Breaking Through Your Own Glass Ceiling

We’ve come to define the glass ceiling largely as a limitation for women and minorities in a white male dominated corporate America, but glass ceilings can also be self imposed by our own expectations.

I spent my childhood surrounded by people who realized the American Dream.  My grandparents fled to the United States after World War II with nothing but my 10 year old aunt in tow.  A year later my mother was born and six years after that, her father died unexpectedly. 

Despite the challenges of single parenthood, the language barrier, and poverty, my aunt and mother rose to the top by working hard and securing scholarships to Ivy League Schools, paving the way for their unprecedented success in their respective fields. 

Their friends and neighbors, also immigrants and children of immigrant families, followed the same trajectory.  So when it came time for me to plan my future, I never questioned that I was capable of rising to the top.   

I have always felt that my possibilities were limitless, not only because I’ve been given the resources and opportunities to do so, but because I have such remarkable examples of success and possibility in my day to day life. 

It never occurred to me that the expectations I had become accustomed to were lower, or even non-existent elsewhere, at least in the United States, “the land of opportunity”. But in my years of touring the country for work, I have come across so many people, even entire communities constricted by their own ideas of what’s possible.

If you’ve spent your entire life surrounded by high school dropouts who left to go work at the local factory or help out the family business and live in mobile home communities, how do you know to strive for anything else?

Sure, you read about movie stars, professional athletes, Wall Street tycoons, and people “making it big” – but when you don’t have examples of that in your day to day reality, how do you make it part of your future reality?

For some, going to college and studying to be a doctor or pursuing a career as an artist may seem just as intangible as the fantasy of fairy tales.

Growing up, there was never even a question of whether or not I would be going to college, it was only a matter of where. I never considered an alternative just as I never considered that I couldn’t have everything I wanted if I worked hard enough.

If anything, adulthood has been about managing my expectations. I’m not afraid of my desire because I know my desires can manifest as reality – I’ve seen it first hand.

I think that in some places, people don’t equate desire and dreams with reality because they don’t see it manifested around them.  Of course financial resources, location limitations, and other hardships play a role too, but having a living, proximate example prove it’s possible.

We’ve come to define “the glass ceiling” largely as a limitation for women and minorities in a white male dominated corporate America, but I think that “glass ceilings” may also be self imposed by our own expectations – based on personal experiences, culture, family, and life.

For example, if you come from a small town or a culture where women are still thought of as home makers and caretakers, even though they are an integral and large part of the national workforce, if that’s not part of your day to day reality, if you don’t get exposure to different kinds of people with different trajectories, how do you know the alternatives?

Related Reading: Broke with Privilege

Are you limited by your own expectations of what’s possible for you?  Have you had to break through your own glass ceiling?


58 responses to “Breaking Through Your Own Glass Ceiling

  1. I think it helps coming from a family that still very aware of their immigrant status. My grandparents came over from Russia in the 50’s with 8 kids in two and then had my dad shortly after arriving. They managed to make it work, raising 9 kids in NJ. My grandmother never even learned English. When you know so many people who have managed to make something so impossible work, I think it makes you wonder “why not me?”

    I’ve met some people too who don’t seem to see their own potential and it drives me insane! I really think that if a person works hard enough they can achieve almost anything… but I also think all of that comes at a high sacrifice. So it’s not that something can’t be done, it’s do you want it bad enough?

    1. I guess if you’ve also never been around people who live by that “do you want it bad enough” mentality, then you’re also more likely to “settle”.

  2. Like you, I am also very lucky to have been born into a situation where I was shown that there are many possibilities in life. But realizing that is one of the reasons I want to prioritize travel. As much as I was exposed to, what else is out there in the world? What do other cultures do differently? What perspectives am I missing?

  3. My parents definitely had high expectations for me and they also instilled great confidence in me that I could achieve whatever I wanted as well. Living in LA, there is extraordinary wealth and extreme poverty, all within miles of one another. And through some of my work with Junior Achievement, I have talked to inner city kids and it is incredibly sad to see how many believe they life they see every day (poverty) is the only possibility they have. Of course, then you run into the few who set their sights higher and know they can break free of poverty. I assume this conviction not only lies within them but in someone championing them to see the possibilities and I wholeheartedly agree. We do set our own glass ceilings based on what we see and expectations/limitations placed on us. The good thing is we are fully capable of breaking those glass ceilings too.

    1. My mom was poor growing up but she lived in New York City where she could at least be exposed to other walks of life as she went about her day. I feel like, if you live in the middle of nowhere where you really have no exposure to any other kinds of lifestyles and perspectives, it’s even harder to set alternate expectations for yourself.

  4. I was SO fortunate to grow up with a mom who believed and led me to believe that I could do anything. From an early age, I just knew that my only limitations were the amount of effort that I contributed to my success. And removing our own glass ceilings is a two-fold approach where you are not afraid to climb but also not afraid to fall because falling is part of the process and it’s okay. My mom was always there waiting to catch me if I fell, which I think gave me the strength to climb. I want to do the same thing for my son.

  5. I don’t think glass ceiling is quite the right term here. The common reference of “glass ceiling” means women can see men receiving promotions & raises but they themselves can’t get them. They can actually see what they are losing out on. The lack of opportunities you’re describing aren’t clear. They’re not visible at all. This isn’t someone seeing their friends go off to college but they didn’t get accepted. This is someone who didn’t see anyone go to college. They didn’t see anyone have opportunities or success. That’s not a glass ceiling, it’s just a ceiling.


    My husband comes from a background of welfare, etc. I’ve seen firsthand how hard it is to break that cycle. Not saying it’s impossible but it is so much harder and takes so much more work and determination when you don’t have role models, resources, knowledge … and not everyone from that kind of background is equipped to get out.

  7. I really think parents need to have very high standard for their children. I don’t think you need to design their lives, but they need to know that mediocre does not cut it if they are capable of better. It’s sad, though, that many parents just don’t care or don’t know how to care. What was good enough for them is good enough for their kids, but it gets harder and harder to get by without skills or education. I think the best gift you can give your child is to make sure they are in school and continue that education at home. Even if you can only afford the library, there is lots to learn and strive for. I grew up in a very small town without lots of diversity, but a summer program I got to attend when I was 17 really opened my eyes to the world, and I am so thankful I had the opportunity and that my parents let me take it. Otherwise, I very well could have gotten married and had kids right out of high school. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think my life would be nearly as happy as I am now.

    1. Yes, I’m so grateful my parents cared so much about my work both in and out of the classroom. Sure, I hated explaining why I ever got B’s, but it set a level of expectation that I now hold for myself.

  8. As someone else mentioned, I’m not sure glass ceiling is 100% spot on terminology-wise, but that’s a minor point! I love this article! What you’ve said about being able to see others get out there and do things is so, so true. I actually have friends who moved to a very disadvantaged neighbourhood on purpose, in part to act as role models and to attempt to help out and be a part of a community that has a lot of suffering.

  9. I didn’t really grow up in a family of high achievers. I was naturally hard on myself, though. If I didn’t get an A in a class, I was really disappointed in myself. My parents were always proud of me regardless. While it was comforting to have their support, I can see how others might fall into the trap of being coddled and having nothing extra asked of them. I have a cousin who decided not to go to college, and has been working the same part time seasonal job his mom got him for the last three or four years. He’s not being pushed and he’s become complacent. It’s hard to see people do that when you know they have potential.

  10. “Growing up, there was never even a question of whether or not I would be going to college, it was only a matter of where. ” yup – that pretty much sums up my parents expectations and my sister and my attitude too.
    Inspiring post!

  11. This is why people continue to do the same things they’ve always done…they don’t know the alternatives. The alternatives may be positive or negative depending on the situation. But at least with some exposure to what those alternatives are the person can make an informed decision whether or not they can grow beyond who they are today. Generally speaking, it’s really tough to break free from who you are to become something else.

    1. I guess I don’t like the idea of limiting ones sense of who they are to their immediate surroundings. Maybe that’s why I’m such a proponent of travel and getting exposure to other kinds of people.

  12. I joined the US Air Force to get the old GI Bill to pay for college. After I served my 4 years, I went straight into college and graduated with an engineering degree. That has served me well. The interesting thing is that I still keep in touch with a bunch of Air Force people that I served with. We were all at the top of the enlisted pool, spent a year learning a language at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), and then did the job of voice processing specialists (translators) for the rest of our tour. Out of the 9 people I went through DLI with, I am the only person who ended up with a college degree. The others all had the same opportunities I had when they got out, yet they had apparently hit their glass ceiling while in the Air Force.

      1. It did for me. I earned my engineering degree in four years, where lots of other engineering students were taking longer. Being in the Air Force apparently didn’t help my other friends to reach for higher achievement.

  13. Growing up in government housing i was surrounded by many people who had very low expectations for their life. Study too hard and you’re a nerd, college is something only for the rich. A lot of my friends growing up preferred surfing, drinking and smoking weed than stating a career.

    1. I always wonder how my mom and her sister were such high achievers after growing up in poverty. Perhaps it was the expectations held by their parents from their pre world war II life.

  14. Really great post, Stefanie. It’s been a while since I pondered how we limit ourselves because of our own ideas and psychological perceptions of what we can and can’t do. It would be interesting to read some research on this topic and see how people’s perceptions of their own ability to ‘rise above’ are influenced by their community and where they grew up. I think there’s a reason that people who grow up wealthy or are raised by successful parents often have the same expectations for themselves.

    1. I think having parents with those expectations for you is probably the single most important factor in creating those expectations for yourself. Not scientific, just my theory.

  15. I was fortunate to have parents that pushed me and involved me in different things so I could find things I enjoyed and wanted to pursue. The paying for those things is a different story altogether, but was able to benefit because of the push they gave me. When I went to college, there were a lot of students there who cam from small rural towns and could tell that many fell in to that trap of thinking that they weren’t capable of anything beyond that. Some went on to do things and some didn’t, but it was an exercise in seeing how we can hold ourselves back because of where we might’ve come from. Unless there are incredibly extenuating circumstances then you shouldn’t allow them to hold you back.

  16. I was one of the first in my family to graduate a post secondary program. My father and brother didn’t graduate high school, my mother didn’t go to college. I grew up with a single mom who worked really hard to give us the life that she thought we deserved, and she always put expectations on us that we would go to college, and work ourselves out of any possibility of landing in the situation she was in. I think there are a few glass ceilings I’ve set for myself, but I am not afraid to shatter them.

  17. I remember reading once that the number one correlate with a child’s likely education level was his or her parents’ education level. In other words, we go about as far in school as our folks did. It’s a depressing notion.

    1. That makes sense. Even though my mother’s parents were in poverty after the war and during her childhood, they had grown up educated in Ukraine, and so hold the same expectations for her even when they had nothing.

    1. As one of five children, I’ve seen how different children’s reactions to parent’s expectations can be. While I’m incredibly motivated by them, some of my siblings have VERY different responses.

  18. Totally agree. College wasn’t anything but an expectation. I’m very fortunate to have been raised in an environment that placed value on education as a pathway to a better life. That may no longer be the case for everyone, but it still is for most, at least in my opinion.

    1. I don’t know that college is necessarily the best option for everyone. But the expectation that you will continue to learn and grow after high school I think is important.

  19. Growing up, my brother was always the genius, and my sister, 12 years my senior, was the wild child, eventual prodigal daughter. So when it was my turn, I think my parents didn’t know what to expect so they didn’t expect much. My dad kept pushing community college on me since my grades weren’t so hot (not doing homework does not equal great grades!) My mom supported me more than my dad, but being that she did not have a degree, she was not as knowledgeable about the process. I think my dad’s lack of interest in me going to a 4-year-school encouraged me more so to go to a 4 year college!

  20. Wonderful post! I’ve always been encouraged and thought I could do a lot. Reality has given me some things to think about, but generally speaking I think my motivation, work ethic and desire for growth is high. I’ve worked a lot with underserved communities who don’t have role models or people that can mentor them. It’s hard to see a vision of success, if you have never met anyone successful. What really bugs me is people who do have all the advantages and leadership, but still don’t live up to their potential. Potential is POTENT. And they are wasting it.

  21. Growing up, it was a given that I would go to college. I lived in a small town, my mother never went to college and my father attended for 1 year before joining the military. I was always a good student and they wanted a better life for me than they felt they had. I was unsure what degree to pursue, but I went to college for a few years anyway. My dream is actually to be able to stay home when I have kids and possibly run a small business to make ends meet. I never got a degree when I attended college since I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I am now attending college again to pursue a business degree. One thing my parents did instill in me is to have as little debt as possible. My husband has student loans, but my parents were able to pay as I went to college before, and now the company where I work is offering tuition reimbursement so I will have no college debt.

  22. I wrote an article about this very thing about a year ago. I used to take any old project because I thought I had to. Basically I was lower my own ceiling. But I changed my perception last year, and it helped me build a bigger side income business. It’s amazing what a shift in perspective will do.

  23. You’ve made some very insightful observations during your travels. A person’s environment (family, friends, community) is an extremely powerful and influencing factor. It can be so strong that it has a greater impact that genetics. They’ve done studies where identical twins were separated at birth and the environments in which they were raised produced completely different personalities/people. Pretty fascinating stuff…either way, the power to rise above our environments is still inside us all…some can access it easier than others.

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