Why We Need to “Lean In” with Compassion in 2019 - What’s Lacking in Sheryl Sandberg’s Brand of Feminism

To “Lean In” we need self-compassion. Photo of Sheryl Sandberg: Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Jolanda Flubacher

To “Lean In” we need self-compassion. Photo of Sheryl Sandberg: Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Jolanda Flubacher

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, published her book Lean In in 2013 to wide praise and coverage. It struck a chord with many American women, and despite criticisms regarding her brand of “corporate feminism,” her leadership initiated a movement with Lean In Circles around the world. Her message—for women to stop undermining themselves and know that they can and should have a voice and an equal seat at the table—is valuable and necessary for women’s advancement in the workplace. Women don’t necessarily learn these messages growing up, because they’re taught to be nice, stay quiet, look pretty, and put the needs of others first. Getting permission to move through self-doubt and start speaking up, from a successful businesswoman, is meaningful.

But Sandberg’s veneer of success now has fundamental cracks. The more insights we glean into the kind of person Sandberg is, the easier it is to see what’s missing from her “Lean In” approach to women’s workplace empowerment. In November, the New York Times reported on Facebook’s “Delay, Deny and Deflect” tactics to address their security crisis, revealing a side of Sandberg that is quickly tarnishing her iconic role as the champion for American businesswomen. In new ways, we are questioning how relatable and admirable Sandberg is in giving advice from her path to success. Compassion is not her strength, and self-compassion is lacking from her teachings of empowerment. And if there’s one thing our country desperately needs all around at this point, it’s an understanding of genuine compassion.

I was frustrated when I read her book five years ago because there was a vital piece missing from her message—the execution. How do you lean into a request to a coworker to give you credit for your contribution, when you’ve never done something like that before? How do you negotiate for a pay raise or demand a seat at the table, when it feels so uncomfortable? By execution I don’t mean what words to use, but how to sit with the discomfort of saying and behaving in ways you’ve previously avoided because you learned that women shouldn’t behave in that way. The emotions connected to these internalized gender norms—the fear of embarrassment, shame, loss, stigma, or rejection—are very real in how they live inside us. These emotions are experienced as visceral pain, but the avoidance of such keep us stuck in place. And particularly for women, these emotional and social discomforts keep us quiet.

To really lean in, whether in relationships, childrearing, or the workplace, we need to be willing to move towards the discomfort we’ve been avoiding. This requires a mindfulness process of facing emotional and social fears head on… by noticing the fears and locating their presence in the body (e.g., throat, chest, solar plexus, gut) and then choosing to stay present with their actual physiological discomfort. It is scary to choose to move towards discomfort instead of avoiding or distracting from it. Since this can feel like a masochistic process instead of an empowering one, self-compassion is crucial. This is how emotional resilience and true strength are consciously built. We need to recognize that this is a difficult process, acknowledge with kindness that our emotional anguish is real, and feel proud that we’re on a courageous journey of facing our fears. That is self-compassion when leaning in.

I know this might sound “woo-woo” or confusing, but try it. This level of awareness and acceptance is powerful. Without it, you could feel like you’re playing an inauthentic role, charging ahead like a bull in a china shop, and disconnecting from your inner wisdom and emotional feedback. With it, though, you are connecting to the inner drives, values, and emotions that help guide you on your own path of happiness and success.

Sandberg has achieved impressive successes and made valuable contributions to women’s equality. Despite the ways that her privilege clouds her ability to empathize with some women and speak to the contextual realities of race and gender in a workplace, I genuinely appreciate her voice for women. There’s no doubt that Lean In is an important movement, but it must be grounded in compassion. Despite what we may have been taught it means to be a strong businesswoman, compassion is actually a strength, not a weakness. It is a source of power and connection and grace. How we treat each other, and most importantly, how we treat ourselves, will drive the equality we, and the Lean In movement, seek to make a reality.  

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego Sexologist, Sociologist, & Intimacy Speaker