Leaning in – What really matters for women?
By Karen White


Karen WhiteWomen leaning in …. What really matters? Hang in there with me with regard to the title of this article and the preamble. All will become clear along the way.

I love being a coach. In addition to watching my clients grow and learn about themselves, every day I learn about myself through my clients. One of the reasons for this is because I have the opportunity to explore the concepts and distinctions I’ve discovered in more depth, applying them in my own life as well as offering them to my clients.

Having distinctions is important as it allows us to observe and consider things differently. We can tell apart one thing from another and become different observers, which is a pretty big deal. For example, paying attention to how we use language opens up more range and choice for us. If I don’t ask for what I want – make a request – and expect others to know what I want, that will affect how I spend my time as well as my mood in relation to others.

One of the big aha moments for me when learning about Ontology (and Ontological Coaching) was the notion of concerns. Concerns does not mean being worried, but rather refers to things that matter deeply to us. The particular aha moment was in relation to concerns and being a woman.

To be human is to have concerns

Our concerns, what matters most to us, provide us with meaning. They constitute our frame of reference, providing a sense of balance, order and stability. As human beings we all have concerns, some of which are universal and automatic by virtue of us being of the human variety. We can think of these as core concerns. For example, we all want to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of what our history or background is. Other core concerns are having a sense of belonging, feeling worthy, to love and feel that we are lovable, and having a sense of identity, to name a few.

And then we have concerns that are particular to us because we are who we are and the experiences we have had in life. Part of what informs these concerns are our upbringing, the context we were born into, our culture, and our family history. These inform what feature as a concern or not, and what we pay attention to or not.

Women and Concerns

What I’m sharing with you about concerns is a distinction, allowing us to consider different aspects of what it is to be human and what informs our perspectives singularly and collectively.

And when thinking about distinctions, I realised that where the distinction comes from and who develops them has a bearing. Paying attention to the roots of where they come from can be important, as the roots will shape what is explored or not. Originally Martin Heiddeger termed the phrase concerns, and provided us with this important way of thinking about an aspect of what it is to be a human being. This concept has been explored and expanded over the years, and it is my understanding that it has been done so predominantly by other men.

Why is this significant? Surely in our postmodern era, for those of us who have the luxury of considering these ideas, it is irrelevant whether it is men or women who develop and expand these ideas. Hmmm, I don’t think so. Let me elaborate.

Primary and Secondary Concerns

When I learned about concerns, it hit me like a thunderbolt that my concerns, which orientated me to how I spent my time, were not necessarily my primary concerns, but rather the concerns I was socialised to consider as most important. These included putting other people first, and not just my husband and children, being willing to give away my time for causes that weren’t really my own, and not speaking up for certain things because it might not be seen as pleasant or acceptable.

I came to understand that there is a difference between what I now think of as my primary and secondary concerns. Martha Beck speaks about our Essential selves and our Socialised selves, which I associate with primary and secondary concerns. I think most women tend to focus more on Socialised selves and with it our secondary concerns that we have learned are our primary concerns, and which are not!

When I learned about concerns there was no differentiation made between primary and secondary concerns, and it a distinction I’ve developed for myself. Part of the conversations I had at the time of first learning about this perspective, were that it doesn’t really matter whether they are primary or secondary, and that they were still my concerns.

My interpretation, as a woman, is quite different, and that it does matter a great deal to separate out my concerns. Given the societal norms and values, and with it the roles and expectations, I can so easily fall into a trap. That trap is not being truly attuned to what truly matters to me, and to rather focus on what matters to others. This trap is so subtle and so pervasive and so easy to fall into.

Cultural narratives

Extending this further, women grow up in patriarchal societies and can learn, without knowing that they are learning this, to negate their core human concerns or to take care of them in a way that doesn’t take care of them at all. More often it does the opposite and we land up compromising our fundamental humanness in order to fit into the societal scripts. Included in this are core assessments and stories about how we should be, which keeps us safe, but playing much smaller than we could and might want to.

I’ve especially written this in a way that doesn’t negate men, as they have their own scripts, which can also be challenging and limiting. And it is worth mentioning that unwittingly men participate in what is going on through their expectations and assumptions they have learned about how women should and could be.

So, what…?

This is how it all translated for me. I spent a lot of timemaking offers to others, spending much of my time on things that weren’t primary and that important for me. In other words, I was focused on secondary concerns that I thought were truly important to me. And at the time, until I had this way of sense making, I totally accept that they were important to me. Only they weren’t so important, because I don’t spend my time and live my life in that way so much anymore…

Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t feel like a victim, nor am shirking responsibility for my role in the offers I made. And, I am so grateful to have found a way to see what was happening and what I was doing, and to have more choice in how I construct my reality and where I focus my time and energy. The added bonus is being able to offer this to other women who can then assess whether this is something that is worth exploring further.

Over to you…

If you would like to consider this in a bit more detail, then below is an exercise for you.

This will provide you with a map of sorts and now you can address the following questions:

I hope this exploration yields an opportunity for you to live life a little more on your own terms, not neglecting others, and definitely not neglecting yourself.

Post Script

This post is dedicated to all the amazing women I’ve had the privilege of being in a coaching relationship with.

And thank you to Alan Sieler for the brilliant conversations that deepen my learning about the world of Ontology.

Karen White is a key facilitator and coach in the ontological programs in South Africa and the USA. She can be contacted at




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