How to Overcome the Obstacles That Stop Women From Following Their Dreams

Photo: Yoann Boyer

Women have to overcome all kinds of hurdles when it comes to our careers. From workplace sexual harassment to the gender pay gap, just getting treatment that’s equal to that of our male co-workers can be an exhausting daily struggle, and it’s compounded for women of color. But it often feels like there’s something else that holds us back from fully pursuing our dreams, something that comes from inside of us and is hard to put into words. Call it Imposter Syndrome, internalized misogyny, or simply warped self-esteem, but if you’ve ever felt an intangible force standing between you and the success you desire (and deserve!), you’re not alone. In fact, in a Global Dreams Index Survey conducted in 2016, over half of the world’s women admitted to giving up on their dreams.

“The biggest thing that stops women from pursuing their goals is a lack of confidence,” says Stacia Pierce, PhD, founder of LifeCoach2Women and author of The Success Journal. “You can be afraid to move on a new idea, switch career paths or just be who you were meant to be because of the unknown.”

Bri Seeley, a life coach and author of the new book Permission to Leap, agrees: “From very young ages, we’re shown what it looks like to be a woman. ‘Good women’ have been portrayed as demure, agreeable, and pretty. We’re shown that if we want to be liked, we need to be quiet, stay in line, and don’t be too ambitious. Still, to this day, we have top-ranking senators patronizing us and making comments like, ‘As long as you’re home in time to make dinner,’ when we speak out and stand up.”

We’re also constantly bombarded with examples of Instagram-likable “Girl Bosses” who manage to meet the requirements for both classical femininity and next-level professional success. Even supermodels like Karlie Kloss suddenly have to have a side-hustle, while corporate executives like Marissa Mayer and politicians like Hillary Clinton find themselves constantly scrutinized for their appearances and family lives. We feel we have to do it all because we’re basically shown as much. It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of comparing ourselves to others, specifically each other, and a lot of existing in a world where failure rarely feels like an option.

But right now, we’re living in a moment of flux, in which issues like feminism, gender equality, and sexual assault are at the forefront of the national conversation. Which means there’s no better time to reconsider what our wildest ambitions (both collectively and individually) look like, what’s standing in our way of pursuing them, and how we can knock those obstacles down permanently.

It begins with admitting that maybe you’re not 100 percent fulfilled by your current career or that you simply have unexplored passions or desires that are nagging at you. Did you abandon your love of creative writing because you thought you’d never make any money doing it? Did you stop actively aspiring to a C-Suite role when you had your first child? Did you opt out of applying to grad school because you weren’t sure how to finance it? Do you feel you have a creative side that’s itching to break free? What’s really stopping you from going after whatever it is that’s hard to admit you want, and why is it so hard to admit that you want it? It’s important to ask yourself these kinds of questions and to be really honest in your response.

“Take responsibility for who you are, what you believe and how you act, ” Seeley advises. “It is each of our responsibilities to move through our doubts, fears, and limiting beliefs and come out stronger on the other side.”

“The best gift I ever gave myself was nine months of inner spring cleaning. Day after day, I showed up to look at my shit. I looked at what I was taught, what I believed, and who I was in the world. It’s not easy,” she admits. “Most of these days I was a mess of tears and snot in the fetal position on my bed. When I started, I didn’t like the broken shell of a woman I saw in the mirror who played the victim and allowed others to take advantage of her. When I emerged at the end, I had a renewed sense of self, a stronger voice, and was able to look at myself in the mirror and love the woman staring back at me.”

Dr. Pierce suggests using a journal to write down what you want from your career, your life, and yourself. It’s important to find time to write and reflect every day, even if it’s just to vent about how you don’t have anything to write. She also suggests using the journal to keep a list of victories and things you’re grateful for. This helps when you need a pick-me-up, but it’s also a way of tracking your progress.

“Just by doing this exercise, you will start to feel more confident about pursuing your goals because what’s written is real. Writing helps you to get clear in your thinking and confident about your plans,” she says. “I have used my journal to write my way out of many situations. By doing a brain dump, I’m able to clear my mind of everything that could be weighing me down. Once it is all on paper I sort through it to separate the real from the fake and find solutions wherever possible.”

While the specifics of what may be holding us back vary slightly for everyone (though fear and lack of confidence are often somewhere in the mix), being honest with yourself, doing a mental and emotional deep-dive, laying it all out on a page, identifying creative solutions, and holding yourself accountable for working towards them are strategies that can work for anyone who is willing to work them. These practices may not result in an immediate promotion or an overnight career change, but they can be powerful aids on a journey that can otherwise feel painfully uncharted.

“We all can be attacked by Negative Nancy, that inner voice that reminds us of everything that wrong with us,” Dr. Pierce says. “You have to learn to silence your inner critic, embrace your wins and always stay grateful.”

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