The Career Ceiling That Every Female Professional Needs To Know About – And It’s Not What You Think

My clients sometimes ask me whether I see a career ceiling in the legal industry or other professions that keeps women from being promoted and reaching their true potential.

My response: Absolutely. But there’s one that you might not know about.

There are definitely very real barriers to women aspiring to rise to the top echelons of their fields. Discrimination and bias unfortunately still exist across many industries.  Family demands still fall disproportionally on women’s shoulders.  Sexual harassment and unequal pay still exist. These barriers are real and any actionable cases of workplace gender discrimination or harassment should definitely be addressed in full force to the available legal and organizational support mechanisms.  That’s the ceiling that we all know about and we should do everything in our power to obliterate it.

But there’s another ceiling that also needs to be understood.

The ceiling that I’m talking about here is a very real but invisible barrier that keeps female professionals from reaching the highest heights.  It keeps us stuck, confused, and playing small.  

The ceiling that I’m talking about exists in our own minds.  It is the one that keeps you from believing that you are capable of achieving whatever you want to achieve.  I call it the Belief Ceiling.  If you don’t know about it, it can be hard to realize that it’s holding you back.

Once you discover that ceiling, you can smash it to pieces and continue your upward journey.

Understanding The Source Of The Belief Ceiling

The Belief Ceiling is a collection of beliefs, both conscious and unconscious. A belief is really just a thought that you continue to think until your brain believes that it’s the Truth. Sometimes beliefs come directly from what our parents or others told us when we were children. Sometimes they are conclusions that we reach from past experiences. Sometimes they seem like universal truths that we all accept.

When Roger Bannister broke the record of the four-minute mile (previously thought to be impossible) he shattered a collective Belief Ceiling. Shortly thereafter, other athletes started doing it too. Once they believed that it was possible, they expanded their abilities.

Whether you’re bumping up against a collective Belief Ceiling or one that is uniquely yours, the result is the same. When we tell ourselves that what we want isn’t available to us, our brains stop trying to find a way forward.

If you have thoughts that are limiting you, such as “I don’t know if I can do this” or “I don’t know how” or “I could never”, I can assure you that you’re not alone.  I coach high-achieving women who have already attained success in their careers and they still grapple with thoughts like this each time they set a new, more challenging goal.

Humans have unlimited potential.  I often marvel at the power of human ingenuity, especially when we have a compelling reason to break through our collective Belief Ceilings. And yet for most of us, our self-perception is so much smaller than our actual abilities.  It limits us in ways that are difficult to see when we’re in the thick of it, trying to navigate our next move.  

Part of doing the work we came here to do is learning how to recognize and break through the Belief Ceiling. 

Here is what you need to know.  

Don’t Confuse The Belief Ceiling With External Circumstances 

One of the trickiest aspects of the Belief Ceiling is that your brain will tell you that something outside of you is keeping you stuck.  For example, you might have thoughts like “women just can’t get ahead in this industry” or “I can’t win at work AND be present with my family”.  And when you think thoughts like that, your brain will find plenty of supporting evidence to prove those thoughts true.  

But even if there are real obstacles, telling yourself that they are impeding your progress is not a good use of your time, energy, and skills.  Here’s why.  

First, as you may have noticed, you can’t control external circumstances (including what other people say or do) and it’s mentally exhausting to try to change something that is not in your control or argue with what is.

More importantly, when you think that you’re being limited by an external circumstance (be it your boss, your employer, your colleagues, or systemic bias) you likely feel discouraged or maybe even defeated.  And when you feel discouraged and defeated, what do you?  How do you show up at your job?  Confident, strong, and resilient?  Probably not. 

When you’re feeling discouraged or defeated, you probably shrink back or second-guess yourself. Perhaps ask yourself “what’s the point?” and stop trying.  That’s because discouragement drives inaction almost 100% of the time.  That is a problem because inaction doesn’t get you closer to your dreams.  

But there’s another option. You can notice that there may be external obstacles without also believing that they have the power to keep you stuck.  You can choose to think that your success is inevitable even when those external obstacles exist.  How would you feel if you thought that?  Determined? Committed?  

How would you show up differently if you felt that way?  I’m guessing that if you believed your success were inevitable and you felt committed to making that a reality, you would take action and get unstuck.  Maybe you would get another job or maybe you would start your own business or maybe you would create the change you want to see exactly where you’re at.  And if you committed to taking that kind of action, your success would be inevitable.  

Your Belief Ceiling Is Hiding Options 

My clients often come to me because they’re confused or lacking clarity about what to do next.  But most of the time, after we explore possibilities, I find that they know exactly what they would like to do. They just don’t think they can actually do it because of the way they are currently thinking about themselves and their life circumstances.  They have thoughts like “I’m not sure if I can do it” or “I might fail”. 

I call these “dead-end thoughts” because nothing good can come from them.  If you observe what happens in your own mind when you decide to think these types of thoughts, you can see that they lead you nowhere.  They don’t help you actually get closer to what you want to do.  They don’t help you figure it out.  They create confusion and doubt, which inevitably drive inaction and keep us stuck. 

But when you believe that you are capable of achieving any goal, you see clearly the options before you and it’s easier to figure out the one that you really want.  

Notice What Is 100% Factual—And What Isn’t

One of the main problems with limiting thoughts and beliefs is that they feel so true to our brains.  They feel like facts, not thoughts.  That’s why it’s often difficult to separate out the facts from the thoughts in our own brains.  

Facts are facts but thoughts are completely optional.  If you see that a thought you’re having is keeping you stuck, you can decide to change it to a thought that feels more motivating.  

For example, the thought “I don’t know what to do” feels really true when we’re struggling with a decision. Telling yourself “I don’t know” causes your creative mind to check out completely.  It believes that thought and so it has no reason to go looking for solutions. And when you don’t find solutions, your mind uses that as evidence to reinforce the original belief.  

But it’s not actually a fact that you don’t know what to do.  The moment you absolutely have to make a decision, you pick an option and go with it and the world continues.  “I don’t know” is an optional thought that keeps us stuck.  

Conversely, it’s just as easy to think a more productive thought, such as “I am determined to figure this out.”  This thought assumes that there is a solution and it brings your creative mind back online and ready to go to work to find a way forward.  

This is not about positive affirmations that you don’t believe.  It’s about shifting your thought patterns to focus on what is actionable to you.  You do this by practicing thoughts that create the feelings that will drive you to take action and create the results you want. 

Since thoughts are optional, there is no good reason to continue having thoughts that are keeping you stuck. 

Applying This To Your Life

Our brains have the remarkable ability to form new neural connections throughout our lives, which are strengthened with use. This means that you can form new thoughts and new beliefs at any point in your life. In other words, you can shatter your current Belief Ceiling if you commit to discovering it and breaking through it.

Here are four steps to help you do that. 

Step 1: Awareness. Become aware of the ways in which your current beliefs are holding you back.  You can get a good look at them by answering these questions in writing:  

  • If I knew I could not fail, what would I do?  
  • What is keeping me from getting what I really want?  
  • Why am I feeling stuck?

Write down ALL of the things.  Then take a step back to analyze what you’ve written.  Circle the statements that are 100% factual.  As in, everyone on the planet would agree with you.  (For example, not everyone on the planet would agree that “there are no good work/life balance jobs out there.”)  The statements that are not 100% factual are the thoughts and beliefs creating your belief ceiling.  

Step 2: Observe the results. Notice what results those thoughts and beliefs are creating for you right now.  

  • How do those thoughts cause you to feel?  
  • What do those feelings drive you to do or not do?  
  • What are your results when you show up that way?  
  • Do those thoughts take you in the direction of what you want?  Or do they keep you stuck?  

Step 3: Notice how they are optional. Notice how these thoughts–like all thoughts– are 100% optional and decide whether you want to continue to have them.

  • Who would you be without the limiting thoughts? What would your options be?
  • How can you reframe your current thoughts in a way that will help you feel more motivated to take action and move toward your desired results? 
  • What is another thought that is just as true but more motivating?  

Step 4: Choose a new belief. Create a new overarching belief that you can use to break through the beliefs in your Belief Ceiling.

What is one overarching belief that will crack your Belief Ceiling? What can you believe today that will help you begin to take action toward the results you want? “I can figure this out” is a good one. If you have trouble believing that you personally can figure it out, you might try a more de-personalized thought, like “there is a solution to this” or Marie Forleo’s famous phrase “everything is figureoutable”. If you believe there is a solution, your brain will go to work to find one.

Knowing that all thoughts and beliefs are optional and that you can direct your brain to create new beliefs just by being intentional about what you tell yourself, what are you going to choose to think about yourself and your abilities?  

The limit is whatever you decide it is.  

When You Feel Like You Can’t Win As A Mom AND In Your Career At The Same Time – Part 1

After my first son was born, I initially went back to my job on a part-time basis.  This worked very well at first, until my biggest case got busy and I started working much longer hours.  I remember feeling like I couldn’t be a good mom to my son and do as well at work as I would like.

And I know that I wasn’t alone.  Nearly every working mom that I know has felt the same way at some point.  

Understand Your Mama Brain

Adult human brains are exceptionally good at finding problems.  Problems at work, in the world, and in our own lives.  But when you become a mom, your brain gets structurally rewired and becomes even better at spotting potential threats.

These changes are great at helping us form strong attachments to our children and keeping them alive in potentially dangerous situations.  But it can make parenting in our modern world while maintaining a career even more challenging.

Couple that with societal pressure to achieve perfection, as well as the tremendous demands of raising young children and having a busy career, and you have all of the ingredients for a perfect storm.

To make matters worse, nobody teaches us how to manage our anxiety-prone mama brains, so we find ourselves living on an emotional roller coaster much of the time.  Mind management is required if you want to be productive, feel happy, and thrive as a working mom. Here’s the first step to doing that.

Look At What You’re Telling Yourself

The feelings of guilt and inadequacy that I experienced as a new mom didn’t just happen to me, and they don’t just happen to you either.  They are created by the thoughts that we tell ourselves every day.  We often repeat some thoughts so much that we’ve accepted them as true, as beliefs.  Often our subconscious thoughts and beliefs are dictating how we feel and what we do in ways that we don’t realize.  

For example, if your mother stayed home with you when you were a child, you may have the subconscious belief that “mothers should stay home with their children.”  If you are working despite having this belief, you might find yourself feeling guilt-ridden every time you leave for work.  It’s not because you work that you feel guilty, it’s because you’re thinking that you should be home with your children.  Another mother without that thought can go to work and not experience a scintilla of guilt.  

Likewise, if you’re telling yourself “I can’t do everything I need to do for work because I have to take care of my kids,” that thought is also likely to create the feeling of anxiety, guilt, or inadequacy at work. 

But these feelings of guilt and inadequacy do not invite us to become our best selves.  To the contrary, they usually drive us to overcompensate, burn the candle at both ends, lose sleep, and waste a lot of time spinning in negative self-talk, rather than taking productive action. 

When you do that, you’re not showing up as the best version of yourself at work or with your kids, and you become mentally and physically exhausted, on the verge of burning out. It’s really hard to do your best work when you’re operating at this level and you’re likely to be unhappy with your results, both as a professional and as a mom.

The truth is that the negative thoughts that cause us to feel this way are 100% optional. And since they cause us to create negative results in our lives, there is really no good reason to continue to think them.

You Get To Decide How You Want To Feel

The fact is that you have 24 hours in the day and you’re a professional and a mother.  

How do you want to feel about that fact?  Maybe you just want to feel adequate at both your job and being a mom.  

Here are some thoughts that can help create the feeling of adequacy:  

  • I can’t do everything (because I’m human) but I can do what is most important at home and at work. 
  • I’m figuring out how to balance motherhood and my career, and that’s okay.  
  • Working for income is an important part of taking care of my family.  
  • There are times when I cannot work because I choose to tend to my family, and that’s okay. 
  • There are times when I cannot be at home because I choose to tend to my work, and that’s okay. 

Thoughts like these are likely to be very different from what you’re currently telling yourself. You have to believe them in order to feel better, so if you don’t believe any of these, write down thoughts that you can believe that are more neutral than what you’re currently telling yourself.

Begin to practice these new thoughts daily by consciously directing your mind to them. Your old thoughts will be competing with these new thoughts and they’ll be easier to believe at first because you’ve been practicing them for so long. But how you feel is the direct result of how much airtime you decide to give the old thoughts versus the new ones. And feeling better is the first step toward creating better results.

Now that I’ve learned to apply mind management to my own life, my dominant thought about being a mom with a career is this:  I am a better mom because I have a career that I love. My career energizes me. It gives me time and space to make a contribution. After a good day’s work, I relish the time I spend with my children. This thought serves me so much better than the thoughts I had as a new mom. It makes me feel calm, peaceful, and motivated. And it’s available 24/7 to anyone who wants to borrow it.

How do you want to feel about being a mom with a career?

Go forth, grow, and bloom.

XO,

Charise

P.S. Because this is such a big issue for so many moms and there is so much to cover, this post is divided into two parts. See Part 2 for more tools to help you manage your mama brain.

How to Have Better Work Relationships  

One of the top complaints that I hear from clients who are frustrated in their current jobs is that they have strained or difficult relationships with colleagues, partners, and bosses at work.

People report that this has a significant negative impact on how they feel about their jobs.  And, as I’ve discussed previously, how we feel determines how we show up and do our job.  It’s worth spending some time examining what we can do to make our work relationships better.  Here’s how.

First Thing’s First

First the bad news:  you cannot control what other people think, feel, say, or do.

There is one caveat in the workplace that I should mention:  supervisors. If you are a supervisor, you can (and should) set clear expectations, give feedback and make requests.  And you can fire someone who does not meet your expectations.

But regardless of your position at work, you still can’t control what goes on in other people’s brains.  Sure, you can certainly try to influence what people think about you (for example, by producing your best work product and being polite and friendly).  And you can make requests of them.  But ultimately they get decide what they’re going to think, feel, say, and do.

That includes thinking whatever they want about you.  You could be the sweetest, juiciest peach in the pail, but if someone doesn’t like peaches, they aren’t going to like you.

This is actually very liberating.  We waste tons of time and mental energy trying to control what other people think about us, but of course it doesn’t really work.  Just think about if you could let other people think what they want about you—and even be wrong about you—while you go about the business of showing up as the person you really want to be and producing your best work.

It frees up mental space for you to think about the only thing that you can really control, which is YOU.  The more you can let people be exactly as they are, the more you can focus on feeling good and being productive.

Relationships Are Thoughts

Your relationships with other people—including work relationships—are really just comprised of your thoughts about those people.  They, of course, have their own thoughts about you, but that part is really none of your business and is definitely outside of your control.

Here is the really good news about understanding that relationships are thoughts:  You get to choose your thoughts about work colleagues, which will determine how you feel about them, which will determine how you show up in your interactions with them.

For example, say you have a colleague who routinely takes credit for your work and delegates the admin tasks to you, while keeping the high-profile projects for himself.  Your default thought about him might be “He’s such a jerk.”  That thought is likely to create the feeling of anger.  When you’re angry, you probably spin in your thoughts about him and what he said or did, even when you’re at home with your kids making dinner.  And your result is that you keep repeating his jerky behavior in your head to yourself and you let that thought take much more space in your life than it needs to.

There is also no real benefit to having that thought.  Seething with anger is not going to lead to problem-solving.  And the more you keep repeating negative thoughts about co-workers, the more your brain will look for evidence that those thoughts are true.

Now imagine having a different thought in response to the exact same circumstance.  A better-feeling thought.

Maybe you could decide to think, “He’s a human.  He’s doing what humans sometimes do.  He gets to be a human.”  That thought creates a much more neutral feeling.  Maybe one of understanding or even compassion.  When you’re feeling neutral, you can then focus on how you want to respond.  Do you want to talk to your colleague about it directly?  Do you want to set the record straight with your supervisor?  From that place, you’re able to access your creativity and problem-solving abilities and you’re able to consciously choose how you want to show up in response.  These more neutral thoughts will also allow your brain to look for evidence that your co-worker isn’t such a terrible person.  He’s just a flawed human (like the rest of us) trying to find his way.

Set Boundaries When Needed

Just because we get to let people be who they are doesn’t mean that we don’t also take care of ourselves.  Setting boundaries is a healthy way to communicate if someone has crossed a line with you that is unacceptable.

You usually don’t need to communicate a boundary until there has been a boundary violation.  And you always get to decide what constitutes a boundary violation for you.

For example, you may consider it to be a boundary violation if a colleague yells or tells inappropriate jokes in your presence at work.  If that occurs, you set the boundary by making a request and then stating the consequence (what you will do) if they don’t comply with your request.  You may say “I’d like you to stop yelling. If you continue to yell, I am going to leave the room.”  Alternatively, you can just follow through the consequence right then and there, without further explanation.

There is no need to get upset when establishing a boundary.  You can choose to communicate the boundary calmly and clearly.  Then, if the other person does not comply with your request, you can calmly follow through with what you said you would do.

It’s good to consider what your boundaries are ahead of time, so that if there is ever a boundary violation, you’ll know it immediately and can set the boundary clearly.  Setting boundaries is easier after the first boundary violation, rather than waiting until there is a pattern.

Put It All Together

It’s so much easier to “let” people be who they are, because they’re going to do that anyway.  That said, it’s also empowering to clearly define your own limits ahead of time.   The combination of letting people be who they are, managing your own thoughts about others, and setting healthy boundaries will allow you to continue to focus on your goals of growing, learning, and thriving at work.  Which is what you came here to do in the first place.

Go forth, grow, and bloom.

XO

Charise