The price of the climb: Why women shouldn't be burdened by shame

As a woman of colour, I've known the sting of 'otherness' intimately. From my early career days as the youngest, lone female face in the room, to navigating the challenges of running my own business from my early twenties, the pressure to prove myself has been a constant companion. And let's be honest, alongside that pressure often lurks the insidious guilt and shame of success.


Breaking free from the guilt trap

This guilt can be a complex beast. Societal expectations can feel like conflicting demands: excel professionally, prioritise family, and somehow embody a mythical 'perfect woman' stereotype. But what if we reframed the narrative entirely? Here's where REBT (rational emotive behaviour therapy) offers a powerful framework to challenge these limiting beliefs.

REBT: A philosophical tool for self-empowerment

REBT teaches us that our emotional responses stem from our beliefs (e.g. maybe I am not good enough to be here), not external events. The guilt we feel around success often boils down to irrational core beliefs like:

  • 'I have to be twice as good as everyone else to be seen as successful.'
  • 'Focusing on my career makes me a bad daughter/sister/partner.'
  • 'As a woman of colour, my success threatens the status quo.'

However true these can be, by dissecting these beliefs with REBT, we can replace them with rational alternatives:

  • 'My worth is not based on external validation.'
  • 'Success can be shared and celebrated by all, even if some feel they are entitled to have it more, I'm gonna push through!'
  • 'My achievements inspire and pave the way for others like me.'

The power of self-acceptance

REBT emphasises the importance of unconditional self-acceptance. We are worthy simply because we exist, in whatever state that is. Embracing this philosophy allows women to celebrate their achievements without feeling apologetic for them or for shattering the mould.

The power of sitting in the uncomfortable

Women bring a wealth of experience and perspective to the table. Our success enriches the professional landscape for everyone. By owning our authentic selves, we become powerful role models, dismantling stereotypes and proving that success comes in all shades and backgrounds.

Take Rupi [new name], a client of mine. As a successful woman of colour, she recently achieved the coveted position of Director, a promotion that came with a significant raise. Yet, instead of celebrating, she was plagued by guilt and embarrassment. Her success meant she now earned more than her husband, a reality that triggered discomfort within him. Rupi grappled with the pressure to change her views or downplay her achievements to alleviate his discomfort.

Through weeks of therapy using REBT principles, Rupi began to challenge her irrational beliefs. We explored the idea that her success wasn't a reflection on her husband's worth, but rather a testament to her own hard work and talent. More importantly, we acknowledged the real and often uncomfortable truth – sexism exists. Her colleagues and husband might hold outdated views, but that didn't diminish her accomplishments.

The goal wasn't to change their views, but for Rupi to become comfortable enough in her own skin to acknowledge these sexist undercurrents without being oppressed by them.  In short, through hard work, and the tools of therapy, Rupi learnt to sit within the discomfort every day and be OK with it. Part of fighting the power is acknowledging the power dynamics at play.

The climb to the top shouldn't be burdened by guilt. With REBT's philosophical tools and a foundation of self-acceptance, women can rewrite the narrative of success. Ultimately, our success is more than personal victory; it's about paving the way for a more inclusive and equitable future where everyone can reach their full potential. By sitting comfortably in our own power, we inspire others to do the same.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Ezme Bushell, NCSP, Adv Dip CBT/REBT
Marylebone W1G & Mayfair W1K

Ezme Bushell is a Psycotherapist and Communications and Behavioural Consultant. She works with clients at the Counselling Directory and at her private practice on various problems like depression, anxiety, self-esteem and more. She also supports businesses and schools with mental health, behavioural change and is changing the way therapy is done!

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