Rugged Individualism: Alone and Afraid of More
This is the second article in a two-part series of about building strong and supportive communities with fellow professional women of color. Read the first installment, “The Distorted Mirror of Personality Tests,” here.
Another Kind of Coping Mechanism
At this moment, in the depths of the #MeToo movement, there has been much research and discussion about women’s coping mechanisms—those old, engrained ways that get us through trauma, triggers, or dysfunction—on which we continue to rely.
This got me thinking about how professional women of color have to develop even more nuanced coping strategies because we’ve had to battle and overcome so much for so long. We’ve learned to cope with bias, discrimination, harassment, exclusion, aggression, entrenched structures of racism and sexism, and the resulting stress from all of the above.
One of the most common coping mechanisms I’ve seen: going it alone and adopting the role of the individualist. Likely, this self-contained perseverance has sometimes worked—that’s the whole reason we return to most coping mechanisms. But not always. Not past a certain point. And not without some high costs.
Are You an F.O.D.?
I work with a lot of women who are the “only” in their professional spheres. The only woman, the only person of color, etc. Recently, I listened to Shonda Rhimes’ book, Year of Yes which took the concept to a new level:
"I am what I have come to call an F.O.D.— a First. Only. Different. We are a very select club, but there are more of us out there than you’d think. We know one another on sight. We all have that same weary look in our eyes. The one that wishes people would stop thinking it remarkable that we can be great at what we do while black, while Asian, while a woman, while Latino, while gay, while a paraplegic, while deaf. But when you are an F.O.D., you are saddled with that burden of extra responsibility— whether you want it or not."
My clients are very often F.O.D.s in their companies or industries. I resonated with the term and the description. And with the ways we often double down on being an F.O.D. by making the “only” component our whole way of being.
The Myth of the Rugged Individual
When there’s no one who looks like you in your career—and probably even further back to your education—you have little choice but to go it alone. And then you make it alone. And the idea of alone gets engrained.
Sure, it’s somewhat a point of pride to say I made this happen despite the obstacles and lack of resources. We’re conditioned to think we need to pay our dues and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. It’s such an American ideal, too. The Individual. The Maverick.
But there comes a point when being better resourced is more important than claiming to be self-made. Because the “rugged individual” is a white male myth tied up with conquering and annihilating difference.
When we buy into the myth of individualism, mainly because we’ve experienced being an F.O.D, it reduces our success to mere outlier status. It reinforces a myth that works against us. It keeps us from seeking help and asking others to invest in us with their time, talents, and resources. So, we don’t get the therapy, coaching, mentoring, or medical help we need.
Bottom line, rugged individualism is a form of self-neglect.
You might remember that back in November, I hosted a day-long career retreat called Building Audacity. I was thrilled to share a space with bold and ambitious women of color, and to see a community start to form. I was also disheartened to hear that several women had wanted to attend but were not able to make this a priority for themselves.
We are so used to saying, I’ll take less or believing, I need less. We are so dug into our individual trenches that we can’t lift our eyes up to see that we’re just plain alone.
Invest in Yourself
Three years ago, I saw Vernā Myers speak at the White Privilege Conference. She was dynamic and energetic, and she looked fabulous. As I sat there admiring her achievements and presentation, she said something that jolted me out of my thoughts. I’m paraphrasing her here:
Everything you see standing in front of you, I invested in. I got help through therapy, help with education and career, help with everything. What you see is nothing I made happen by myself. All this was an investment in other people to help me be here to talk to you today.
I immediately identified with her message. Getting support is not a sign of weakness or inability or lack in any way. We may think so because so often we tie our value to what our company is willing to pay for—both in terms of our salary and the cost of our health and development. If the company will only cover a small percentage of mental health costs, then we think we’re worth only that much treatment. If they won’t invest in our career with professional development dollars, then we think we’re not worth the price of the program or coach or trainer.
Vernā is right: getting support and help is an investment in yourself. You don’t need anyone’s approval to invest in your retirement fund or home. So why wait for permission to invest in your fulfillment?
The truth is, no one can do it alone. No one ever has. But we never see all the hidden teams of people, all the time and talent that goes into bolstering up one person. Vernā’s talk made me think of Stacey Abrams’ remarkable campaign in Georgia. The beauty of a campaign is that while there is one candidate at the center, everyone knows that getting elected requires a collective movement. Every one of us needs to ask: am I willing to campaign for myself?
Afraid of More
Asking for help can be tied to feelings of fear. We know all too well what it’s like to have others take from us, and to have to navigate that gracefully. We fear becoming a taker.
Or you are afraid to see it. You’ve spent so long as an F.O.D. that you can’t even envision being empowered enough to make your career look the way you want, to work on your terms and with your whole self.
Or you’re afraid to risk what you have. You may think, I have a good career, I’ve achieved more than I thought possible. How can I ask for more?
The one I see most is the fear of more. Real audacity means asking for more. But for an F.O.D., more can be a fraught concept. You know exactly how much work, struggle, time, and energy it took to get you here today. The idea of more can seem daunting, overwhelming, even undesirable, if it has to come at the same price as what you’ve got now.
But what if more looked like a work environment that energized instead of drained you? What if more was the freedom to be creative instead of the stress of hiding yourself? What if more could mean having your career and your sanity and your integrity?
Who’s on Your Team?
Our general idea of a team is quite limited. When we think of building a team, it’s usually for the purpose of solving a problem—someone else’s problem. We’re used to forming and managing teams in order to help the client, the supervisor, or the company.
What if we stop and ask, what is the problem I want to solve for myself? If we say, I want advancement or agency or creative independence. Then we have to ask, who can I enlist to help me get it?
Whatever roles your team might consist of, it can be hard to find people who look like you and share your experiences to fill them. But recall from Shonda Rhimes’ book: we are a very select club, but there are more of us out there than you’d think.
Where to Find Your Team
In my next article, I will share ways that you can find people to be on your team, how to plan for that crucial investment, and how to ask for the help that you need.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive her articles in your inbox, you can sign up here.