Twenty years ago, after giving a keynote speech about self-care to several thousand women in Houston, Texas, I stood in line signing books and talking with guests. After more than an hour, I greeted the last woman in line with a warm smile. I knew from experience that those in the most pain would often wait until the end.
Well-dressed, hair neatly in place, and boasting a sweet smile, I learned that she was a married mother of three in her fifties who was clearly in distress. Shy and vulnerable, she explained that her kids had left home and she was now living alone with her husband of more than thirty years. “He’s very controlling,” she admitted quietly. “My husband is a respected man in the community, a well-known member of our church, and he’s ruining my life.”
I widened my stance, planted my feet firmly on the floor, and invited this woman to share her story.
A white knight on a dark horse, early on in their marriage he promised love, prosperity, and protection. Over time his expectations shifted, influenced by their social circles, their church, and his male friends who were learning to rule their own castles. His promise morphed into:
I am the king.
You are my subjects.
If you play by my rules all will be well.
As I listened to her share examples of what it meant to be ruled, I knew she needed ongoing support to make the courageous choices that would put her needs and her life first.
Here’s what I suggest, I explained as firmly as I could without frightening her: Go to your doctor, one or two of your strongest friends, or a local women’s crisis center, and ask for referrals to a therapist who has helped women in your situation. Interview several if you need to to get the support you deserve. And don’t feel like you have to tell anyone. This is a private choice that will help you grow strong enough to act on your own behalf.
She admitted she was nervous, but determined, and when we parted company that day I said a silent prayer that she find her way.
Over the years, I’ve had thousands – literally thousands – of private conversations with women in distress and my intention has always been the same: To help women claim agency over their lives.
Until we believe our needs deserve to be heard and met, until we gain the necessary skills and confidence to speak up on our own behalf, until we make the shift from knowing we have a right to say no to actually doing it, we will continue to be ruled by others.
And I don’t know about you, but I am not a subject. I’m a Queen.
So, can’t tell a nasty friend to stop trash-talking you? Feeling guilty about telling your grown kid that you won’t financially support them anymore? Doing your best to keep the peace with a spouse who treats you like crap? Still taking care of everything and everyone and feeling resentful and used?
Well, welcome to where all global change begins: In your own backyard.
Your commitment to your own personal growth will give you the solid recognition that you deserve to have agency over your life. And it will also give you the strength to move mountains. Start where you are. Speak up. Admit the truth. Get the help you need to make the changes you know you need to make.
And help your sisters, daughters, and granddaughters do the same.
To this day I think about that woman I met in Houston so long ago. I often wonder what happened to her. And to the thousands of other women I’ve spoken to as well. I pray they listened and did something to regain their power, to claim agency over their lives.
Because ladies, we need you now more than ever.