Lean In and Women’s Struggle with Unilevel Disintegration

Some months ago, I read Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling attempt at a heart-to-heart with women on how they hold themselves back on the path to corporate leadership.  Frankly, I picked it up because I criticize it often enough that fairness demanded I actually read it.  Suffice it for now to say that I agree with the feminist and class-based critiques of the book that have been said well elsewhere; in this post, I have something separate to add.

After reading just a couple chapters of Lean In, I had established that I don’t want to be Sheryl Sandberg.  That’s not an attack on her.  She appears to be satisfied with her life; if so, I wish her continued satisfaction.  And I agree with the explicit statement in the book’s final paragraph that all people, no matter their genders, ought to be free to pursue their passions.

What troubles me are the implicit and explicit messages earlier in the book that undermine this final assertion.  For example, there’s Sandberg’s statement on page 159 that “[w]e have to ask ourselves if we have become so focused on supporting personal choices that we’re failing to encourage women to aspire to leadership.”

What does she mean by “personal choices?”  It’s left vague, but consider this: after devoting several pages to the importance of leaving the office on time, she follows up with this statement: “I am not claiming, nor have I ever claimed, that I work a forty-hour week.  Facebook is available around the world 24/7, and for the most part, so am I.  The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone” (133-4).  And she accepts that this is a new normal.  The implicit message is that if you want to succeed, you’re going to have to be answering e-mails at midnight, with work always on your mind.  It seems the reason it’s acceptable to leave the office on time is that we never truly leave it at all, even during times that most of us used to consider it socially acceptable to be asleep.  Is sleep merely a personal choice?


Sandberg is trying to reconcile two externally determined standards—the ideals of parenting and of professional life.  That’s why one of the things that frustrated me most about Lean In is that instead of helping women balance these two competing demands, she widens the gap between them.

Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski, the psychiatrist who developed the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD), had something to say about this sort of tension.  For those who are unfamiliar with TPD, essentially, it charts a path or personal development from low-level integration (Level I) through a vast inner wasteland of stresses and even mental illnesses (Level III) that a person must go through in order to really achieve true mental health (Level V).  And when a person struggles to choose between two paths with indistinguishable moral standing, she’s in Level II, or what Dabrowski called unilevel disintegration.

In this case, it’s average middle and, especially, upper middle class American professional women who are stuck trying to obey two masters.  One of them tells women with children that they must be nurturing mothers who supervise their children’s every action, while another says that they must set an example for their daughters by climbing the corporate ladder.  This gives rise to a Level II dynamism known as ambitendencies, defined on positivedisintegration.com as contrary drives which are struggling for dominance yet never gaining it for an extended period of time.  It’s pretty obvious why this would lead drive a person to disintegrate!  Dabrowski puts in this way in Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration (1970):

Disintegration is unilevel (or horizontal), if there are protracted and recurrent conflicts between drives and emotional states of a similar developmental level and of the same intensity, e.g. states of ambivalence and ambitendency, propulsion toward and repulsion from the same object, rapidly changing states of joy and sadness, excitement and depression without the tendency towards stabilization within a hierarchy. (p. 165)

Lean In buffets readers back and forth between the two competing masters before finally coming down in favor of work.  But despite her lip service to autonomy, Sandberg never thinks to make a case for why one should choose to follow this path; she merely exhorts women to do so, presuming all of them share her values.  And as much as “women in leadership” is a goal I share, her book left me wondering, leadership to what greater purpose?


As it happens, I can stomach the corporatist genre of Sandberg and her buddy Adam Grant (who also ought to read Dabrowski) more easily if I have something to counterbalance it, so at the same time I was reading Lean In, I was also reading a book called Out of Sync: Essays in Giftedness by Stephanie Tolan, a Newbery Award-winning novelist and expert on the gifted experience.  Out of Sync is woven together with a very different message: you’re you, no matter how well or poorly you fit a mold, and the only way you will find success/happiness is if you be you.  I didn’t know whether to write “success” or “happiness” there because the way Tolan frames it, those two words are two sides of the same coin.

One of the essays in this volume is called “The Lemming Condition,” named after a children’s book from the 1970s in which a young lemming named Bubber is preparing to follow his tribe on their mythic journey west to the ocean.  But when Bubber hears from a crow just what the ocean is, he begins questioning the older lemmings—questions none of them can answer.


I realized that I wanted to ask Sheryl Sandberg some of Bubber’s questions.  As she talked about dedicating herself to the company that hired her, I wanted to ask her what exactly she’s doing it for.  Maybe I’d be more inspired by what she said if I thought Facebook had contributed something uniquely valuable to the world.  Of course, Sandberg’s message is not that women should join Facebook per se; it’s simply that they should lead companies and other organizations.  But in the end, it still comes down to “power” and status.  I use the term “power” loosely, because if it’s really just the ability to be first in a pack of people who all are obeying the dictates of nebulous external norms that declare that we must all run west to the ocean, then “power” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Are women being empowered to create things they consider intrinsically valuable, or are we merely making them place the interests of their bosses and customers ahead of those of their children, without addressing the competing demand for exactly the opposite?  I kept thinking throughout this book that what I’d like is for us to empower men to push back against meaningless “status” and work as an end in itself.  Maybe some of them would be willing to hang out with Bubber when the rest of their buddies head to the seashore.

Ultimately, Sandberg doesn’t help those working mothers who remain trapped in the unilevel disintegration, who surely feel those rapidly changing states of joy and sadness that Dabrowski described, propulsion toward and repulsion from both unpaid childrearing and paid professional work.  It seems that, having herself been caught in the ambitendencies and ambivalences of Level II, she reintegrated at the socially integrated Level I and is now trying to urge women to lean in to the path she happened to choose—without ever thinking to make the case that it’s a higher path.


Dabrowski has said that unilevel disintegration (Level II) is often an initial, feebly differentiated borderline state that leads to multilevel disintegration (Level III), in which higher and lower paths become clear based on an individual’s values.  That should be encouraging to any women who are struggling with this balancing act—which is not to say it’s easy to make that leap!  After all, the stakes are high in careers and higher still as parents, and we often crave external reassurance that we’re not going to mess up. Perhaps if we had more women in corporate leadership, those who are working moms could help open a path for everyone who works to have a greater awareness of quality of life issues, including men, who would now also be able to point to senior leaders who understand that climbing the corporate ladder is not the purpose of life.

But in the end, it’s going to be the third factor—your own conviction of what life ought to be—that gets you where you need to go, no matter what the corporate gurus say.

Maybe Sandberg hasn’t imagined that happiness—or that Level V dynamism, the personality ideal, could look different to others.  But for me (and I’m not even a parent), pressure to care about work around the clock gets in the way of succeeding in the only way that matters to me.  Recalling those midnight emails: there are tasks which would command that level of devotion from me, if I have sufficient freedom to control my destiny.  If answering late night email helps me advance some noble purpose, then a swell of motivation will get me through before I even realize I’m doing it.  It’s all about the why.

And so, if you are a woman who read Lean In and you think, right on!  That’s just the message I need, well, then, you know what you have to do.  If it speaks to you sincerely, then perhaps it’s pointing to your own personality ideal.

But if it doesn’t, then follow a different path.  That’s the third factor in action.  That’s the organized multilevel disintegration of Level IV.  Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom, a traditional professional working long hours, or something else entirely, the point is that you’re living the life that’s right for you, to make your own unique contribution to the world.  That, Ms. Sandberg, is why we need to support personal choices, both for women and for men.  We know praise may be long in coming for some, but it strikes me that it’s odd to call someone a leader who’s determined to go where the gurus have already bestowed their glamour.


Image credits: Myriams-Fotos, realworkhard, HG-Fotographie, Pexels, Jill111, fizkes.

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4 thoughts on “Lean In and Women’s Struggle with Unilevel Disintegration

  1. Jessie, I’m pleased to see you question Sandberg’s narrative.

    In my professional experience, the corporate world is structured by men for men who rely on their spouses to take care of their homes and children, as well as support their social business interactions in their climb to the top. To follow in their footsteps up the corporate ladder, we have to become like them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Rosaliene. I’m sure you’re right about that. It is true that if someone wants to join a group, that person generally has to conform to the norms of the group. It might be that men will let women in if they don’t otherwise rock the boat. (Though there’s so much in life tied directly or indirectly to old gender roles that it seems the boat will have to be rocked….) In this case, though, I wouldn’t feel like I had gained power or influence by being let into this circle…! But then, I’m someone who would like to see more fundamental transformations in these areas. And how to do that is the trick indeed….

      Liked by 1 person

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