Sandberg's and the one embedded in the Enjoli commercial might actually make women feel worse than they already do. But Brown is special for two reasons. Firstly, she's spent the last ten years doing research on vulnerability, shame, authenticity and empathy. Secondly, she actually had a breakdown of sorts in front of hundreds of people at a TED Conference in Houston.

Brene Brown started her career as a researcher-storyteller with a "life's messy, clean it up, organize it and put it into a bento box" mentality which in many ways resembles that of Sheryl Sandberg. Like Sandberg, she thought she could apply "a lean in approach to discomfort, knock it upside the head, move it over and get all A's." Her mantra in those early, incredibly naïve years was "If you can't measure it, it doesn’t exist."

Well, it didn't take Brown long to have her breakdown with the crushing realization that life was much too messy and complicated to be reduced to simple metrics. As a consequence, she plunged into a deep existential crisis. But she got lucky and found a good therapist. In the course of her therapy, Brown discovered two important things: that life is all about connection which is wired into us from birth and the thing that unravels connection is shame. Brene Brown calls this condition the Swampland of the Soul. She also learned from her research that shame is organized differently for women and men in our culture. Keep reading...

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