What does Empowerment Look Like?

Listen to this blog in podcast form! Plus hear a bonus conversation between Jill and Brianne C. Martin as they discuss what empowerment looks like and their empowerment journeys.

I remember when I was in elementary school being assigned to do a report on a role model. I was 10 years old, I think, and my mind blanked. I knew what a role model was, and I felt pressured to have one by my parents and teachers, but I did not have any. There are presidents, astronauts, movie stars, and other celebrities, yet never felt like I wanted to be them, or follow in their footsteps. (I ended up doing my report on Sally Ride because of parental pressure.)

To this day I struggle with finding a true role model who I aspire to be like, and instead have settled for admiring different traits of different people I learn exist on this planet. All of the people I look up to have one thing in common: empowerment. From a young age I always wanted to be one of those empowered people, and now I have the self awareness to know that the reason why is because I want to be significant and loved for who I am.

Empowerment is a word I hear thrown around a lot by people, communities, and organizations that call themselves feminist. There was even an Empowering Women series of lectures at my alma mater; I attended the lectures but did not feel particularly empowered afterward. In some contexts I see, like on social media, empowerment is promoted by showing “boss babes” flaunting their luxury items, dressing in designer clothes, and sharing how they made 6 or 7-figure businesses. In other advertisements on shoes, makeup, toys, soap, and even telecom service, women’s empowerment is promoted along with the product. But are these REALLY empowering?

What is empowerment?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, yes I’m stating the dictionary definition, to be empowered means having the knowledge, confidence, means, or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself.

Psychological empowerment is composed of four cognitions: meaning, self-determination, competence, and impact. Empowerment manifests self-confidence and renews your sense of purpose. When you act on your ability to do things and make decisions for yourself, you grow self-confidence and can follow your purpose.

Reflecting back on those advertisements, by nature purchasing something advertised will not necessarily lead to empowerment. You are making that decision to purchase the good or service, but that product in and of its self may not empower you. And let’s take this a step further to look at your purchase through a wider lens:

We live in a capitalist society. Not only that, but it’s patriarchal, heteronormative, cis-normative, imperialist, and white supremacist. This means that most of the images we see in media of what “empowerment” means and what a person who is empowered looks like is a straight, cis, white male from the upper class of society, with a well-paying job and property (including but not limited to a house, expensive car, wife, and children), AKA the oppressor.

When we see advertisements to “empower women”, what are the women doing? In a Verizon commercial, there is a girl working with power tools in a garage. Others have women wearing suits in minimalist corporate offices (the origin of minimalism is fascist and focused on erasure of culture, by the way). Some advertisements have women dressed in provocative clothing (for the male gaze), supporting men as gatekeepers to women’s power. Nearly every advertisement I have seen that purports to empower women, does so by portraying women in a “masculine” context, succeeding while being more masculine, or by promoting the message that a woman’s level of empowerment is measured by her proximity to and/or support from a man.

This is just one example of the false narrative of empowerment and how it can be sexist. Messages about empowerment can also be racist, classist, and ablest (and other -ists) as well. For example, media messages portray that to be empowered for black people means to be more like white people, for poor people to be more like rich people, and for people with disabilities to overcome their disability and achieve more than even an able-bodied person.

The underlying message by mainstream media is that to be empowered means that you think, look, and act like the oppressor.

Is true empowerment to be like the oppressor? No. Like I said earlier, it means having the knowledge, confidence, means, or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself. You don’t have to be a white male in order to do things or make decisions for yourself. Oh wait… People who are oppressed are treated cruelly or are prevented from having the same opportunities, freedom, and benefits as others. This means that they are prevented from (in certain situations) exercising their will and ability to make decisions for themself because of authority, the oppressor.

So, in a way you do have to be like the oppressor, a straight, white, cis, wealthy male, to have true empowerment and be able to follow through completely with your decisions (and this is true even for straight, white, cis, wealthy men).

Now that we understand what empowerment does not look like, what does empowerment look like?

When I was listening to the podcast Equivalence by EVE List with Sophie Leray: S1 E1, I had this moment where I thought, “wow, so this is what it’s like to listen to empowered women!” The podcast Equivalence explores what is equivalence in corporate and other places, and many episodes explore gender equity in the Middle East. It’s great!

The guest on the episode I listened to is Hermoine, a TV reporter and activist and advocate for women. She is originally from Australia, but works in the Middle East. In her role as a TV reporter and advocate, she feels like she’s constantly working against sexism.

As I listened to this episode, I felt in my soul that I needed to make this blog post about empowerment because I felt I found a role model of empowerment in Hermione (and the show host Sophie)! I want to share what qualities this woman has, as she self-describes in the episode, to provide this example of an empowered person.

Qualities of an Empowered Person:

1. Dedicates themself to Personal Development

Hermione spoke fondly of the years she dedicated to her own personal develop, getting to know herself and develop her self-awareness. She said how you see yourself is indicative of your self esteem.

2. Advocates for themself from a place of self-love and self-awareness.

My ears perked up when Hermione said that she fought every sexual harassment case in her career. As someone who struggled a lot with navigating and reporting harassment, especially in my early career, I was impressed. I know the courage and self-assurance required to stand up for yourself, and this woman sure has quite a bit of that! It really excites me to hear from a woman with that kind of strength and courage.

Hermione credits her mother and father for raising her to be confident and strong, and feels like this kept people from harassing her as much as other women. She says she “didn’t fit into their box of what would be a victim”. The ones who did harass anyway, she prosecuted.

“You have to know yourself, love yourself, and stand up for yourself as a woman.”

– Hermione

3. Grounds themself in Core Values that Gives Resilience

Hermione states that her values from family and identity and faith in God, her spirituality, helped her develop her resilience because she knows she was made in the image of God. Even though she missed opportunities because of harassment, she kept going.

“The people who don’t give up are the ones that win.”

– Hermione

I included this key to resilience in The STEM Thrive Guides courses, which teach how to navigate difficult situations involving inappropriate behavior like microaggressions at work and school. In the courses, I share the resilience mindset, which are a set of 5 truths, or values, that I use to empower myself when deciding what actions to take to resolve a situation and reach justice. Grounding to your core values and acting from that place allows you to keep going and live with purpose despite uncertainty or setbacks.

4. Learning About and Growing Awareness of their Societal Context

Throughout the episode, it was evident that Hermione was well aware of issues in society, oppression, and how she is directly affected. She shared deep wisdom that she has grown through her learning and awareness. She feels like women have self-hatred and self-deprecation. Women tend to put themselves down while men build themselves up. We have to look at our identities as women and question why we do that. She knew that sexual harassment is usually subtle comments (also called microaggressions), and can be hard to identify.

She pointed out how in our culture, women are oversexualized; there’s pressure to look a certain way in her industry (news, TV) and many women have had procedures like plastic surgeries to stay working. She says she thinks the world has a long way to go to reach equity.

Growing this awareness of society, why you’re treated certain ways, helps one distinguish what they can’t control from what they can control. Since empowerment comes from a place of making decisions and choices, knowing what you can actually affect is important so that you don’t feel defeated. For instance, if you change how you dress to prevent harassment, you can feel defeated over and over again because how you dress has no control over how people treat you. Realizing that you have no control over preventing harassment allows you to focus on what you can control, which includes advocating for yourself as well as documenting and reporting harassment.

Once you realize what you do have control over, you can act on that while knowing what is outside of your control. Empowerment is action-based, and confidence grows when your actions produce the results you desire.

5. They Lift Others Up.

Hermione talked about how when you’re empowered you want to lift others, not tear them down. She said how it’s about relationship building, and it’s a mutual benefit in the long run; she believes what you sow is what you reap and that success is saving lives. This demonstrates how she has a growth and abundance mindset, not needing to compete but to collaborate with others to solve issues. She’s focused less on how others see her, and more on what is within her control: her thoughts and actions.

This is, by nature, the opposite of being an oppressor. Lifting other people is love. Loving is the willingness to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s growth, as Erich Fromm says.

6. They Combine all the Above Traits to Pursue their Purpose

Hermione notes that the role of Hollywood is to please men not women, and, because of this, has been up against sexism to pursue her career in film and TV. She advocates for more women directors and writers and producers in the film industry, and has been director of the World of Women Film Fair Middle East. Despite setbacks, she is now the CEO of Straight Street Media, a global media consulting business. She continues her advocacy work as well with the House of Rest, a privately funded, non-political and non-governmental resource center run by women for women survivors of sex slavery, war, violence and oppression.

You can see that her entire journey, from Australia to the Middle East, from navigating sexism in her industry to promoting women in her industry, and then to building businesses and organizations around lifting others… her entire journey combines everything she has learned to act with purpose. She not only serves her higher good, but also those around her.

She may be oppressed, but she minimizes and counteracts oppression. She has not become the oppressor.

7. They Know They Can’t Do It All Alone.

Empowered people know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and surround themselves with people who love and support them. Hermione emphasized that she married someone with a similar vision as her, to help lift communities. Throughout the episode she discussed the support of her family throughout her life. And here she was on a podcast sharing her story, connecting with the host of the show.

From her business, to her work as a film festival director, to her new initiative The House of Rest, you can see through her actions that she is all about building communities that lift their members and others. She knows that she can’t make the big, positive changes in the world by herself.

The image of empowerment as one who conquers solo is simply false and, honestly, probably improbable. True empowerment incorporates community because the decisions that stem from the empowered person are enacted to love and respect themself and others.

I had Brianne listen to this podcast and wanted to hear her opinion since she is an empowered person. …

These are just 7 qualities of someone who is empowered, and, to summarize, they are:

  1. Dedicates themself to personal development
  2. Advocates for themself from a place of self-love and self-awareness
  3. Grounds themself in core values that gives resilience
  4. Learning about and growing awareness of their social context
  5. They lift others up
  6. They combine all of these traits to pursue their purpose
  7. They know they can’t do it alone

There may be other traits and qualities of an empowered person that I did not mention here. If you think of more, DM @stemthriveguides on Instagram with any additional qualities you think an empowered person has.

The image of empowerment as similar to an oppressor is so toxic and does not match reality. You can be oppressed and still be empowered, and simply acting like an oppressor does not make you empowered (it gives away your personal power and freedom).

Lately I have been reading the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire, which provides amazing insight arguing that education is freedom. Originally when I was planning this blog post and podcast episode, I was not thinking of including this text; however, I happened to start reading it and it COMPLETELY coincided with this reflection on what empowerment looks like. I seriously wish I could just quote the whole book here, but that would take too much time and probably be Copywrite infringement, so go ahead and please read this book but keep in mind it can be a little sexist (which the book Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks discusses).

In this reflection of empowerment, I’ve been sharing how simply the oppressed becoming the oppressor, or acting like the oppressor, is not empowerment. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire discusses how the oppressed are yearning for freedom and justice and struggling to recover their lost humanity. He explains how the oppressor loses their humanity by stealing the humanity from the oppressed. So, in our society, both oppressor and the oppressed are dehumanized. He writes, “…sooner or later being less human leads to the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.”

There are a few stages to liberating yourself as an oppressed person, and I won’t cover them all here, but I do want to speak about the ones that relate to becoming empowered. Essentially, empowerment is liberation, right?

Freire states that the initial stage of the struggle of the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, they tend to become oppressors, or sub-oppressors. This is exactly following how media messages are shaped: the oppressed struggle but see that a product or service can make them more like the oppressor, and so they purchase the product consciously or subconsciously fighting against their own oppression. But by putting money in the pockets of their oppressors, they are fulfilling status quo in the end, and not liberating themselves at all.

Looking back at when I first entered the field of physics as a college student, which is a very male-dominant field, I even remember feeling like I needed to assimilate and be like my straight, white male colleagues. I was already white, but I tended to dress in khaki pants and polo shirts, which were very uncomfortable for me but I thought it would save me from my oppression, the harassment I faced. I talk about this in episode 5 of the Resilient in STEM podcast, all about embracing femininity in the workplace. By changing how I dressed, and even how I acted, I was essentially trying to become the oppressor. I thought this would make me feel empowered, but, it did not. My choices were not coming from a place of love, but, rather, a place of fear.

Another example that is less obvious of a time when I became the oppressor to try to counter my oppression, was when doing science outreach to children. Instead of recognizing their humanity, I approached teaching science as if I held all the keys to knowledge, which I was then bestowing upon them. It was like a performative savior type of dynamic that made me feel good because of false generosity, yet did probably more bad than good. I was not really teaching them anything because I was not speaking to their identity, while simultaneously upholding status quo dynamic of teacher-student, which is very hierarchal and dominating. I want to speak more about the pitfalls of science outreach and how it perpetuates inequity and oppression, but I’ll save that for another post.

That first stage was essential to me in order to become more empowered. I had to try and fail to empower myself by trying to become the oppressor. I’m not proud of it, but it seems like the normal path so I forgive myself and try to do better moving forward.

The next stage to empowerment, and liberation, is reflection. And this is where I want to leave you today. I feel like this post may be enough to open your eyes or validate feelings you already had but maybe did not know how to put in words. By researching and reflecting for this post myself, I learned a lot about myself and oppression. Reflection is the next step, growing awareness of yourself and society in general (which is the 1st and 4th trait I listed of an empowered person!).

And, now that I’ve written this whole post, I now see that perhaps we use the word “empowerment” to mean “liberation” interchangeably. At nearly any point during this I could have replaced “empowered” with “liberated” and it would have meant the same. Wow. Perhaps women empowerment is simply a term gaslighting women because empowerment stems from the individual but the connotation of liberation stems from society or government, and those in power put the onus on women to change (and empower themselves) rather than change the systems that are keeping them oppressed.

Well, I’ll just leave you with that!

If you want to continue this discussion, join the Resilient in STEM Facebook community, which is a private community there to support you on your career journey! Everyone is welcome!

Also, I want to invite you to follow The STEM Thrive Guides on Instagram (@stemthriveguides) or Twitter (@stemthriveguide), and subscribe the The Resilient in STEM podcast! Leave a review if you liked this episode!

If you would like to learn how to navigate bias, harassment, and discrimination at work and/or school, you will want to check out The STEM Thrive Guides online courses, which provide information on how to document and report harassment. I also have a FREE Guide to Internship Success that shares essential information for getting mentors and sponsors, as well as job opportunities!


Embracing Femininity in the STEM Workplace

When I entered the world of physics and engineering, what I saw were men wearing khaki pants and collared polo shirts, or t-shirts and jeans. Sitting in classrooms as one of only a few women, I stood out, and felt like I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing in order to become a physicist and engineer. The way some of my professors and colleagues treated me made me feel like I didn’t belong and that I needed to prove that I could fit in, so what did I do? I decided to dress and act like them.

I hated wearing khaki pants and polo shirts. It felt frumpy and unflattering on me, and I did not feel comfortable or beautiful wearing that outfit. I wore minimal makeup and did not style my hair. I just wanted to blend in to be treated with respect, like “one of the guys”, but the harassment and microaggressions continued.

I’m sure the way I speak changed to fit into this culture. Even today when I speak to people who are not in science or engineering, they tell me I come off as blunt or rude. I’ve been trained to write emails and messages that are to the point so as to be efficient, not recognizing the humanity of the person on the other side. When I would write “how is your day?” or “I hope you’re doing well,” I felt like I may come across as being too flowery with my language and not taken seriously.

And more recently as I was promoted to a senior scientist role, in my performance review I received criticism that I was not dominant enough. I shared credit and collaborated more than I took ownership over my achievements, which made my managers feel like I was not contributing as much even though I achieved all of my goals successfully on time.

I’m not the only one who has felt pressure to shift my behavior and appearance from more feminine to masculine. All people feel this within male-dominant fields, especially when femininity is perceived as weakness or frivolous.

In a Clubhouse room that discussed this topic of femininity in the workplace, many women spoke up about their experiences, many of which mirrored mine:

  1. One graduate student researching at an R1 institution found a theme regarding how people respond when she shares her career aspiration to be a professor. She said she gets a sense of pushback from male colleagues as they inform her that there’s the option of working at a predominantly undergraduate research institution (or PUI). Every time she expresses her desires for her career path she gets that feedback. Males likely don’t get that opinion pushed on them as much. Women are pushed toward these “less desirable” opportunities.
  2. Myself and others found throughout our education that professors pushed us to do more education and outreach related activities even though we wanted to be research scientists and had no formal training in pedagogy. I felt like this was because I was a woman, and, thus, perceived to be more nurturing a suitable for a teacher. Professors also saw my great communication and leadership skills, but saw that useful in teaching rather than in a research environment (but, trust me, communication and leadership skills are very important in a research environment!).
  3. There’s also the question of ownership over shared space; how much responsibility do we have over our space and how much are we expected to be training and advising colleagues versus our goals. Women may more often be put in the position to do more lab cleaning, secretarial work, and mentoring that can take time away from research and goals.
  4. Another woman shared that in an internship her employer told her that she was not allowed to work in the engine room. He thought he was doing her a favor, and that it was the right thing to do. However, she went ahead against his guidance and did the work and did receive a great letter of recommendation from him. This incident reflects how people are often brought up certain ways culturally and don’t know how to work with women.
  5. One person shared that when their university hosts female speakers in their department, fewer people attend lectures, and the questions focus on their identity as a female researcher rather than their research topic.
  6. Some women even experienced push back and mean looks from other women when they showed up at work authentically, dressing more feminine. And many felt that when they display emotions of joy or excitement at work, others view them as less credible and serious about the work.

All of these experiences contained similar themes:

  1. Expressing femininity in any way is seen as less professional, which is sexist and racist.
  2. Both women and men can perpetuate sexism and racism.
  3. All women who spoke about their experiences had negative emotional reactions, and felt like this was an added barrier to their career progression.

Embracing femininity in this context, simply means to show up authentically as yourself in your school or workplace. Both men and women ns non-binary people can be feminine and masculine; it’s actually healthy and normal to be both!

How I Embrace my Femininity at Work

As a cis woman, there are several ways that I embrace and express my femininity at work.

  • Wear what makes me confident and happy!

I dress in ways that make me happy and confident, and for me that means wearing makeup and dresses!

  • Leverage strengths in collaboration and inclusivity to reach work goals.

I also have an inclusive and collaborative work style where I take initiative on important projects by pulling together teams of people to find solutions. While I could work on tasks independently, I believe that teamwork is often the best way to share knowledge and find the best solution. It also helps improve the culture of the company, breaking down hierarchies and shifting power dynamics. When you have the least experienced collaborating as much as the most experienced, and everyone shares credit, nobody has a chance to dominate. Everyone is focused more on reaching a solution than worried about getting credit.

  • Create space for others to be authentic too.

Another way I embrace my own femininity at work is by giving others space to be themselves, and respecting them. By being authentic myself, I create a safe climate for others to be themselves as well. We all like that person on our team who brings up humor to break tension at the perfect moment, or tells us that they are happy we are their coworker, this increases psychological safety and belonging in our workplaces. By being myself, I hope to contribute toward the psychological safety of others in my workplace. This, in turn, lets me be myself too!

  • Set and enforce boundaries.

Finally, I embrace my femininity by setting boundaries. I do not have tolerance of any harassing behavior, which includes comments about my appearance. “I like your dress” is totally ok with the right tone and intention, but when they say things like “You look good today,” or “Why do you always dress up?” or make me feel like I should dress differently, I trust my intuition, and if they make me uncomfortable, I take action. If someone oversteps my boundary I will either talk to them or report them for harassment. No matter how I dress, I deserve to feel safe and comfortable at work, and I have the right to feel safe and comfortable at work. I do not treat others that way, and do not tolerate that kind of treatment from others.

I recognize that I have a lot of privilege as a white, cis female though, and that not everyone at all points of their career can reinforce their boundaries without serious retaliation. For instance, up until recently, it was legal to fire someone because their hair was deemed “unprofessional”, and the people who were targeted the most for this are black women. “Professional” is often used to reinforce white supremacy and patriarchal dominance. For instance, the descriptions of “business casual” wardrobes are modeled after the attire men would wear to a frat party; khaki pants and a collared shirt or suit. The narrow definition of “professional” attire excludes non-white and non-male people and, thus, perpetuates racism and sexism.

But wait! There’s so much more!

There is such a deep-rooted history of devaluing the body in education and the workplace. Teaching to Transgress, a book about education as a form of liberation written by bell hooks, discusses this in depth. bell hooks writes that in a classroom minds are valued over bodies, spirit, and soul. She sites a simple example about being uncertain if she was allowed to take a bathroom break during class as a professor.

In society, our schools and workplaces often try to ignore the fact that we have bodies that have needs. Ergonomics, paternity and maternity leave, and sick leave are a few examples of times when our bodies are given “accommodations”, yet there is so many more ways our bodies need respect and love.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the extra care I need during my period every month. I’ve found ways to work while on my period, like using a combination of pain-killers and electric heating pad I keep at my work desk for cramps. I also try to not schedule too many tasks on those first couple days of my cycle. While I try to be as gentle to myself as possible, I would rather power through the pain than take one of my precious sick days every month. You may recognize other ways schools and workplaces fall short of providing space for care of our bodies, especially if you are not cis-male, and/or white.

Embracing my femininity is so important for me because it is part of who I am, and when I don’t act authentically it requires emotional labor. Emotional labor can be tolling, leading to extra stress and exhaustion. It can also lead to serious mental and physical health issues like depression, PTSD, nausea, fatigue, and more.

When we are focusing our energy on consciously acting inauthentically, we are also taking energy and focus away from our work, decreasing our productivity.

It’s best not just for you, but also for your company or organization, for you to act authentically.

When you respect yourself, others will respect you. You teach others how to treat you, and when you show up as yourself you give others permission to show up as themself too. What makes you unique is your biggest strength!

There will always be people who will not respect you no matter what, and it’s important to recognize that you do not have control over how they treat you; no matter what you wear or how you act, they will not respect you. It’s best to set boundaries and distance yourself from these unloving people, and recognize that the reason they treat you this way is not because of you, it is because of their own issues.

Now, I want to end with some advice and resources if you find yourself in a situation where you are being bullied or harassed at work or school. First you should check out this article where I detail some steps to take if you are being harassed. It’s important to know your legal rights so that you know the types of harassment and bullying you are protected from.

Also, I just stared a new podcast called Resilient in STEM that offers more discussions on topics related to thriving in your career! If you liked this article on embracing femininity, I recommend you check out a previous blog post and podcast episode I created on how self-love is revolutionary where I share different ways you can integrate self-love into your lifestyle.

If you would like to join a supportive community to help you on your career journey, you are invited to join Resilient in STEM!

Best wishes to you on your career journey!

-Jill


How Practicing Self-Love is Revolutionary

Listen to this blog article on the Resilient in STEM podcast!

Self-love is revolutionary.

If you’re someone who is oppressed by society, your practice of self-love is revolutionary. Social oppression refers to oppression that is achieved through social means and that is social in scope—it affects whole categories of people. This kind of oppression includes the systematic mistreatment, exploitation, and abuse of a group (or groups) of people by another group (or groups). That being said, with self-love being the opposite of mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation, by performing self-love you are countering the effects of your oppression. When you are oppressed, society does not want you to be fully human and thrive; you are simply a commodity to be exploited for their gain. Reclaiming self-love is an act of revolution as it challenges status-quo; it challenges the current definition of “normal” accepted by society.

That being said, when you are oppressed, the way society says you should self-care is another violation of your own autonomy. The same society that mistreats you cannot also offer you relief from your suffering. It is not easy to recognize gaslighting in messages you get in the media, unlearn what society has taught you about self-love, and relearn what is actually good for you, but it is possible. This is why self reflection as a means to grow your self-awareness and emotional intelligence are so important. With emotional intelligence and self awareness you can better recognize gaslighting, and learn what feels good to you, and grow your self-love practice.

Growing self awareness and emotional intelligence is so important in not only developing your self-love practice, but also in navigating difficult situations involving bias, harassment, and discrimination at work or school. I actually have a whole chapter dedicated to this in the STEM Thrive Guides courses. In the courses I provide methods for growing your self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and teach processes for using self awareness to resolve uncomfortable situations at work.

I’m really excited to share with you about my annual self-love tradition I started practicing back in 2018. At that point in time I was healing from PTSD from a toxic workplace as well as a personal event, and had the realization that I needed to reconstruct my life so that it positively served my happiness, health, and overall wellbeing. I was learning a lot about psychology, and experimenting with different methods to heal from trauma.

Today I want to share how I use the month of May as a moment to reaffirm, adjust, and expand on my self-love practice. Doing this every year has seriously changed my life for the better and healed me in many ways. It has also strengthened my relationships, and deepened my connection with the world around me. I used to put up with disrespect and abuse because I didn’t want to be problematic in my workplace or not be liked, and this caused so many issues for me throughout my education and career. I was miserable and feeling hopeless, but when I centered my own wellbeing everything changed and now I’m more confident, happy, healthy, and more myself than ever! And I want to share one of my most important practices that has transformed my life right now! Now you can probably see why I’m so excited to share this! This is literally life changing!!

First, I want to define self-love for you since I feel like this REALLY matters, especially if you’re someone who is oppressed in society.

Self-love means loving yourself and caring for yourself. I like the definition of love written by Erich Fromm and repeated by bell hooks in her book “All About Love”, which is an amazing read by the way. It is:

Love is the willingness to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

– Erich Fromm

I like this definition of love because it is so expansive and allows room for each person to have their own unique needs for love, as in needs for spiritual growth.

When it comes to spiritual growth, it is very personal. Often when I have been told how to care for and love myself, I get a step-by-step list or a set of instructions. The problem with this is that while those things may have helped someone else, they may not necessarily help me. I have my own past, ailments, struggles, and lifestyle that certain methods of self-care may not be suitable for relieving. For instance, someone who needs to stress-relieve after a busy day of running errands may need a bubble bath with some scented candles to unwind. However, when I was suffering from the affects of abuse in my workplace, a bubble bath would not be conducive to helping me; I needed a different set of self-love actions to take care of myself. In the age of capitalism, you’ll hear a lot of different tips and tricks for self-care, but it’s important to be skeptical as most of this is just marketing; it’s intended to sell you something, not necessarily help YOU.

That being said, while I’m sharing a self-love tradition I do annually, this may not be suitable for you and your self-love practice. I’m simply providing this as an example that may perhaps open your mind to exploring what works for you to deepen your love of yourself and grow.

First, I’ll give some background of my self-love practice, then I’ll share the self-reflection questions I use to assess my current state and where I’d like to grow, and I’ll finish with my favorite practices for May, my month of self-love!

Background

This time of year, May or late Spring/early Summer, is a very special time of year for me. It is my favorite part of the year for many reasons! First, my birthday is in May, and I have many amazing memories of celebrating with friends and family. Also, it’s the time of the year where I live where the weather gets warm, flowers are blooming, and I can resume all the outdoor activities. I can also wear summer dresses without needing a sweater, and walk around with bare feet if I choose to do so!

I feel naturally excited, adventurous, and my heart feels full of love at this time of year, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

In many traditions and religions around the world, the beginning of May and end of April is celebrated as a time of the year where the world is coming to life! Historically, people use this time of the year to welcome the summer by having bonfires, May Day festivals with flower crowns and dancing, picnics in parks, maypoles, decorating with greenery and flowers, choosing a Lei Queen, and more! The name of the celebrations varies (May Day, Irminden, Calendimaggio, Walpurgisnacht, Lei Day, Vappu, Valborg, and Youth Day), but the sentiment and traditions remain similar. Even Mother’s Day and celebrations of Mary in Christianity are celebrated in May (following the symbolism that the Earth is coming back to life after the Winter, at least in the Northern Hemisphere).

I’m not a religious person, but I do like to use the different energies I feel throughout the year to amplify my health and wellbeing. May is a time when I take advantage of that energy I feel of love, new life, and creativity to nurture myself. For me, May is the time of year I reflect on and reaffirm my commitment to love myself.

To me, all that I do stems from self love. If I am trying to help others or contribute to society in a positive way, I need to center my wellbeing and, therefore, love myself too. Years ago, I fell into the trap that I think many women are socially conditioned to do, which is to put others ahead of their own wellbeing. I sacrificed my own wellbeing to help others, and as a result, lost track of who I was and suffered from different ailments including depression and anxiety. When I am in that state of emotional exhaustion from spending all of my energy caring for others, not only do I suffer but the help I give falls short of truly being great help. I end up helping nobody, and feeling depleted, exhausted, and hopeless.

By centering my own self-love, I fill my own cup until it overflows and, by extension, helps others. Even as I write my blog posts or record my podcasts, I am mindful of the energy I am giving versus receiving from these activities.

Now, I do want to be clear on one thing before I go through the self-reflections I use and my self-love practices for May. Just because I use May to refocus on self-love does not mean I abandon any effort for the rest of the year. I simply use this time to really focus and reset my habits so that they are positively serving me. I technically do this throughout the year, but May is an especially powerful time to reaffirm my vows of self-love. Self love is not simply a to-do list; it is a mentality and a practice that I embed in my lifestyle so that no matter what I am doing I am loving and caring for myself.

Self Reflection

The first thing I plan to do this May is a deep self-reflection. I journal about the following:

  1. What are your ailments and where are they coming from?
  2. Take note of harmful habits
    1. Create a plan to maintain awareness of bad habits
  3. Reflect on your relationships
    1. Which have progressed in healthy ways?
    2. Which are more negative and draining, and how can you set boundaries with those people?
  4. Recognize what you love about yourself and how much you have grown.
  5. What is fun for you and brings you joy?
    1. Integrate those into your lifestyle so that they are part of your daily habits!

Practices

  1. Journal about reasons you love yourself
  2. Remind yourself that you are worthy of love, respect, and happiness
  3. Nature Walks – smell flowers, sage, plants. Observe seasonal changes and new life.
  4. Wear clothes that feel good to you, and make you feel beautiful. (I like wearing more feminine outfits and dresses, as well as rose quartz jewelry to amplify my self love practice.
  5. Grow awareness of cycles in nature: moon phases, your menstrual cycle, etc.

Now that I’ve shared all these amazing revelations and practices around self-love, my hope is that this inspired you or reaffirmed to you the importance of self-love. This practice of annually celebrating May and this time of year in this way has made me more grateful for my life and relationships, and aware of all the beauty of this world, even the beauty in suffering. I’d love to hear if you have your own self-love practice, and maybe we can exchange wisdom! If you’d like to start your own self-love annual tradition, I have a treat for you! I made a self-love month-long challenge that you can complete at the time of year that resonates with you! Simply follow the link here.

And on that note, I want to share a few opportunities with you!

I started an online community called Resilient in STEM on Facebook to provide support and resources for people navigating difficult situations in their career. No community out there is like this one, which focuses on learning from and resolving issues related to taboo topics like bias, harassment, microaggressions, and discrimination. We would love to have you be a part of that community!

If you ever find yourself struggling, feel free to reach out for help. You are not alone, and you deserve to feel safe and comfortable in your workplace or school environment!