The Power of Women: Harness Your Unique Strengths at Home, at Work, and in Your Community

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9781427209160: The Power of Women: Harness Your Unique Strengths at Home, at Work, and in Your Community

From the bestselling author of Women Who Think Too Much, a groundbreaking self-improvement program that empowers women

Women are extraordinarily hard on themselves. They scrutinize their flaws, asking “Am I a good lover? A good mother? Successful in my career?” They get preoccupied with ways they do not measure up, twisting themselves into knots to fix problems no one else can see. The latest book from award-winning and bestselling psychologist Susan Nolen- Hoeksema shows women how to break this cycle—by discovering and utilizing their unique psychological strengths.

Drawing on original research and the instructive stories of real people, Nolen-Hoeksema identifies the skill sets that women, based on their biology and social roles, bring to challenges:

  • mental strengths, such as the instinct to manage scarce resources
  • identity strengths, which maintain strong values under pressure
  • emotional strengths, such as anticipating the effects of decisions
  • relational strengths, with an emphasis on win-win solutions

Combined, these strengths give women a powerful ability to lead during transformational times. She then provides hands-on assessments for pinpointing strengths with the most relevance to a problem, exercises for building strengths, and inspiring examples of women’s inventiveness, resilience, and sheer determination.

This revolutionary book of self-improvement gives women the tools to hone their skills as entrepreneurs and managers, mothers and wives, mentors and community leaders—and as individuals pursuing their talents and dreams.

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About the Author:

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, is the author of The Power of Women, Women Who Think Too Much and Eating, Drinking, Overthinking. A professor of psychology at Yale University, she has conducted award-winning research on women's mental health for twenty-five years. She and her research have been profiled on the Today show and in The New York Times. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


The Self-Help Revolution: What Women Do Right

IF YOU COULD PLAY GOD AND CREATE THE PERFECT LEADER FOR OUR times, what would this person look like? You would want this person to be wise, able to comprehend many sides of complicated issues, and create novel and innovative solutions to problems. You would want the perfect leader to be working for the good of the whole group, not just for personal power or glory. The perfect leader would inspire others by understanding their perspectives, capitalizing on their strengths, and overcoming their weaknesses. And the perfect leader would persist until a job was done, even if it meant personal sacrifice.

You’ve just described a woman. Women lead with wisdom, integrity, and inspirational power every day, in their families, their workplaces, and their communities. They often aren’t recognized for this leadership, because they don’t wave their arms and ask for recognition. Instead, they simply harness their strengths to get the job done, fix problems as they arise, and help people in need.

I believe the strengths that women bring to every corner of their lives fall into four groups, and that every woman can harness these strengths:

· Women have mental strengths, namely, a particular form of mental flexibility that allows them to be creative and nimble in finding solutions to problems they confront. They focus on getting things done, not just on doing things their way.

· Women have identity strengths that allow them to maintain a strong sense of themselves and their values in whatever situations they find themselves. They can deal with change and uncertainty, because their sense of themselves is not dependent on what they do or have, but who they are.

· Women have emotional strengths— the ability to understand their own feelings and those of others, and to use this understanding to cope with distressing circumstances. These emotional strengths also allow women to anticipate the emotional consequences of various life situations, which makes them particularly adept at making major decisions.

· Women have relational strengths— understanding others’ perspectives, which then helps women create strong social networks that support them during stressful times. They seldom indulge in rage and arrogance, even when they are justified in doing so, and look for mutually satisfying ways of solving conflicts.

Every day, women utilize their strengths to lead others to better lives, whether it be their children or partners, their neighbors and friends, or their coworkers or employees. In quiet ways, and in bold ways, they take others by the hand and lift them up, they build and nurture lives, they create and inspire organizations, and they leave a radiant mark on the world.

Transforming the World

Women are transforming the world and transforming the face of power. Women- owned firms make up 40 percent of all privately held businesses in the United States, employing 7.3 million people and generating $1.1 trillion in revenues per year.1 In 1972, women held only 18 percent of managerial and administrative positions in the U.S. government, but by 2002, that percentage had increased to 46 percent. In 1979, only 3 percent of members of the U.S. Congress were women, compared to 17 percent after the 2008 election. Women have been elected to statewide executive offices in forty- nine of the nation’s fifty states.2

Outside the United States, women are also making big political gains. Angela Merkel, the fifty- two- year- old physicist turned politician, became Germany’s first woman chancellor in 2005, ousting the incumbent Gerhard Schröder. In 2006, Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist, was elected Chile’s first female president. Reformer Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf became the first female president of an African country (Liberia). And Han Myung- sook, a former dissident once jailed as a political prisoner, was inaugurated as South Korea’s first female prime minister in April 2006.

These trends in women assuming major leadership positions are inspiring. But women have been transforming the world for millennia by unleashing their strengths to meet the needs they see. Every day, in simple, unobtrusive, but powerful ways, women enrich their own lives and the lives of others. Let me illustrate with the story of Terri, a forty- two- year- old stay- at- home mom in the tiny town of Stonington, Illinois. Terri is the last person on earth to think she is powerful and strong, but she has had a huge impact on her community and the lives of hundreds of people. One day in early December a couple years ago, Terri ran into a woman she knew casually, named Annette, in the grocery store. The conversation naturally ran to what their families were doing for Christmas. Terri began to name the toys she had gotten her two kids when she noticed a twinge of sadness in Annette’s eyes and a slump in her shoulders. It turned out that Annette’s husband had been laid off a few weeks earlier, and the family was already desperate for money. There would be no toys for Annette’s children this Christmas. Terri comforted Annette as best she could, and then the women went their separate ways.

The conversation niggled at Terri for the rest of the day, however. She knew there were a lot of other families in the area in the same position as Annette’s family— farmers were struggling and manufacturing plants had been scaling back or moving out in recent years. Terri imagined her own children waking up on Christmas day with no toys under the tree and her heart ached. Terri called her best friend, Rosanna, and the two women began putting together a plan to raise money for a toy drive. Terri and Rosanna made announcements for donations at their respective churches the following Sunday. They got local businesses to place donation boxes at every check- out stand. They convinced the elementary school’s PTA to hold a bake sale to raise money to buy new toys. By December 18, Terri and Rosanna had raised nearly two thousand dollars. With this fund in hand, Terri visited the local discount stores and persuaded the store’s managers to sell her toys at cost.

On December 22, Terri and Rosanna laid out the dozens of toys they had acquired on tables in the American Legion Hall. At 6 p.m. the doors opened, and needy families, who had been identified by church leaders, school teachers and principals, and workers at the local food pantry, poured in. Excitement filled the hall as the children picked their toys. Parents beamed to see the joy on their children’s faces and felt a bit of relief from the weight of their economic plight. In the years since that first toy drive, the community’s involvement has grown, with nearly ten thousand dollars being raised and hundreds of toys being distributed to families in need.

Terri’s success in organizing this toy drive was the result of the many strengths she brought to the task. Terri discerned that Annette was distressed by tuning into Annette’s demeanor and what Annette was not saying about her Christmas plans. She took Annette’s perspective and understood what it would feel like not to give her children toys for Christmas. Faced with the daunting task of organizing a toy drive in a few short weeks, Terri remained confident that she could pull it off and persisted despite the discouragement of others. She rallied her best friend and the huge social network she had built in her town and then devised multiple pathways toward reaching her goal of raising enough money to buy toys for the needy children.

Women like Terri can be found in every small town, sprawling suburb, and urban center in the world. They set their sights on doing things that express their personal interests and values and nothing stops them from accomplishing their goals. They connect with other people in ways that engender cooperation and support. They find creative ways to get around roadblocks. And they make their communities and worlds healthier and more vibrant by their everyday acts of leadership.

Transforming Adversity

For thousands of years, women have used their strengths to rise above even extreme adversity. There are famous examples, such as Mukhtaran Bibi, a Pakistani rape survivor who transformed her trauma into a movement to change traditional anti- woman laws in Pakistan. Time magazine recently named her as one of their 100 Most Influential People in the World. Around the world, women have organized to protect their families and themselves from injustices wrought by powerful governments, terrorists, and economic forces. During the "dirty war" in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, thousands of people were taken to detention camps and "disappeared," most likely killed by the military. The mothers and wives of these "disappeared" formed Las Madres del Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) in Buenos Aires, silently demonstrating in the plaza outside the presidential palace to demand the return of their family members. They risked torture and death, but continued to demand information about their loved ones. Once democracy was restored in 1983, Las Madres called for the prosecution of the killers, despite death threats to themselves. These women, many of them uneducated and poor, helped to bring about major political change and justice by marshaling their own strengths and the strengths of other women on behalf of their families.

Others are not famous but are nonetheless heroines for their courage and resilience. One is Jody, a lovely brown- eyed woman whose son played goalie on my son’s soccer team. Ten years ago, Jody had what many of us would think was the perfect life— two healthy, beautiful children, an attractive, successful husband she adored, and a thriving career as an executive at IBM. Then, when she was only twenty- nine, Jody’s dream turned into a nightmare. Her husband, Len, who loved to bike, swim, and run cross- country, dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of thirty- three. Jody was initially devastated and overwhelmed at Len’s death and her new role as a single mother. But within months, Jody mobilized a wide range of psychological strengths so that she could rise above her grief and reshape her life. She drew emotional support from her many friends and practical support from her family in getting her children’s lives back to normal. Within a couple of years, Jody was leading support groups for young widows, helping them claim their identities as strong women, use the social networks they had available, and be creative about how to overcome the obstacles they faced as a result of the death of their husbands. Jody says, "Women are so much more resilient than they are given credit for. A tragedy like losing your husband can force women to recognize their power and learn how to use it."

Women’s strengths don’t only rise to the surface in response to tragedy, however. They are also demonstrated in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of women who ignore the real barriers to pursue their dreams with resolve and unswaying integrity. When Claudia Kennedy enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968, women were not allowed to command men and there were no women generals. When Lieutenant General Kennedy retired in 2000, she was the nation’s highest ranking female officer, a three- star general. Kennedy’s first command was over a chaotic, drug- infested company in which an angry soldier threatened her life. She restored discipline and respect by relentlessly holding soldiers to the highest values of the army— loyalty, honor, and integrity. She eventually became the deputy chief of staff for army intelligence from 1997 until 2000, overseeing policies and operations affecting forty- five thousand soldiers stationed worldwide, with a bud get of nearly one billion dollars.

Throughout her career in the military, Kennedy risked disapproval and outright punishment from her superiors by standing up for issues she felt she couldn’t ignore, including the shameful living conditions of some military families. In 1996, as a two- star general, she was sexually harassed in her Pentagon office by another two- star general, Major General Larry Smith. She raised the matter internally after the army announced that Smith was to become the army’s deputy inspector general, a post in which he would have overseen investigations of sexual harassment cases. After her charges became public in March 2000 and were substantiated in a subsequent investigation, the army quietly rescinded Smith’s appointment. Since her retirement, Kennedy, who remains fiercely loyal to the army, has nonetheless exercised her integrity by speaking out on the issues that really matter to her, such as the Bush administration’s decision to initiate and escalate the Iraq war. The kind of integrity Claudia Kennedy has displayed throughout the course of her military career and beyond earned her the respect and trust of her peers. It has also inspired her subordinates to work hard, take risks, and behave with integrity themselves.

Given what women, including Lieutenant General Kennedy, are up against around the world, it’s astounding how much they have accomplished. Despite being ignored, dismissed, even beaten down, women have honed their many psychological strengths, breaking societal chains that have bound them for generations, emerging as superb leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and players of the game.

Claiming Their Strength

Over the last few de cades, women’s determination has led them to grab hold of opportunities to grow in strength, often by pursuing academic degrees. The result is a tectonic shift in the geography of education. For several years, girls and women have been outpacing boys and men on most indicators of academic success. Fifty years ago, women weren’t even admitted to some U.S. colleges, including my own, and made up only about a third of the college population across the country. Today, women make up 58 percent of students enrolled in two- and four- year colleges in the country. The gender gap is huge in some colleges: at American University in Washington, D.C., 74 percent of the class entering in the fall of 2005 were women!

Women aren’t just going to college in greater numbers than men; once they are in college, they are performing better by many measures. The 2005 National Survey of Student Engagement, which questioned ninety thousand students at 530 institutions, found that women spent significantly more time than men preparing for class, while men spent significantly more time than women socializing or relaxing. Other studies find that women are less likely than men to skip classes and more likely to complete their homework and turn it in on time. As a result, women are getting better grades than men, are more likely to finish college once they start, and are earning a disproportionate number of honors degrees at universities.

A great example of the ambition and drive of today’s college women is Teresa, a senior at Yale who does research with my lab group. Teresa comes from a large, close- knit family in Mountain View, California. Neither of her parents went to college; instead they supported their seven children by running a small grocery store, doing house cleaning, and gardening. Fortunately, early in elementary school, teache...

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