“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as true strength.” ― Ralph W. Sockman
Two women face each other and one describes positive qualities of the other woman that she has observed.
The first woman looks the second woman directly in the eyes and expresses her genuine, loving positive observations.
The second woman is not allowed to rebuff the feedback, to deflect the compliments or hurriedly return a compliment to the first.
She just receives and really feels that she has been fully seen in this moment.
All the second woman can say is, "Message received."
There are a number of lessons from this exercise in learning to accept your own goodness, but what I want to focus on in this moment is a particular type of feedback I kept receiving in this exercise:
"There is a sweetness, a gentleness, about you."
They meant it kindly, but I could see how such comments would have riled me in the past.
Cue Almost Famous: "Sweet?! Where do you get off? Where do you get sweet? I am dark and mysterious, and I am pissed off!"
We're often taught that to be strong means to push hard. To be strong means to be aggressive.
Especially as a woman.
"This is a man's world. Learn to act like a man and you will succeed."
The instructions aren't usually explicit, but the general directive is: "To succeed, be aggressive. Ruthlessly climb the corporate ladder. Power is gained when you wear the pants and you talk loudly with every eye in the room on you."
With the obvious caveats...
"But don't act too masculine. You're a woman after all. Don't be too loud. Don't be tooaggressive. That's bitchy. Keep your purity, your demureness, your overwhelming desire to keep your children's and your partner's happiness above and beyond your own...and also be a secret sex symbol."
"And don't be so strong that you're more successful than the men around you. That's just traitorous."
Despite the (often contradictory) cultural learnings, the more I dive into what it means to be a strong woman, I find that softness is not an opposite of strength.
They are actually inextricably connected.
What we have often been taught is strength is in fact grabbing at straws for power.
The easy thing to do is to push harder when you're in fear. To put up barriers that keep people out.
Easier maybe, but not particularly fulfilling.
Stepping on other people is not a show of power. All it shows is your deep-seated insecurity in your own inabilities.
It means you lack the critical self-awareness needed for successful leadership.
It takes courage to vulnerably lay your soul bare.
You're so strong you can go into battle without armor. And win.
It takes considerable strength to be empathic—to see someone and identify them as no different from you, to feel deeply on their behalf.
You know what's strong?
To be able to step back from your own experience, fully see another person and welcome the idea that they may know more than you do and have something deeply important to teach you.
Because it takes honest insight to acknowledge your own shortcomings and see where you might each gain from each others' complementary talents.
It takes extreme strength to be humbled and to welcome in humility.
To recognize that you are an incredible being, and no matter the condition of the person in front of you—so are they.
That sweetness, that gentleness, is a product of one of my greatest assets.
When I see you fully, that gentle openness emanates from me.
I know it does, because I have been told so more than once.
I have also felt the same from others who have in turn allowed themselves to be open enough to see me.
That doesn't mean I can't be tall-standing, resilient and in dogged pursuit of what is right and good in this world.
As with strength, having a gentle approach and a backbone are not mutually exclusive but rather completely intertwined.
You're gentle because you genuinely understand the situation enough to use your fullest compassion.
And you stand for what you believe in because you so deeply care.
Gentleness. Not an insult.
Sweetness. Not condescension.
Both could be, but if they were thrown as insults, the insult-bearer would be sadly mistaken.
Strength beyond the surface level requires a certain permeability.
You are transparent enough to show what is beneath your exterior.
You are perceptive enough to lovingly see into the person before you, flaws and all.
Yes, you can force forward. You can aggressively charge ahead. There's nothing stopping you from doing so.
But that's not a sustainable solution.
You'll run out of energy, because using maximum force is nonrenewable.
Maybe you make a short term gain with that momentum, maybe you win one small battle, but it's what will make you lose the greater war.
And if you drag down enough other people, you'll eventually realize you've dragged yourself down with them.
But if you want to know real endurance, real success, let yourself see and be seen.
True progress is made when the individual talents of each person are wholly recognized, celebrated and put to use.
That's how to win the war.
Wear your kindness as a badge of honor, because it takes a real warrior to use softness to make the biggest impact.
Own your gentleness as your strength.