|Women as Yielders and Yielding as Power
© 1984 Michele Toomey, PhD
If we are ever to stop the destructively painful pattern of learned victimization and violation that has become a woman's legacy and a woman's lesson, we must acknowledge the significance of viewing yielding as power and the power of women as yielders. To do this we must challenge the accepted definition of power that prevails even today.
We live in a world that defines power as domination and control and then says freedom is the absence of domination and control. Given this world view, yielding is seen as a sign of weakness that brings with it automatic loss of power and defeat. For us women, who are by nature yielders, that means seeing ourselves and being seen by others, as the weaker sex destined to be dominated and never to be free.
If we are to be psychologically free, we must reject the underlying assumptions and erroneous conclusions of this oppressive world view and embrace a liberating one instead. To be able to do this there must first be an alternative approach available to embrace. It is for psychologists to grapple with the error and oppression of power defined as dominance and offer an alternative, since liberation is a personal issue that becomes a political one. As a feminist psychologist I have grappled with the error and oppression of the prevailing definitions and propose the following liberating world view to take its place. It begins and ends with the definition of power and freedom.
In the psychological world, strength is not the issue, dominance is not the goal, and freedom is not the absence of restraint. What's more, yielding is not passivity and contradiction is not wrong.
The world of the self is a world of paradox, a world of contradiction. The self can think and be deliberative and reflective even as it can feel and be spontaneous and reactive. Imagination can capture the essence of reality or it can carry the self into the land of fantasy. The body can be present even as the mind is not. Destiny is self-determined yet it is pre-determined and other-determined as well. The world of the self exists in the mind yet is experienced in the body. Nowhere is paradox more present than in the self. Therefore, if we are to look at the self in relation to its own power and freedom, we must look at the paradoxical nature of the relationship. For the paradoxical self with its paradoxical capacities, the capacity to think and the capacity to feel, power must also be paradoxical, and it is.
The self has the power to yield and the power to penetrate, it is able to move in and out, back and forth and round about, thus allowing it to be intimate with its paradoxical self, which in effect, allows it to be psychologically free. In the world of self, power, therefore, must be re-defined as energy, not control, and the exercising of power as movement, not dominance. The law of this inner world is the law of the cosmos, not the law of the jungle. Survival of the fittest as survival of the strongest, does not apply. Force, domination and control give way to insight, clarity and fair play. The psychological realm is governed by integrity not intrigue. Paradoxical need, capacities and power are meant to function as equally valued and mutually respected potential that together provide the self with the ability to reconcile the complex world of paradox and be intimate with it. As for the paradox of power, it is directional, between yielding and penetrating, not hierarchical, between powerful and powerless. It is not the opposing of passive and active, strong and weak, superior and inferior. It is the reconciling of the vulnerability of yielding with the power of it, as well as the reconciling of when to yield and when to penetrate.
The potential to yield and be physically impregnated and then yield and give physical birth, gives a woman a natural physical sequence of yielding to her power before exercising it. There is no weakness or loss of power in this process. It is power. There is vulnerability in yielding, but the presence of vulnerability does not exclude the presence of power. Rather, yielding is an active movement that allows a receiving and a bringing forth. As yielders, women are intuitively aware of their own capacity to yield. What they aren't aware of, is that yielding is not defeat or loss of power.
Once power is understood as energy and movement, and the self is recognized as paradoxical, freedom becomes known as intimacy with the choices of paradoxical power, which includes intimacy with vulnerable power. And women as yielders are the personification of vulnerability and power.
In a world that views yielding as loss of power, however, we women find ourselves at a loss. Rather than value our access to power through yielding, and the special gift it brings, we are confused by it and most often fearful of it. On the one hand, we intuitively know the power of yielding, yet on the other we doubt or fear it. At times we even use it as a manipulative tool to get what we think we want. Women have been burned at the stake for fear they possess supernatural power, locked in asylums for fear of their hysterical power, and kept out of educational institutions for fear they lack intellectual power. If yielding were recognized as power, who knows what retaliation that would bring! Male superiority and female inferiority could no longer be justified and each gender would have to be accountable for its own vulnerability and power.
In the oppressive world of genderized power, male penetration and dominance is supreme. Female yielding is thought to imply subordination and passivity. In the liberated world view of reconciled paradoxical power, neither direction is better and none is preferred. Rather, yielding is also valued for the gift it is.
What is that gift? It is the gift of vulnerable power. To better understand the beauty of this gift, let us look at nature. Any matter that has both the flexibility to yield and be pliable and yet can be strong enough to retain its own identity is very valuable for that trait. Without yielding there is a limit to the capacity to receive and to endure. Glass containers break if the liquid inside expands through freezing and thawing beyond the area of expansion available inside the container and beyond the capacity of the glass to expand. Yet, yielding must have its natural limits respected if it is to be both vulnerable and powerful. Rubber bands break if they are stretched beyond their capacity to yield. Springs snap if they are wound too tightly. Tires need the right amount of air to give them the firmness and flexibility to yield and yet hold their resistance to wear and punctures. Then there is the soil. It needs moisture to keep it from cracking or from drying up and blowing away. If it is going to yield vegetation it must be able to receive, to contribute through rich minerals and vitamins and then bring forth something that is from it but not it.
To be a yielder is truly a beautiful gift, not a terrible curse. We women have an intuitive understanding of paradox because we epitomize it. We are both vulnerable and powerful. To know the beauty of this gift, however, we must not erroneously define yielding as subordination and think of ourselves as a passive vessel that is valued only because it adds beauty to what it holds for another. Not only can we receive as yielder, but we can add to what we receive and bring forth something of us but not us. In addition, the psychological journey is meant to be a bringing forth of ourselves, consequently, the primary yielding must first be to ourselves. This is especially critical for women. Since we are yielders, we can get caught trying to bring forth others before we have a self of our own. Many women become depressed after child birth because on some intuitive level they know they gave birth to another before they gave birth to themselves, and that such a sequence is a violation of themselves. In turn, it becomes a violation of the child being born to a mother who is still a child. We must become our own mother and legitimize our child before we ever attempt to legitimize another.
When power is defined as dominance and control, the capacity to yield and give birth is seen as the power to control at and after birth, and is feared power or fearful power. If an infant is born prematurely or dead, is retarded or deformed, a mother and a society that thinks she has the power to prevent it, feel she is somehow to blame. A child that is ill or dies, is disturbed or delinquent, should somehow have been better cared for, better protected, or better taught by its mother. Just as a woman's power to yield is distorted and denied, her power to bring forth is exaggerated and exploited. A woman's intimacy with paradoxical power gets translated into the paradoxical belief that on the one hand she is powerless and can do nothing, and on the other hand she is all powerful and to blame for every human tragedy.
The most common response to this irreconcilable position regarding a woman's gift as yielder is a conflicted one in which a woman's power is both dismissed and feared and a woman is both disdained and adored. The most common resolution to this conflict is to make a woman's gift her burden. If she has the power to give birth then she is obliged to do so, and if she is the primary nurturer, then she must nurture primarily. Motherhood becomes her obligation and mothering her only legitimate occupation. The obligation to mother extends beyond her own children to everyone. Daughters, granddaughters, sisters and wives are all to assume the burden of mothering. If anyone dies uncared for, unloved, or unhappy, the woman expected to mother them is blamed. The cycle is insidiously unending. The gift becomes a curse.
Women caught in this cycle participate either actively or passively in its distortion and violation. By denying her power and fearing her potential, a woman participates in the distortion and violation by allowing it. She becomes a passive recipient who allows herself, and if she has them, her children, to be violated physically or psychologically, without exercising her power to protect against it. By exaggerating her power and exploiting it, a woman participates by actively violating. As an active violator she assumes the posture that if she is responsible for the outcome she will take charge of the life. If she has the responsibility than she will exert the control. To avoid being blamed she will prevent any risk. Children, parents, siblings and husbands are to do a they are told by women who, having become their mothers, take responsibility for their lives. Once she accepts these erroneous definitions and assumptions about power, a woman is not only violated, but violating.
As the central figure in the reconciliation of the paradox of yielding as power, she is always the central figure in the power controversy, if not in the reconciliation then in the violation of it. Violation of or by a woman has the added significance of violating paradoxical power. Since women personify vulnerable power, violating them is the perfect expression of violent anger at the paradox of vulnerability and power. The physical or psychological rape of a woman is the ultimate expression of rage at paradoxical power, the ultimate abuse of penetrating power, and the ultimate violation of a women's gift of yielding as power. In turn, when women violate, they have the added impact of violating as vulnerable power. A woman's violation creates the ultimate pain, the pain of vulnerability becoming an enemy, and intimacy becoming something to fear.
What must women learn if we are to respond with integrity to our capacity to yield without being violated by it or violating with it? We must claim our position of intimacy with paradox and our gift of intuitively knowing power. By claiming who we are, we are able to begin any exchange with a clean, clear sense of ourselves and our boundaries. If we begin by clarifying our essence so that our essence and boundaries are clear, the energy and messages flowing in and out, back and forth, and round about us have a natural sense of sequence and of self. This allows us ever to be in touch with our intuitive capacity, which in turn assures us of the ability to differentiate between what is ours and what, in us, is another's.
Without this intimacy with herself and with her gifts, a woman loses her trust in her intuitive capacity and becomes alienated from herself, from her power, and from paradox. Such a loss and its resulting alienation leaves a woman disoriented and fearful, fearful of herself and of yielding. Instead of yielding to her vulnerable power, she engages in a battle against herself. If she lives guided by this erroneous approach, a woman spends her life in an endless struggle over yielding, either resisting it or abandoning herself to it. Either way she is at odds with herself and in violation of her potential. Yielding becomes the central issue in her life, but as a source of conflict and violation not of gift and liberation.
The source of the violation comes primarily from perceiving yielding as the absence of power, since it has, by definition, no limit if it is the absence of power. It is assumed, therefore, that women, as yielders, have no natural limit either. If allowed to yield to herself, it is presumed, a woman would be insatiable in her needs and desires, and uncontrollable in her indulgence of them, therefore, a self-indulgent woman is deemed a dangerous woman. Consequently, it is assumed that limits must be imposed on women, if not willingly by themselves then forcibly by others, to protect them from themselves and others from them. Women have had their feet bound and their vaginas sewn closed, and they have been confined to the home and committed to asylums, as a protection of them and from them. To protect themselves from this "protection", women have to prove they are not dangerous, not self-indulgent. The one recognized way for women to prove that they do not need "protection" is to turn their attention to others. While unlimited self-indulgence is feared and considered bad, unlimited indulgence of another is desired and seen as good. A woman devoted to others is admired as a valiant woman, a virtuous woman, and she is proclaimed a "good " woman. As long as her potential to yield brings forth others, her power is seen as good and she is revered. If it is directed toward bringing forth herself, her power is seen as bad and she is feared.
Society's assumption that women must not yield to themselves if they are to be safe, and its demand that women yield to others if they are to be seen as good, effectively inhibit women's psychological liberation.
To be true to herself, a woman must go against society's dictates for safety and goodness, certainly an extremely difficult position to assume and an impossible position to justify, yet an absolutely essential position for her to take. Goodness does not bring safety, in any event, but goodness that is dependent on alienation and violation must, of necessity, cause harm. Not only can safety not be seen as dependent on goodness, but goodness cannot be seen as dependent on alienation and violation. Psychological liberation can never be achieved by a woman if she is preoccupied by a need to be good in order to be safe, or if her safety is thought to depend on being protected from herself. Neither can psychological liberation be achieved if it requires a woman to jeopardize her safety and distrust her goodness. Society's emphasis and definitions must be changed or not believed if a woman is to come into her own. For a woman to believe that she must be good before she is safe, and that she must first protect before she can be intimate, is a violation of the natural order. Goodness in the true sense of the word, is an outgrowth of integrity, and integrity in the psychological world allows the natural sequence of the need for intimacy to precede the need for protection, and enables dependence on self to precede dependence on others. The reconciliation of the paradoxical needs of intimacy and protection is found in vulnerable power not protected vulnerability, and vulnerable power is possible only when the self is present with integrity and able to be intimately involved, with itself first and then with another.
Given society's position on yielding as the absence of power and its subsequent emphasis on safety as it relates to "goodness", a climate of fear and violation surrounds a woman and her intimate relationship with the paradox of yielding as power. Given this climate, women have responded to themselves and their power with fear and violation or trust in violation.
Their response takes many forms, but in general focusses either on goodness, providing safety or on safety as the only good. When their focus is primarily on goodness, women either aspire to pure goodness, abandon themselves to another's goodness, or reject goodness. When their focus is safety, they either rigidly impose limits to assure protection or rebel against any limits to prevent violation. In any case, fear dominates their response and violation prevails.
If they aspire to pure goodness, women fear that claiming themselves will mean denying others, and that that will mean mistreating or hurting them, so they participate in violation by denying themselves and indulging others. They place no limit on what they will do for others and make no place for yielding to, or asking for, what they want or need for themselves. They believe safety and intimacy depend on goodness, and that goodness depends on selfless nurturing of others. Through their failure to claim and nurture what is their own, however, they are replaced by others rather that intimate with them. A "good" woman loses her ability to be present in the presence of others. Rather than intuitively knowing the paradox of yielding, she is caught in it. Letting others' needs and desires replace her own eventually leads to losing herself and to becoming the other, until unwittingly she actually replaces them. By living life as and through another, a good woman first violates herself, but then the other.
Some women abandon themselves to another's goodness, hoping to be safe and saved if they conform to externally imposed limits and yield to another's power. They constantly look outside themselves for certainty and safety, and become anxious and afraid if their goodness, yielding to another's demands, does not obtain the approval and protection they seek. For the abandoning woman, approval is seen as proof of her goodness, and goodness (it is thought) will bring her the protection she desires. She is unable to be intimate with herself because she sees herself as nothing except what another decides, and she is unable to be intimate with others because she becomes what they define. For her, nurturing means manipulating to get approval and protection, and being nurtured means getting approved and protected. In abandoning herself to others, she loses herself and her integrity. Once she loses herself she loses her ability to reconcile paradoxical power and to be intimate with paradox. Once she loses her integrity, she depends on deception and manipulation to gain the needed protection of another's power. The violation is complete. Her fate is a matter of manipulation and whim, and intimacy can never occur. When women respond to yielding by fearing its power and try to pursue goodness without exercising power, they are violated and violating. Abandoning themselves to another's power is no exception.
Seeing the continued failure of "goodness" to protect, some women reject it, and look to gain protection through their own direct use of aggressive power, instead. They seek to protect themselves by imitating the male relationship to power, using their power solely to penetrate or defend limits. They fear yielding and hope to be safe by aggressively resisting it. They try to prevent vulnerability and protect against risk by refusing to yield. Yielding to intimacy is viewed as a risk they dare not take, for fear that in yielding to it they will lose the edge of their power and therefore be unsafe. For them, losing the sharp edge of power feels like loss of protection from their yielding nature and from someone else's unyielding or penetrating one. To gain and maintain protection they always try to move outward, aggressively penetrating outer limits, trying to prevent yielding to any inward motion from others or to any inner desires of their own. Intimacy for them brings feared intrusion, and yielding is considered the wrong direction. For the penetratingly aggressive woman, not only has the sequence of vulnerable power been reversed, but protection has become penetration, vulnerability is not allowed, and intimacy is not possible. Aggressively penetrating women feel safe only when they attack or defend, and even as they long for intimacy they protect against it. They violate and are violated by their own use of penetrating power.
Some women protect themselves by imposing limits. Rigidity is a frequent outgrowth of self-imposed limiting by a woman who believes she is dangerous to herself and others because of her unlimited nature. Such women become rigid about the structure of their life, rigid about the rules that govern their life, and rigid in their response to life, hoping that this rigidity will guarantee protection against their yielding, translated indulgent, nature. A woman who responds with rigidity to fear of yielding believes that her basic nature is self-indulgent and her desires insatiable. Rigidity, an artificially imposed limiting of what is seen as a limitless nature, is deemed a necessary safeguard against erosion and ultimate destruction by these insatiable desires. A rigid woman fears that if she yields even the slightest to herself she will be devoured, either by sloth and its unlimited lack of desire, or by lust and its unlimited pursuit of desire. Fear of innate laziness prompts her to push ever away from and outside her inner limits, and fear of passion prompts her to wall herself safely inside to prevent discovering she has no outer limits. There can be no fluidity or flow, only rigidity, in this violated space with its fear of laziness prompting an unrelenting push outward and its fear of passion building an unyielding barrier to prevent passage. To protect herself from laziness she compulsively busies herself, hoping that constant activity will propel her out of immobility. If she yields to laziness she fears she'll never move, but if she yields to passion she fears she will never stop. She fears that passion with its potential for pleasure through loss of control, will force her to burst through her outer barrier and be forever out of control. To prevent this, a rigid woman tends to become a frigid woman.
Some women become frantic over the prospect of any limits. On some level they know there is violation in artificially imposing limits, and believing they have no natural limits, they try to prevent violation by rejecting and rebelling against all limits. Unfortunately, they then are violated by their own rebellion. It violates their intimacy with their natural order and boundaries. Their intuitive understanding of yielding and of the reconciliation process is replaced by a chaotic inner free-for-all that creates a generalized state of hysteria with periodic outbursts. Yielding becomes translated into the potential for giving any need or desire free rein. Paradoxical forces, therefore, bounce off each other, battle each other and eventually explode each other. The integrity of vulnerable power is lost and hysterical power dominates. Instead of a spiraling flow, there is a spiraling escalation of intensity, hostility, and anxiety.
Without the comfort and protection of intuitively knowing and respecting her paradoxical forces and boundaries, the rebellious woman rarely stays within any boundaries and is constantly violating not only herself but others as well. Unable to trust herself to know whether she chooses to move on to something else or whether the move is being forced on her, she is always unsure and often antagonistic and blaming about any movement she makes. Her frantic intensity is tortuous and she feels unprotected.
When a woman responds to fear of yielding with aggression, rigidity or hysteria, she is attempting to take charge of her own life and exercise her own power. Unfortunately, she is, in fact, violating with her power.
We see that aspiring to pure goodness by claiming no limits, abandoning herself to another's limits, penetrating all limits, rigid adherence to imposed limits, or rebellion against any limits, are all fear reactions to yielding as power. We also see that these reactions prevent a woman from trusting and responding to her own intuitive intimacy with paradoxical power and natural limits. How then can a woman learn to use her power and recognize and respond to her limits with integrity? She must accept yielding as the basis for her power, make a core of convictions the source of energy that infuses her power, and allow her intuitive capacity to guide her in determining the direction and limits of her power.
A core of convictions is essential. It must be founded on an understanding of the integrity of yielding as power, and must contain her deepest felt thoughts or informed feelings. Her potential and her gifts, her rights and her needs, her beliefs and her desires, are all parts of herself that comprise her core. Using the integrity of this core of convictions as the source of her energy, and yielding to her intuitive sense of her priorities and limits, a woman is able to know and to claim who she is, and in the claiming, become it. When she reaches her limits, her natural boundaries, she will know it and will reach a limit of her tolerance.
Intolerance indicates she is at or beyond a natural limit, and that it is time to stop yielding, to prevent violation. If she is responding with integrity to herself, a woman will respect her limits and not violate her boundaries by proceeding beyond her toleration point unless she feels the need to make an exception. Other than for exceptional circumstances, she must allow herself to be intolerant at some point, and not go beyond her point of tolerance or live constantly on the edge of it.
To have such intimacy with her natural limits and to realize when she has reached a point of intolerance, a woman must be emanating from her essence and that essence must contain the core of her convictions. Without convictions as the reference point, the limit to yielding is arrived at arbitrarily or it is imposed artificially. With convictions the limits are intuitively know, and when integrity is the primary conviction, the limits are carefully respected. Together, claiming her limits and living by her convictions allow a woman to define and be who she is and what she stands for. However, the image of "good" woman does not include intolerance, so once again she is confronted with the necessity of going against goodness to be true to herself.
The image of goodness as it applies to unlimited nurturing effectively inhibits a woman's willingness to claim her limits and become intolerant. It puts her in the painful position of feeling she is depriving others unfairly if she puts her own needs out there beside theirs. However, although nurturing another has its place, it should not have every place. Caring must have its limit. Kindness must have its limit. Politeness must have its limit, and most assuredly, tolerance must have its limit.
A woman must allow herself to have limits so that she can reach a point of intolerance and prevent violation. She must not allow herself to live her life stressed and stretched beyond her limits or squeezed and restricted into confining limits, replaced by or in place of others.
To be psychologically free, a woman must have integrity and know how to make the connection between yielding to her vulnerability and gaining access to her power. To do this, anger, fear and the need for intimacy must have their rightful place and their rightful relationship with each other. Anger cannot be overused, never used or used as the only voice of power. Fear cannot be the link between anger and intimacy, and intimacy cannot be feared. Neither anger nor fear can be the primary life force in the quest for psychological liberation; the need for integrity and intimacy must be, and it must be free of feared fear and anger. In the natural sequence of the self's system, the need for protection must follow the need for intimacy as vulnerable power, not precede, as protected vulnerability.
Each of us, like every woman, looked to our mothers for an understanding of yielding as power, and each of us, like most women, found mothers who had been taught erroneously and then been violated by the errors. Each of us has responded differently to our mother's erroneous and violating approach to yielding, becoming more or less entangled in the violation and the error. As a result, we have had to struggle with the fear and pain that accompanies the loss of intimacy with our gift.
As long as women are taught, and on some level believe, that their yielding nature is evil and weak, and their power is to be feared, they are going to fear themselves and get caught in the violation. When they look to their mothers and find their relationship to yielding and power filled with fear, error, deception and manipulation, they are being taught and being treated with fear, error, deception and manipulation.
The lessons of fear of yielding that are passed on by fearful mothers impact on all their children, but the impact on daughters is unique. Daughters are by nature yielders, and if their mothers fear their nature, fear yielding, then mothers not only fear themselves and for themselves, they fear and fear for their daughters. Mothers and daughters are then left looking outside themselves for legitimization, protection and affirmation, and are further violated and alienated in the search. Since yielding is a woman's power, it is a woman's place to teach others, and especially her daughters, what that means. For this natural process to occur, mothers must know how to be true to their nature, dare to yield to their power, and trust, not fear their gifts. We must be able to look to our mothers, and from them learn to look to ourselves. Until then, we must learn for ourselves.