Gender inequalities in the workplace are perpetuated from childhood

Women’s careers aren’t just in the ether, they’re on the front pages of newspapers, inside glossy magazines, on the radio, across the internet and they’re being discussed on a daily basis in governments all around the world. It’s amazing that there’s so much buzz around women and careers; people are really talking about women’s rights at work, and attitudes are changing.

Things are getting really exciting for women at work. Sure, if you look at gender-split job statistics, the situation is pretty much as depressing as it’s ever been. But – BIG BUT – the John stat doesn’t account for what’s swirling around the media, and is inside the meeting rooms and minds of career folk (women and men) across the globe. Women have been legally entitled to the same respect, pay and job titles as our male friends and peers for many years and slowly but surely the reality is catching up with the legal framework. We want equality, but we want something more than that too: we want to stay uniquely and wonderfully female. The same pay, yes, opportunities, of course, but we don’t want to have to abandon our femininity at the office revolving door. For us, gender parity does not imply gender uniformity.

While everyone deserves to be received and treated equally at work, women must do it their own way, because being a woman is part of what makes you, you. The side-by-side vision of a naked female and a naked male validates the simple fact of life: we are different versions of the same species. There’s the obvious stuff and then there are the mysterious workings inside our heads. Our brain is arguably the most important thing about us. It makes us human and is the instigator of everything that we think and do. It’s our life control centre, and science tells us that for men and women there are brain wiring variations.

In the past, we’ve been wedded to the notion that men have better connectivity within each hemisphere, whilst women have better connectivity between the hemispheres. In an everyday sense, this explained why men excelled at spatial awareness and women at social cognition and multitasking. Neuroscience is notoriously complex but the latest large-scale research shows that gender brain differences may not be as clear-cut as we were led to believe. While some recent studies suggest no significant difference in crucial parts of the brain at all, the most recent research leads to the centre of the brain – the hippocampus, the part associated with emotion and memory. This is usually larger in men than women, but, without wanting to get too technical, some women have a larger, more male-style hippocampus and some men have one that is smaller and more female in style. This suggests the idea of a continuum of femaleness to maleness for the entire brain. Scientists found that the majority of the brains studied were a mosaic of male and female structures, meaning there is no one type of male or female brain.

I like this because it validates our own stance of overlap. The most successful person in the workplace, research says, is the woman who retains her female brain but who isn’t afraid to borrow some stereotypically male traits when the opportunity requires it. Success isn’t about pitting yourself against a man, it’s about learning to be your best – it’s about finding your place on the continuum and making it rock. Interestingly, brains aren’t fixed organs, they are constantly evolving and changing as we age, depending on how we use them. Neuroplasticity, as it is called, in part explains why little girls end up studying languages and the arts and little boys get filtered into STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects that frequently lead to more lucrative careers. Repetition reinforces the networks within our brains: baby girls and baby boys might start off with exactly the same brain software, but over time, as we unwittingly encourage boys towards Lego and trucks and girls into social situations that require capable communication skills, the map of association in our childhood brains is sculpted so that the function of the hardware is constantly altered by experience. We lead our girls to dolls and our boys to the top of trees, and then we wonder why society ends up treating women and men differently.

Hormones also play a part in this lifelong divide, as does parental nurture. More interestingly, though, this has a much more subtle impact – it defines what we believe about ourselves. We self-stereotype against ourselves as women, and then we live up to these restrictions.

There is a recent study using Asian-American women that perfectly illustrates the point. The group was divided and set a maths test. Just before the test commenced, half of the group were reminded that they were Asian, invoking the stereotype of Asians having a high maths ability. This half did better in the test. However, when they were reminded of being female (which invokes the stereotype of poor maths performance), they scored lower on the test than the control group. The point is that while men do tend to outperform women in assessments of mathematic ability, for example using the test results of American SATs exams, in reality women aren’t actually worse at maths (see here), we’re just stereotyped into thinking that way.

In the workplace, this presents as women not reaching for leadership positions, or being too conservative in their entrepreneurial expectations for the simple reason that we believe that we don’t belong at the top. We aren’t all professors in waiting, but we should all be able to imagine ourselves where we really want to be at work. Not where society or our stereotyped brains expect us to land. Your career brain, the one you rely on to muster confidence, the one that assists you in awkward networking situations, pay negotiations and everything else in between, may not currently be on your side and thats in part due to stereotyping and nurture. When you know the reasoning behind where your brain is at, it allows you to make positive changes to redirect those channels – to change the hardware, so that your brain (your unconscious thinking) is aligned to your reach-for-the-stars career dreams.

Glass ceiling? Or glass half empty

Have you achieved all of your ambitions? When you look at the senior management in your company, are there as many women at the top as there are men? And the very top job, is it usually held by a woman? It would be no surprise if you answered no to at least one of these questions. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if the answer to all of these questions was no.

A major report into the proportion of women on boards was published in late 2015. The Davies Report examined the approach to increase representation of women on boards in the UK and around the world. The UK is doing better than it used to. Appointments of women at board level to FTSE 100 companies have reached a new high at over a quarter: now 26 per cent are women. Look down a level, and the FTSE 250 has a proportion of just under 20 per cent.

The report’s author, Lord Davies, a former banker in his sixties, is delighted at this progress. New targets are being set for a third of directors to be women by 2020. The last time we looked women made up more than 50 per cent of the population. The proportion of women on boards is evidently rising. Yet most of the women on boards in the statistics are in non-executive, part-time positions. There are only 26 executive women directors on FTSE 100 boards – that’s just 9.6 per cent. This does not indicate a pipeline for executive women on boards. Nor does it show that there is a level playing field for women to get promoted, and to achieve the careers that they deserve.

Women in work in the UK – and there are 14.5 million of them – are still not getting the same opportunities to reach the top as men. Outside the UK, the Davies Report shows a similar picture. Norway, where a quota system has been adopted, has the most women on boards, at 35 per cent. Denmark and Germany have just over one-fifth. Then numbers dwindle. The USA has 16.9 per cent, Australia 16.2 per cent, Ireland 12.7 per cent and India 12.1 per cent. Again, let us remind ourselves, these are in countries where women have always made up at least half of the population.

Not everyone in work wants to be managing director or CEO. And not every woman wants to be managing director, CEO or in any senior role. But if they do want to, then they should have the same chance to do so as men. With such large proportions of women in the workforce overall, so many millions, it is really difficult to believe that so many of them lack the ambition or ability to reach senior levels of management.

Women are not a minority in any respect, apart from in the boardroom. What is really going on, and, more to the point, what can we do about it? There is a secret that no one wants to admit. Thousands of words have been written, numerous courses have been run. In workplaces across the world the recurring questions of ‘Why did that happen?’, ‘Is it just me?’ and ‘Does that seem fair?’ play in the minds of women of all ages and roles. The fact is that there isn’t any fairness in the way that the workplace functions for women, and women need tips, tactics and strategies that will help you get the career they deserve. Not necessarily to get to the top of organisations – because lots of women don’t see that as the path they want to follow. It is about getting you a career that you enjoy, with the seniority you deserve, and in which your contribution is recognised. We also know that there are men in the workplace who want the tools to make this contribution possible. They see the talent pool around them, and they see the individuals that can help the organisation thrive. Their difficulty is in being able to understand what is going on and how they can contribute to making it better, and in ensuring that they are part of making long-lasting changes that create permanent shifts in the workplace.

The workplace isn’t the only part of society where women have failed to play a full part. In the UK, women have been able to stand for Parliament since 1918. It was only in 1997 that the number of female MPs reached double figures. To date there have only ever, in total, been 450 women MPs, a figure below the number of men elected in 2015 alone (459). Worldwide, there are only forty-four countries where the representation of women stands at 30 per cent or more.

In Germany, a country led by one of the world’s most powerful women, the percentage of female representation is 31 per cent. So it isn’t just your problem. In the 1980s, there was a good deal of talk about the glass ceiling and the fact that it was now shattered. There was a woman prime minister in the UK. Equality for women in the workforce was a legal fact, ever since the gender equality act in 1970. There were a few women bosses around, and there were sure to be more of them as they came through the system. Although most bosses were middle-aged men in suits, it was clear that the future for women bosses was bright. A new dawn was on the way, a future where you would expect half of the management of every company to be women, and that every other CEO would occasionally wear a skirt to work.

But has the equality perceived in the 1980s materialised and evolved since then? You be the judge. My opinion is that we still are a long way from that.

Forget the obsession with our bodies

We are OBSESSED with our bodies.

Or rather, we are obsessed with everything that’s wrong with our bodies. We are obsessed with shrinking our bodies, toning our bodies, sculpting our bodies, getting lean and perking up, burning fat and slimming down, flattering our figures and flattening our stomachs, accentuating curves and disguising flaws, battling the bulge, beating the scale, dropping dress sizes, becoming the best version of ourselves that we can be! And for what? What are we in pursuit of when we do those things?

It must be something good, because those things are not fun. Ask anyone on day five of the cabbage soup diet how much fun they’re having, and let me know if you get out alive. Of course, we’re not supposed to admit how not-fun it all is, we even go as far as lying to ourselves – I really am enjoying living off cayenne pepper and maple syrup cocktails, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself! The facade begins to crack when we start crying over our friend’s pizza and wondering if tissue paper is edible, and if so, how many calories?

Why do we keep lying to ourselves? Why do we willingly inflict so much discomfort, even pain, on our bodies? What for? We do it to get the perfect body – flawless, unblemished, ideal.

Some of us spend our entire lives chasing the ideal body. The one that will finally make us beautiful; the one that we’re told will finally make us happy. We picture that body while we run desperately on the treadmill and our knees feel like they’re about to buckle. Just one more mile. We imagine that body when we say no, yet again, to our favourite dessert. That’ll go straight to our thighs. We have visions of that body when we step on to our scales and the numbers flash frantically in front of our eyes before they settle on our fate. Please, just two more pounds this week, we’ve worked so hard. And we have worked so hard. We starve, we sweat, we cry standing over those scales and fall to pieces at the sight of our naked reflection. We vow to be better next week. Everywhere we go we carry around our feelings of not being good enough. They weigh on everything we do. I can’t wear that at my size! I’m not hungry, I ate earlier, I swear! They would never be interested, just look at me. I’ll do it once I’ve lost the weight. Our entire lives get tied up in the chains of the ideal body, only to be unlocked once we’ve earned it.

Perfection is the key. And it’s always just slightly out of our reach.

There’s always another pound to be lost, another problem area to fix (they seem to pop up out of nowhere, almost as if someone’s invented them …). But we still believe that we can get there. We still believe after all this time that if we hate ourselves enough we’ll end up loving ourselves. We don’t realise that we’ve been tricked.

How did we get here? How did we reach a place where it’s 100 per cent normal to hate your body? Every female I’ve ever known has disliked some part of her appearance, or all of it. We’ve been convinced that changing the way our bodies look should be our ultimate goal in life, and although women have been the primary target of these messages for the past century, these days no body is safe. Men are increasingly being told that their value lies in their muscles, and that looking like anything less than the cover of a fitness magazine isn’t good enough. Thanks to toxic expectations of masculinity, they’re also being told not to talk about the body-image issues they’re struggling with.

Hating your body is the new normal. Most of us know someone who’s had an eating disorder. Someone who’s had cosmetic surgery. Someone who’s lost and gained the same 20 pounds over and over again. People of all sizes, all ages, all genders, all colours, and all abilities are being affected by body-image issues. We’re too fat, too wrinkled, too masculine, too feminine, too dark, too pale, too queer, too different. We’re always ‘too’ something, compared to the ideal body.

The pressure becomes too much for us to handle. Our societal self-hatred is spreading like wildfire, slowly but surely we’re all being set aflame in the pursuit of perfection.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this. You already know. You see it every day. It’s in the adverts for the new! Easy! Fast! Lose 10 Pounds in 10 Days! Weight-loss plan. It’s in the sky-high posters of model bodies selling everything from perfume to burgers. It’s in the never-ending murmurs of how many pounds have been shed this week that you overhear on the train, at work, among friends. It’s in the TV breaks telling you how breast enhancement could change your life. It’s in the magazine pages you flick through to pass the time, raving about the latest juice cleanse or detox. It’s in the back-handed compliments about looking good ‘for your age’, and the concerned comments from family members about when you’re going to do something about, well, you know … It’s in the supermarket aisles you walk down filled with ‘guilt-free!’ reduced fat, sugar-free, zero carbs, made-of-nothing-but-water-and-air food products. It’s when you try to unwind with your favourite film or TV show and parading before you is a cast filled with nothing but thin, white, beautiful, young, able bodies. You might not even notice it, but you learn from it. You learn in millions of little ways every day that there is an ideal, and that you don’t match up to it. So that when you get home, away from the murmurs, curtains drawn against the pictures, adverts silenced and screens turned off, only you, your body, your mind, and the quiet … You still know, because there it is in your mirror staring back at you. Everything that you’re not. Everything that you need to change. All the ways that your body is wrong.

You know.

If you’re anything like I am then you’ve known for a long time. Ever since you were first old enough to take in the words, the images, and the lessons. The first time I remember thinking that I was too fat is when I was five years old. That’s all the time it took in the world to believe that I was too much. I was too big, too soft, too brown, too ugly, my stomach was too round and my hair wasn’t blond enough. I remember spending hours in fantasies of what I would look like when I grew up, grasping for reassurance that one day I would be beautiful. Beautiful meaning thin. Thin was the only option, of course that’s what I would become, that’s what all the representations of beautiful women around me were: Barbie-doll thin, Disney-princess thin, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe thin. To my five-year-old mind, that’s what women were supposed to look like. The fact that I was still a child didn’t stop me from comparing myself to them.

Recent studies suggest that children as young as three years old have body-image issues and at four years old are aware of how to lose weight. The biggest concern a child that age should have is whether they can do a cartwheel or memorise the alphabet, not whether they’re too fat or how many calories it takes to change your body. The obsession is starting earlier and earlier.

And this is what those thoughts grow into:

97 per cent of women in a survey conducted by Glamour magazine admitted to having at least one ‘I hate my body’ moment a day, with an average of 13 negative body thoughts every day.

In a survey of 5,000 women by REAL magazine, 91 per cent reported being unhappy with their bodies.

The Centre for Appearance Research found after surveying 384 British men, that 35 per cent would trade a year of their life to achieve their ideal body weight or shape.

54 per cent of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat, according to an Esquire magazine survey.

There are thousands of statistics and surveys showing what the real story of our body image is. That we spend every day picking out our flaws and tearing our reflections to pieces. That we put our entire lives on hold because we don’t think we’re worthy of living in the bodies we have. That we would trade in years of life, risk illness, pain, and even death to turn our bodies into something worth loving. And that we’re teaching our children to feel exactly the same way about themselves. Statistics are easy to glaze over, so here’s the simple truth: we are destroying ourselves for an unobtainable and unrealistic body type. The things that we’re willing to do for the ideal body speak for themselves. We go hungry, we deny ourselves essential nutrients and ignore our most basic needs. We push ourselves past our physical limits until the room starts spinning and we can barely move the next day. We spend hours applying lotions and potions with promises of miraculous results on the label. We stuff ourselves into elastic casings to smooth out our silhouettes or train our waists into shapes nature never intended them to be. We drink teas and take pills that make our heartbeats race and make sure we don’t leave the bathroom all night. We attend groups every week where we sit in circles fantasising about goal weights and pretending we don’t hear it when someone’s stomach rumbles. We live off nothing but juice, convinced that our bodies are full of evil toxins that must be cleansed. We pay people thousands of pounds to cut into our healthy flesh, lift it, pin it, tuck it, suck it, staple it, reshape it and stitch us back together again.

And it isn’t a select few people who are going to any lengths necessary to get the body of their dreams, we’re all doing it. The stay-at-home mum who lives down the street, the girl you went to school with, your old English teacher, the star athlete, the savvy businesswoman, the A-list celebrity, the millionaire entrepreneur. The pressure of perfection leaves none of us behind. And besides the physical lengths we go to, the things we willingly inflict upon our bodies, there’s an even darker side to our obsession with perfection, and that’s what it does to our minds. The real cost of a diet isn’t those irritating hunger pangs you have to ignore, it’s the constant preoccupation with food, the never-ending counting and weighing and bargaining that takes up so much mental real estate.

The hatred we have for our bodies doesn’t stop at our thighs. It takes over our entire sense of self. It affects our relationships, how we treat others and how we think we deserve to be treated. It seeps into our professional lives, determines what we have the energy to accomplish and the will to aim for. It saps our ambition beyond dropping dress sizes. You can’t dream of becoming an artist, an explorer, or a leader when your dreams are occupied by visions of thin. It makes us believe that we don’t even deserve to exist in the world, to be seen and heard and valued in the bodies we have. It takes away all of our power. If we don’t measure up to societal standards of beauty, we see ourselves as failures, burdens, and disgraces.

We don’t just hate our outer shells, we hate our whole selves. And it’s exhausting. I know I’m not the only one who feels completely worn out by it all. Those extra pounds we’ve learned to see as hideous flaws turn into the weight of the world on our shoulders. Do you feel it? That heaviness? That pressure? That’s the weight of all the ways you’ve been told that you’re not good enough. In our current cultural game of How To Be Beautiful, none of us are good enough. We keep playing by the rules because we’ve been promised that it’ll all be worth it in the end. Even if we stumble, fall off the diet, or regain the weight, we get up and try again because we can still see it. The image of the body that will finally make us happy.

Want to be in on a secret that nobody ever told me in all of my years chasing the ideal body: happiness is not a size. It isn’t a number on a piece of fabric, it can’t be found in a calorie count, and it sure as hell isn’t hiding in your bathroom scales. I know that’s hard to believe – after all, everything around us says otherwise. We’ve been told for so long that if we just work hard enough the ideal body will be within our reach. Once we’re there it’ll all be worth it, we’ll be beautiful, desired, successful, and, finally, good enough. Except by now you might be starting to realise that you’ve been playing by those rules for a long time, for as long as you can remember, in fact. You’ve tried everything you possibly could, you’ve sacrificed so much time, energy and life to get the ideal body and still you look in the mirror and see something so flawed. So imperfect. So human. How can that be possible?

Take that weight off your shoulders. If you’re reading this then that probably means you’re tired of chasing the impossible. You’re tired of waging war against your body and never ever feeling like you’re good enough. The problem is that you just can’t see another way. How do you let go of the rules and realise that you’re good enough already? How do you make peace with your body?

First of all, we have to unlearn all of the lies we’ve been taught about the way we look. Then, slowly, we can learn the truth instead. If it doesn’t happen straight away or if it feels like it’s too difficult, I want you to remember that you are fighting against a lifetime of negative conditioning about your body. It’s not easy to undo all of that and embrace a new way of thinking. So be patient with yourself, be kind to yourself, and most of all, keep reminding yourself that you deserve better. We all deserve better than spending our lives hating our bodies.

Lesson number one: the image of the ideal body you’ve been holding on to for all these years, is a lie. The images that fill our minds when we think about what’s beautiful aren’t creations of our imagination, they’re from the hundreds of media bodies we’re exposed to every day. With every magazine page, every film, every advert, every TV show, every music video, every time we turn on our screens or walk down a billboard-lined street we see it. We see her. The fashion model, the Hollywood star, the girl with the golden hair and honey smooth skin. Sometimes the hair is sleek and dark, the eye colour might vary and very occasionally the skin colour does too, but two things remain the same: she is beautiful, and she is thin.

If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, we now have the faces that launched a thousand diets, a thousand beauty regimes and a thousand different kinds of self-loathing. From seeing their bodies plastered wherever we go, we learn what our culture’s idea of perfection is, which bodies are celebrated and lusted after, what we should all be striving for. We’re never allowed to forget.

If aliens ever did descend upon Earth, and confined themselves to a small room with only a television and a stack of magazines in order to learn about humankind before integrating themselves into the community, what would they think? Probably that our women are all five foot ten, weigh about 110 pounds, with gravity-defying globular breasts, faces without a blemish to be seen, are naturally hairless from the nose down and that we pretty much all die out after the age of 35 (except the few that become mothers, cougars, or sad-looking old women). They’d probably also think that a disproportionate number of our men have rock-hard abs and dazzling white smiles, although they’d notice that men are at least allowed to age visibly, and have identities beyond how attractive they are. They’d probably assume that people of colour are a rare spectacle, and disabled people are far too rare to ever be seen in the outside world. And they wouldn’t have any idea that people outside the gender binary exist at all. Imagine their surprise when they leave that room and encounter us, women especially, in all our glory. After the initial shock, they might be quite confused about why our media chooses to constantly represent a body type that 95 per cent of us don’t have, and leaves the rest of us behind. They might even find it funny, seeing it as such an obvious distortion of reality.

The problem is, we don’t recognise the distortion. Instead of seeing a single body type everywhere we turn as inaccurate, misleading or manipulative, we see our own bodies as the problem. Why aren’t our legs that long and toned? Why is our hair so flat and lifeless? Why does our skin have lines on it? We compare ourselves with those images until we’re left feeling worthless. Those images are nothing like us. They’re not supposed to be. They’re supposed to be aspirational, superhuman enough for us to be in awe of, but with a beauty that we can still believe is achievable. That way, we can be sold the thing that promises to make us just as beautiful. We can buy the miracle diet pill that will give us the figure of our dreams. We can spend our money on the shampoo to get thick, flowing locks. We can splurge on that outfit that we’ve seen advertised on the most flattering (read: thin) bodies, because maybe it’ll make us look like that too! Maybe we can be beautiful too!

In all adverts we’re being sold two things – the ideal image, and the product to get us there. Want one? Buy the other. Female beauty ideals are the best marketing scheme in the world. What better way to make money than to make half the world feel ugly and then sell them the solution? Outside of advertising, the media makes sure we all get the message that the ideal body is the only one worthy of being celebrated, admired, or loved. When was the last time you saw a leading female character get a happy ending without first fitting conventional standards of beauty? You only get a happy ending if you’re beautiful, duh. When was the last time you saw a magazine cover with a red circle of shame drawn around a female celebrity’s ‘flawed’ body parts? Inside, the article suggests that she’s lost control of her entire life because her stomach folds when she bends over. She couldn’t possibly be happy! The next issue shows how she’s fighting to get her body, and her life back (cue eye-roll). We quickly learn that the only way to be beautiful or happy is to spend our lives chasing the ideal body. And it will be a chase, since only 5 per cent of us naturally possess the body type that the media loves so much.

Even those of us who appear to be perfect on the outside carry the same nagging insecurities about not measuring up. When we look in the mirror we don’t see ourselves clearly because we’re looking through a lens of every perfect body we’ve ever seen. Against those images, we are always too fat, too ugly, too dark, too imperfect. One study examining the effects of how seeing ideal female bodies on television impacts our own self-image found that 95 per cent of women overestimated their body sizes after seeing images of women with ideal body weights.

Meaning that when we constantly see images of the ideal thin body, we come away thinking that we’re bigger than we are. What we see every day is shaping how we see ourselves. We can’t see the beauty in everything that we are because we’ve been taught to first see everything that we’re not. All the rules of how we should look take the magic away from how we do look. We do this terrible thing where we look in the mirror or at pictures and we expect to see a thin model. Unless you are a thin model, THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN. The second you start looking for you is the second you will start to appreciate what you are. Things get even more complicated when we realise that the perfect body we’re searching for in the mirror, the body we think we should have, the body we’re killing ourselves for, doesn’t even exist. The ideal isn’t a real woman, one with history that comes to life on her skin, one with a moving, changing body. The ideal is a creation of a Photoshop wand. Nobody looks as perfect as the person on the cover.

Not even the person herself.

Using colour to bring out your traits

These days, among other things, there is such a vast selection of clothing options that every one of us has the possibility of finding items that bring out the best in us. Despite this, however, so many of us find ourselves confronting the daily dilemma of “What am I going to wear today?”, and all too often our choices leave us underwhelmed or at least partially so.

We often see young women in the street wearing clothes that are perfectly formed for their physique, each one of them wearing up-to-the-minute fashion, and yet they are anything but alluring or beautiful. The reason for these failures lies essentially in the fact that when we follow the trends, we very often find ourselves forgetting the importance of sticking to our own style, which is fundamental if we want to craft an image that not only keeps us satisfied but also profoundly reflects us, highlighting our physique as well as our character. Only style, in the end, is able to fully bring out our best. As Coco Chanel said, “Fashion changes, but style endures”. And so it’s style, not fashion, that we have to follow.

Finding your own style is, at the end of the day, really quite simple. There’s just one key: truly embracing your own sense of femininity. In truth, there are many ways to be a woman, and each one of these perfectly corresponds to a well-defined style born from the fusion of our aesthetic taste and our own personality. It’s precisely because of this that we can say that it’s enough to simply reach into our own way of being a woman and our character to find the style that brings out the most in us—the one that fits us the best.

But what does that even mean? It means, in other words, that if we consciously gear our aesthetic choices toward styles that reflect who we are, with just a teensy bit of effort we will be able to achieve our most personalized style, which will have a double advantage.

On the one hand, it will help us make the most out of ourselves aesthetically, and on the other hand, it will help us understand ourselves even better, something that can only happen if our style is in sync with our nature. In selecting our look—for example, when we pick out our daily outfit—personality is of far more importance than the use of aesthetic ideals, which may be formally irreproachable but are not personalized in any way. I’m sure you’ve seen a friend for whom look is usually not of huge importance all dressed up for an important occasion and looking no more attractive than usual and even looking clumsy and impeded by clothes in which she clearly feels uncomfortable. This is the most evident proof of how important it is to always follow your own personal style, one that descends from your own inner nature and personality, pairing this rule with some necessary technical suggestions to enhance your physical characteristics.

In and of itself, as you can see, the concept is pretty simple. What’s a bit less simple is translating it into something that can be readily put into use. To better understand what this means, let’s try to shed some light on it with a comparison of the colour of a simple piece of clothing. Take an everlasting colour: blue, for example. Without a doubt, this is a classic colour that goes well with practically anything, one that everyone tends to like.

Each one of us, however, will use the colour blue in a slightly different way. This is because each one of us will chose a different tonality of blue, even if that hue varies only just slightly, and also because despite using the same colour, we will always choose combinations that will make it seem different. A woman with a more exuberant character will tend to prefer, for instance, more brightly lit tonalities, almost electric blue. The traditionalist wills her preference to the classic navy blue. A woman with a more romantic nature will match her blue with pink floral patterns, and so it goes. This selection process usually gets carried out in a completely spontaneous and unconscious way, at least for the simplest of choices, such as colour or pattern.

But if we apply it to our whole personal look in a deliberately conscious way, our decisions will have the effect of clearly highlighting what fits and matches us the best and what brings out the best in us. If we focus on the most significant aspects of our personality and our character and combine them with the choices that bring out the magic of our body type, we will then be able to zero in on the most suitable look for us, avoiding having closets stuffed to the brim with clothes that we will never even think about putting on.

The end result? Allowing us to have a curated choice rather than an unlimited one. A closet overflowing with clothes and accessories, rather than giving us the opportunity to have the most perfect outfit for every occasion, instead drains us of our energy as we waste time choosing and mixing up our ideas; it can leave us feeling indecisive.

In contrast, having but just the right amount of clothing for us allows us to always roll on the safe side of things and feel “right” in every occasion. The idea came to me while I was observing my dearest friends; I realized how for each certain type of character, there was a corresponding well-defined understanding of image and self-care.

As I mentioned at the start, the styles are not picked out like the typically understood aesthetic standards, but instead they should be seen as the many facets of the diverse ways of expressing your own femininity. For this reason in particular, they transcend the trends of the day and the passage of time. This allows us to be, in every moment and in all occasions, authentically fascinating and spontaneously feminine. Because it’s truly our femininity—and let’s not forget it—that at once contains and reveals the charme of every woman.

So in short, don’t dress to suit fashion. Dress the bring out characteristics of yourself you want to emphasise. And the way you dress can help you not only attract a future partner, but also help you advance up the career ladder too.

Handling a Breakup Positively

Brеаkuрѕ are ѕеldоm easy аnd rаrеlу hарру оссаѕіоnѕ. In thе bеgіnnіng, іt mау seem vеrу dіffісult tо get over but you dеfіnіtеlу wіll fіnd thе tіmе аnd thе reason. Tо hеlр you hаndlе a brеаkuр and lessen thе раіn аnd possible negative rереrсuѕѕіоnѕ, hеrе аrе ѕоmе things you can dо:

A gооd wау to hаndlе a brеаkuр іѕ tо keep thіngѕ аmісаblе. Brеаkuрѕ don’t hаvе tо bе mаdе up оf nasty fіghtѕ, hаrѕh words аnd rеvеngе рlоtѕ. If уоu саmе into a rеlаtіоnѕhір іn a good wау, уоu саn try to get out оf іt nісеlу. Dоn’t rub ѕаlt into аn already bаd wound. Wouldn’t іt bе bеttеr to lоѕе a lоvеr and win a frіеnd than losing еvеrуthіng?

Dоn’t play the blаmе game; this is nоt a good wау tо hаndlе a breakup. Blaming each оthеr wіll create nеgаtіvе fееlіngѕ аnd еvеn make уоu rеgrеt a lоt оf thіngѕ thаt you ѕhоuldn’t hаvе said in the fіrѕt рlасе. Tаkе rеѕроnѕіbіlіtу fоr thе раrt уоu played іn thе relationship, bоth for іtѕ ѕuссеѕѕ аnd for іtѕ fаіlurе, but don’t bе too hаrѕh оn yourself оr оn уоur ѕооn-tо-bе еx. Bу kееріng your ѕеlf-еѕtееm іntасt, уоu don’t leave rооm fоr bіttеrnеѕѕ аnd уоu will lеаrn hоw tо handle a break up properly.

Another way to hаndlе a breakup іѕ to аvоіd ѕееіng only thе hole in thе dоughnut. Rеlаtіоnѕhірѕ еnd fоr many reasons аnd whеn yours dоеѕ, don’t just fосuѕ оnlу on the bаd thіngѕ. Remember the things thаt mаdе уоur rеlаtіоnѕhір great аnd bе thаnkful you were оnсе a part оf it. Just dоn’t dwell on іt, thіѕ way уоu саn handle a break uр mоrе easily.

Don’t dо оr ѕау аnуthіng that уоu will rеgrеt lаtеr оn. Whеn emotions аrе hіgh, іt’ѕ a lоt easier tо lеt ѕlір сеrtаіn wоrdѕ or ѕtаtеmеntѕ that mау make уоu fееl bеttеr аbоut the breakup. Unfоrtunаtеlу, this fееlіng doesn’t lаѕt lоng and you mау rеаlіzе lаtеr уоu shouldn’t hаvе even bothered.

Handle a break up wіthоut аnу vіоlеnсе, vеrbаl оr physical. It mау seem the most lоgісаl thing tо do, especially іf уоu’rе angry but іt’ѕ best to аvоіd thеѕе situations. It wіll not оnlу mаkе your раіn wоrѕе, there іѕ аlѕо a possibility уоu mіght fіnd уоurѕеlf аt thе receiving еnd оf сrіmіnаl charges. Thе bеѕt wау to hаndlе a breakup іѕ to mоvе оn. Mоurn your rеlаtіоnѕhір іf you muѕt – thаt’ѕ normal and expected оf you. But dоn’t wallow іn уоur grіеf ѕо muсh thаt уоu fоrgеt уоu ѕtіll hаvе a lіfе tо lіvе аnd thеrе are ѕtіll people whо lоvе you for who уоu аrе. By moving оn, уоu acknowledge thаt the relationship hаѕ ended аnd that уоu аrе giving yourself a сhаnсе to fіnd hарріnеѕѕ аgаіn.

Whіlе уоu are trуіng to hаndlе a breakup, dоn’t аllоw yourself to bе too vulnеrаblе. Aѕ уоu mоvе bасk tо a single life, уоu mіght fееl a little too exposed. Fееlіng vulnerable іѕ nоrmаl – аll of a sudden you аrе back tо bеіng оn уоur оwn, dоіng things аlоnе. Fіnd ѕuрроrt frоm уоur fаmіlу аnd friends. Thеу wіll nоt only help you gеt bасk оn your feet again, thеу wіll аlѕо help уоu rе-еntеr the social ѕсеnе. Dоn’t fоrсе a new rеlаtіоnѕhір juѕt tо fееl lеѕѕ lоnеlу. It’ѕ not оnlу unfаіr tо you, іt’ѕ аlѕо unfаіr to the оthеr реrѕоn. In-bеtwееn relationships mау seem lіkе a terrific ѕtор-gар mеаѕurе and mау рrоvіdе уоu wіth thе kind оf соmраnіоnѕhір you just lоѕt, but thеу wіll nоt rерlасе your оthеr rеlаtіоnѕhір. Each rеlаtіоnѕhір is unіquе so dоn’t try tо fіnd уоur оld flаmе’ѕ qualities іn another реrѕоn. Yоu’rе bоund to bе dіѕарроіntеd аnd you mіght find yourself in a brеаk uр аll оvеr аgаіn.

Your lіfе іѕ tаkіng on a nеw turn. Enjоу it! Thіnk оf thе еnd оf a relationship аѕ a wау tо toss out old thіngѕ аnd аn opportunity to wеlсоmе nеw ones. Depending оn hоw уоu trеаt іt, сhаngе саn bе a gооd thing аnd іt’ѕ rеаllу up to you to tаkе thіѕ nеw dіrесtіоn аnd turn it to your аdvаntаgе. Hаndlе a brеаk up nicely, lеаrn frоm уоur past relationship and take a ѕtер fоrwаrd.


The way уоu hаndlе a breakup іѕ vеrу tеllіng оf where уоu are аt in уоur lіfе. Brеаkuрѕ аrе one оf the hardest things thаt happen іn lіfе. Romantic rеlаtіоnѕhірѕ аrе very hаrd to lеt gо оf. Wе hаvе our emotions аnd our hеаrtѕ involved and hеаrtbrеаkѕ аrе vеrу раіnful. It іѕ good tо know hоw tо handle a breakup іn a роѕіtіvе mаnnеr. Of соurѕе, your bасkgrоund, dеgrее оf ѕеlf-еѕtееm аnd your gеnеrаl state of wеll-bеіng рlау a key role іn this. But thеrе аrе ѕеvеrаl things that уоu can dо tо hеlр уоurѕеlf, and fееl bеttеr:

Don’t blame уоurѕеlf or аnуоnе: Blаmе оnlу makes thіngѕ more раіnful and does nоt solve аnу ѕіtuаtіоnѕ. You can accept rеѕроnѕіbіlіtу fоr уоur part аnd fоrgіvе yourself. Mаkе uр your mind thаt уоu will nоt dwеll оn things thаt аrе dоnе.

Bе раtіеnt: Pаtіеnсе іѕ a great аllу at this роіnt, еѕресіаllу if уоu wаnt to regain уоur rеlаtіоnѕhір. Dоn’t trу tо push уоurѕеlf on thе оthеr реrѕоn; thіѕ nеvеr wоrkѕ. Give thе оthеr реrѕоn space.

Go оut аnd do thіngѕ: If уоu hаvе nоwhеrе tо go, go wіndоw shopping, but don’t ѕtау іn уоur hоuѕе juѕt thіnkіng about іt.

Bе роѕіtіvе: Bеlіеvе that the best will соmе оf thіѕ breakup аnd thаt thе brеаkuр itself is a роѕіtіvе thіng, whеthеr уоu get bасk together оr nоt. Rеаdіng uрlіftіng books and stories is great for уоur inner wеllbеіng.

Be strong: If уоu асt in wауѕ thаt аrе healthy аnd good, you wіll become ѕtrоngеr аnd уоu wіll lіkе yourself bеttеr. This wіll hеlр you gеt thrоugh thе tоugh moments, and you will build character.

Dealing with a breakup

Have you ever held a sprout in your hand? Besides a butterfly’s wings, it must be one of the easiest things to break with just two fingers. Yet, these sprouts push their way with all their might through ground that you would struggle to even dent with a sledge hammer.

When you deal with the anguish of a sudden breakup, remember the humble sprout and its inner strength.

To many, a breakup can seem sudden. For example, you had plans to see a movie and then have dinner with your partner on Friday night, but you received a phone call from your partner on the Wednesday evening saying, “Sorry, but I just don’t want to see you anymore”. You try to call your partner back to find out why after all this time this decision was made so suddenly, but he never answers. You drive to his home, thinking that perhaps if you confronted him face to face you’d be able to sort things through. But he’s not there. Before you know it, a week of phone calls and visits to your partner’s house has gone by, and you still haven’t managed to connect. You finally realize – perhaps you will never connect… again.

For others a breakup may be gradual. For example, one evening you decide to tell your partner about something you did when you were younger. For some reason your partner finds this terrible and seems to reject you for the rest of the evening. ‘This is strange,’ you wonder, ‘he’s loved me for five years already, surely my past cannot take away what we’ve created in those five years’. Yet over the next couple of days you find yourself getting one word answers from your partner. Eventually, you have a major disagreement and your partner says, “That’s it. I’m outta here.” And with that he is gone. Once again, your partner refuses to answer your calls or see you. Any attempts you make to put things right are rejected.

Then there’s the more common scenario, where your partner simply doesn’t find you attractive anymore and has found someone else. You discover this after he has been seeing the other ‘friend’ for a couple of weeks already. ‘He must be working overtime,’ you wondered when he never came home from work on time.

Regardless of how your relationship has ended, it hurts. You may feel there were no warning signs, but there always are. All you need to do is take a step back and think about your partner’s warmth toward you weeks before he ended the relationship. Can you remember? Think hard now. Ahhh! It’s coming to you. That night he chose to eat all the ice-cream without offering you any, or was it that morning he chose to go to work without giving you a kiss on the lips?

There are always signs, but they are seldom too obvious. Being wrapped up in a dream that you alone created can easily keep you from seeing the alternative reality, and this is probably what happened to you.

It’s easy to look at the dark side of things after a breakup. Depression, though something that you never thought you would suffer from, is just waiting for you in the corner. If you think that it’s weird for you to feel like that, don’t. It’s a perfectly natural reaction after a breakup. After all, you and your significant other have cut ties. You will no longer be seeing each other after doing so regularly for the past few months or even years. You will have to deal with telling friends that you’re no longer together. You may even have to deal with the painful process of moving out or seeing them move out of your apartment. To put it simply, it’s a very painful process and depression is the natural way for a human being to cope with it. However, even if a breakup can turn your whole world upside down, it’s an experience that you can learn a lot from. In fact, it’s something that can teach you to be a stronger and wiser person.

When you think about why breakups hurt so much, it’s sort of weird. This is especially strange since most, if not all, breakups happen after the relationship has already turned sour. This means that the relationship was already on the rocks, and that both parties may have already considered the possibility of a breakup.

So, why exactly does it still hurt even if both parties already know what’s coming? For starters, breakups are sort of like businesses that go bankrupt after struggling for many months or years. Sure, the owners already knew what was already coming, but the whole bankruptcy thing still hurts – a lot.

To put it simply, it represents a huge loss, not just of a relationship, but also of dreams, commitments, promises, and so on and so forth. With that loss comes the disruption of everything that was part of that romantic relationship. I’m talking about your daily routine: You waking up next to him. You waking up to his texts or calls. You going out with your friends with him. You going out with him. As well as many more things that both of you shared and did. After a breakup, you’ll end up wondering what life will be like without your partner. You’ll ask yourself whether or not you will be able to find someone else, and even if you’ll end up alone.

The breakup and end of a relationship may feel a bit like losing a limb – the neural connections are there, but the motor nerves have gone. Or it is like playing a musical instrument that has a part missing, like a violin with three strings.

Because of this, you may even wish that you were part of an unhappy relationship, because at least, you wouldn’t be alone. Sure, breakups are hard, but there is a reason why it happened. It may be because you cheated, or your partner cheated, or maybe it just wasn’t working anymore. It doesn’t matter what lead to it; what’s important is what you do afterwards. What you have to do is keep on reminding yourself over and over again that you can and will move on from this. Remember, the healing process takes a whole lot of time. Be patient. Don’t rush things.

You need to recognize that the slew of emotions you’re feeling right now is perfectly normal. It’s okay to be sad and happy at the same time. It’s okay to be irritable too. It’s okay to feel depressed, confused, exhausted and so on and so forth. Sure, it may be the first time that you’ve felt this way, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not normal. While these emotions may come as a shock to you, you’ll eventually feel these less and less over time. If you don’t, then always take this as a sign that you’re just a person that once deeply cared for another person. While depression may last for years at a time, you should never let yourself be affected by it for such a long period of time. It may be easier said than done, but trust me, it’s all going to be worth it.

Women of Inspiration: Susan Carland

Susan Carland was born in Melbourne, Australia. A writer, sociologist and academic, Carland completed her PhD in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University in Melbourne in 2015. Her research and teaching focus on gender, sociology, terrorism and Islam.

The word I choose is hope – hope is a boat that we can get into when everything is difficult.

Q. What really matters to you?

What matters to me most – what drives me the most – is service. But I don’t believe service has to be grand; service is not only relevant on the scale of opening an orphanage, but includes those tiny acts of everyday service, whether they be to your own children or to your neighbour. Because the ultimately happy and content life is actually the life that you give away.

There’s a great quote attributed to Muhammad Ali that goes something like, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’ That really makes sense to me and is something that I’ve tried to live within myself, though I fail regularly. I’m always telling my children to look for opportunities to help, even if it’s just when they see an older person struggling with a trolley in the supermarket. Because, in the end, a life of service is the only life that makes sense.

Raising my children with strong beliefs and values matters to me. I want them to be happy with who they are, but to never develop a sense of spiritual arrogance; I want them to see the core dignity in every human being and to respect that. It’s not about us and them – Muslim and non-Muslim – because we are all people and can only function as a society if we respect one another. I believe that every person is potentially good, so engaging with people with that in mind allows for respect; without respect, there’s an assumption of superiority – there is no dignity in an interaction like that.

It’s about giving people the benefit of the doubt, even when they probably don’t deserve it. It’s about dealing with people with compassion, even when we don’t want to. The challenge is to ask yourself what you can do to try and create the society that you want to be a part of and that you want to see flourish. We must deal with each other with compassion if we are going to counteract what is happening in the world.

I am Muslim. I had a very good experience in the Baptist church growing up, but, when I was seventeen I started to wonder why I believed what I did; I didn’t know whether it was the truth, so I started looking into other religions. There was a lot of noise surrounding Islam – the typical things Westerners and non-Muslims say about it being sexist, outdated and barbaric – but I realised that Islam was in fact the antithesis of what was being presented to me. And what was at the heart of it made a lot of sense. In fact, it felt like a continuation of what I was raised to believe.

After 9/11, I definitely started to feel the burden of the international representation of Islam. I remember people saying, ‘It’ll have to get better soon,’ but the negative representation hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s escalating. But, even when I engage with people who are incredibly rude, I try to remember to give them the benefit of the doubt. I know how often I feel I’ve been wrong or changed my mind, so I have the awareness that other people, too, can change their minds.

Q. What brings you happiness?

It’s when I feel most useful. We live in a society in which there is so much noise and so much pressure for self-promotion and narcissism: ‘Pay attention to me! This is my CV!’ But I find contentment in the quiet life of service, in any capacity.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

True misery is when people have no hope, when they are in a situation they feel they cannot change. But, people can endure anything if they feel there is hope; even in situations of horrific injustice, inequality and fear, if they have hope, they will get through it. And if they don’t have hope, then it’s our responsibility to bring them hope.

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would change inequality. If you look at every injustice, pain or hurt, it comes from a place of inequality, of people crushing other people on a big level or small – in fact, I would struggle to find any problem in the world that didn’t have inequality at its heart. If we could get rid of that, things would be so different.

Q. Which single word do you most identify with?

Hope. Although, if someone were to describe me, they would probably say ‘trying’ – the sense of never achieving and always failing, but of keeping going. But, the word I choose is hope – hope is a boat that we can get into when everything is difficult.

Nurturing emotionally balanced children

What causes you the most stress? If you are a single woman, apparently the greatest stressor could be moving house, even greater than looking for a job or a partner!

And if you had children, child care is likely to be among the top of your concerns. It is not just the hunting down of a good nursery, one that provides adequate care for your child that causes stress, but when they are just there your stress levels do go up slightly, lurking in the background, fearful of a call that says something may have happened. The lack of control over the midst important things is a recipe for heightened stress.

And if you were expecting? Try not to get too stressed.

Researchers have found that mothers who have stressful second trimesters are prone to transferring these thoughts of anxiety and stress to their unborn child. In a study conducted by the University of California, a group of women were monitored throughout their pregnancies and those who reported experiencing stressful situations in that period later had children who were more sensitive to stress triggers. That is to say, the children were more prone to anger and behavioural issues as well as mood swings.

What can you do if you are pregnant? Well, for starters, be a little selfish and look after yourself. Actually that is not being selfish, it is a way of looking after your unborn child and shielding it from stresses that it cannot really deal with. In a dark world that echoes with muted sounds, the unborn child learns to interpret your reactions and feels how you do. How you feel and react to things around you are passed on to the child.

If you just happen to have a stressful pregnancy, all is not lost though. The researchers found that with the correct post natural care, babies whose mothers experienced stressful pregnancies can attune to a calm world around them and develop a sense of calm so that their stress receptors are not overly active.

Children develop in response to the world around them. They physically experience stress triggers from the environment around, but if the mother is calm, then this association and state of reaction is synapsed into the child’s psyche. How you deal with stress as the child’s mother influences how the child reacts to it. A calming motherly influence can go a long way into preventing a child from developing behavioural problems in the later life.

Women of Inspiration: Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende was born in Lima, Peru. She is the author of twenty-three books in her native Spanish, which have been translated into thirty-five languages. Her award-winning works include The House of the Spirits, City of the Beasts and the international bestseller, Paula.

Allende has received numerous awards, including the 2010 Chilean National Prize for Literature and the 2014 United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1996 – in memory of her daughter, Paula – Allende established the Isabel Allende Foundation to support initiatives aimed at preserving the rights of women and children.

‘People have this idea that we come to the world to acquire things – love, fame, goods, whatever. In fact, we come to this world to lose everything.’

Q. What really matters to you?

It’s people – women especially. I have been a feminist – a feminine feminist – all my life, and my main mission has been to care for women; I have a foundation that works for the empowerment of women and girls. Justice matters to me. And stories – I love to listen to people’s stories.

Q. What brings you happiness?

Love, romance, passion, sex, family, dogs, friends – all that brings me happiness.

Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

On a universal level – speaking outwardly – I would say that there are many depths of misery, but the worst is probably slavery. When you are a victim of absolute power and are living in constant fear, that is the worst.

On a personal level, I would say that the lowest depth of misery is when something happens to your child and you have absolutely no power to control it. It is when your child is behind a door and you don’t know what someone is doing to her – when you have no say, when you can’t be there and when you can’t even touch her.

My daughter, Paula, had a rare genetic condition called porphyria, which my son and my grandchildren also have. It is manageable and should not be lethal at all. Paula took very good care of herself but, when she was newly married and living in Madrid, she had a porphyria crisis. She went to the hospital, and they f**ked up the whole thing: they gave her the wrong drugs so she fell into a coma, then they didn’t monitor the coma, then they tried to hide their negligence.

For five months, I lived in the corridors of the hospital waiting for them to bring my daughter back to me, and everybody kept promising that she would open her eyes and recover. She suffered severe brain damage. By the time they admitted this and gave me back my daughter, I decided to bring her back to the United States. She was married, but her husband was a young man who couldn’t take care of her. I told him that, in her condition, she was like a newborn baby. I said, ‘Give her back to me.’ He did – that’s something that I will always be grateful for. I was able to bring her back to California on a commercial flight – today that would be impossible, but this was before 9/11. I sectioned off a part of the plane, and we flew with a nurse and all the necessary equipment.

But how do you come into a country with a person who can’t apply for a visa? We came to Washington, DC, where Senator Ted Kennedy sent two people from his staff to wait for me at the airport – I don’t know how, but they got us in. When we got to California, we went directly to the hospital. After a month, it was absolutely certain that Paula wasn’t going to react to anything. She was in a vegetative state, so I brought her home and decided that I would take care of her – because that’s what mothers do. I created a little hospital in the house, and I trained myself – we had her there until she died.

That experience, culminating in Paula’s death, changed me completely. It happened when I turned fifty, which is the end of youth. Menopause followed, so it hit me at a moment when I was ready to change, to finally mature. Up to that point, I had been an internal adolescent. It made me throw everything that was not essential in my life overboard. I let go of everything. With Paula, for example, I let go of her voice, of her charm, of her humour. I cut her hair short, then, eventually, I let go of her body and her spirit, then everything was gone. I learned the lesson that I am not in control.

People have this idea that we come to the world to acquire things – love, fame, goods, whatever. In fact, we come to this world to lose everything. When we go, we have nothing and we can take nothing with us. Paula gave me many gifts: the gift of generosity, the gift of patience and the gift of letting go – of acceptance.

Because there are things you can’t change: I couldn’t change the military coup in Chile or the terror brought about by Pinochet; I can’t change Trump; I can’t change the fate of my grandchildren; I can’t change Paula’s death; I can’t even change my dog!

Now, no matter what happens, it is nothing by comparison to the experience of Paula’s death. I loved my husband intensely, for many, many years, but two years ago we separated. When people wanted to commiserate, I thought, ‘This is not even 10 per cent of what I went through with Paula.’ Nothing could be so brutal, to me, at least. It gave me freedom, in a way. It gave me strength and an incredible resilience I never had before.

Prior to that, many things could have wiped me out. ‘Love, romance, passion, sex, family, dogs, friends – all that brings me happiness.’

Q. What would you change if you could?

I would change the patriarchy – end it! All my life, I have worked towards a more egalitarian world, one in which both men and women are managing our global society – a place in which feminine values are as important as masculine values.

Q. Which single word do you most identify with? Generosity. Years ago, my therapist said that I had very low self-esteem. He told me to go to ten people and ask them to write five things about me – whatever they wanted. It was a very difficult thing to request from people; it seemed like an exercise in vanity and narcissism, but I did it. Everybody mentioned generosity as my first trait, so maybe there is something true in that. The mantra of my foundation is, ‘What is the most generous thing to do?’ This is because of my daughter. She was a very special person and a psychologist. Whenever I was going through something trying, she would ask me what the most generous action I could take was. She used to say, ‘You only have what you give.’

Choosing a partner for life

How do we choose the people we fall in love with? The Romantic answer is that our instincts naturally guide us to individuals who are kind and good for us. Love is a sort of ecstasy that descends when we feel ourselves in the presence of a benign and nourishing soul, who will answer our emotional needs, understand our sadness and strengthen us for the hard tasks of our lives. In order to locate our lover, we must let our instincts carry us along, taking care never to impede them through pedantic psychological analysis and introspection or else considerations of status, wealth or lineage. Our feelings will tell us clearly enough when we have reached our destiny. To ask someone with any degree of rigour why exactly they have chosen a particular partner is – in the Romantic worldview – simply an unnecessary and offensive misunderstanding of love: true love is an instinct that accurately settles on those with a capacity to make us content.

The Romantic attitude sounds warm and kind. Its originators certainly imagined that it would bring an end to the sort of unhappy relationships previously brokered by parents and society. The only difficulty is that our obedience to instinct has, very often, proved to be a disaster of its own. Respecting the special feelings we get around certain people in nightclubs and train stations, parties and websites appears not to have led us to be any happier in our unions than a medieval couple shackled into marriage by two royal courts keen to preserve the sovereignty of a slice of ancestral land. ‘Instinct’ has been little better than ‘calculation’ in underwriting the quality of our love stories.

Romanticism would not at this point, however, give up the argument quite so easily. It would simply ascribe the difficulties we often have in love to not having looked hard enough for that central fixture of Romantic reverie: the right person. This being is inevitably still out there (every soul must have its soulmate, Romanticism assures us), it is just that we haven’t managed to track them down – yet. So we must continue the search, with all the technology and tenacity necessary, and maybe, once the divorce has come through and the house has been sold, we’ll get it right.

But there’s another school of thought, this one influenced by psychoanalysis, which challenges the notion that instinct invariably draws us to those who will make us happy. The theory insists that we don’t fall in love first and foremost with those who care for us in ideal ways, we fall in love with those who care for us in familiar ways. Adult love emerges from a template of how we should be loved that was created in childhood and is likely to be entwined with a range of problematic compulsions that militate in key ways against our chances of growth.

We may believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood – and which were rarely limited to just tenderness and care. The love most of us will have tasted early on was confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his or her anger, or of not feeling secure enough to communicate our trickier wishes. How logical, then, that we should as adults find ourselves rejecting certain candidates not because they are wrong but because they are a little too right – in the sense of seeming somehow excessively balanced, mature, understanding and reliable – given that, in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign and unearned. We chase after more exciting others, not in the belief that life with them will be more harmonious, but out of an unconscious sense that it will be reassuringly familiar in its patterns of frustration.

Psychoanalysis calls the process whereby we identify our partners ‘object choice’ – and recommends that we try to understand the factors semi-consciously governing our attractions in order to interrupt the unhealthier patterns that might be at play. Our instincts – our strong undercurrents of attraction and revulsion – stem from complicated experiences we had when we were far too young to understand them, and which linger in the antechambers of our minds.

Psychoanalysis doesn’t wish to suggest that everything about our attractions will be deformed. We may have quite legitimate aspirations to positive qualities: intelligence, charm, generosity … But we are also liable to be fatefully drawn towards trickier tendencies: someone who is often absent, or treats us with a little disdain, or needs to be surrounded all the time by friends, or cannot master their finances.

However paradoxical it can sound, without these tricky behaviours we may simply not be able to feel passionate or tender with someone.

Alternatively, we may have been so traumatised by a parental figure that we cannot approach any partner who shares qualities with them of any kind, even ones disconnected from their negative sides. We might, in love, be rigidly intolerant of anyone who is intelligent, or punctual or interested in science, simply because these were the traits of someone who caused us a great deal of difficulty early on. To choose our partners wisely, we need to tease out how our compulsions to suffering or our rigid flights from trauma may be playing themselves out in our feelings of attraction.

A useful starting place is to ask ourselves (perhaps in the company of a large sheet of paper, a pen and a free afternoon) what sort of people really put us off. Revulsion and disgust are useful first guides because we are likely to recognise that some of the traits that make us shiver are not objectively negative and yet feel to us distinctly off-putting. We might, for example, sense that someone who asks us too much about ourselves, or is very tender or dependable, will seem eerie and boring. And we might equally well, along the way, recognise that a degree of cruelty or distance belong to an odd list of the things we appear genuinely to need in order to love.