‘How do I be myself?‘ Anjana* shouted over our online therapy call. Her palms flapped in the air as if asking a query.
‘Everyone around me keeps on hovering about what I should do and should not do.’ She looked at the ceiling above as if God would reply. Sighed for a moment, and continued, ‘Why can’t people stop telling others how to live?’ That 15-year old girl shook a string within. And I wanted to find if this string connects us, especially women.
Be it career, clothing or conversations, one feels unsafe to show the true colours, particularly women in a patriarchal society like India. Values imposed by culture, religion, caste and family take precedence over individual beliefs. The tussle between what we want to be and what we should be leaves many doubtful and ‘indecisive’. Expressing her suffocation, Dr. Vedita, an Ayurveda practitioner in Nagpur, admits that ‘…we can’t even have our own decision making powers.’ For her, the struggle is being in an urban westernised yet patriarchal family. In utter disappointment, she says, ‘There’s an image of perfect women-who know how to cook, greet and talk. Any deviation from this is not digestible.’
The deviation brings judgments alongside—external and internal. Evaluating our performance each minute becomes a habit to meet deadly standards—I must keep the house clean, I must dress well, I must weigh under 55kgs-et cetera. Failing to meet these ‘musts’ invites shame and guilt. The former talks about us—you are a bad person, the latter speaks of our actions—you did something bad. In the book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown mentions that shame overpowers women more often than men. Dating a stranger after a divorce or flaunting that red lipstick in a religious gathering appears like an endless war.
Evidently, the catchphrase ‘be comfortable in your skin’ is not comforting. Talking about skin, we still struggle to find our own. For daughters, financial dependence on parents (specifically fathers) is considered a good enough reason to stay silent and be blind to dominance. Family customs become the default setting to go back to. While changing these defaults, Sadaf Vidha, a therapist and freelance writer from Mumbai, recalls that, ‘I had to unlearn the fear I had, while studying and doing my first job where dependency was high.‘
Adding further, Sadaf acknowledges that, ‘I had to consciously push their boundaries when it came to freedom of movement or not getting married. In small and big conversations, I carved out a niche for who I am and what my life will be like.‘
After listening to these voices, I realised that to be ourselves, our values need to be aligned with our choices. These choices must then be translated into actions /decisions. It definitely looks like a deliberate ride in need of massive support. To provide fuel for this travel, I am listing down some ways to navigate.
- Reject Likeability—Pushing personal boundaries too hard to please others often leads to exhaustion and disconnect. If you are not in a mood to party, but are going because it makes your partner happy—think over it. There could be a way to negotiate. Going by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words, it is time that instead of being likeable, we try to be kind and honest. And learn that we deserve kindness too. If anything makes us uncomfortable, we rather Speak Up. Even Shout. But not be nice and false!
- Choose Relationships—Customising a list of non-judgmental and warm people in your life seems more crucial than life insurance. Dr. Vedita says, ‘Friends are the family you choose…because you know, there won’t be a judgment passed or they at least don’t block your chances of betterment.’ Preserve relationships that help you balance the imbalance. These fulfilling connections may push you to be authentic.
- Own Your Story—Acknowledge actions especially when inappropriate. Noticing our limitations offers relief from unrealistic expectations. Following a growth mindset may give space for mistakes. Owning mistakes does not make anyone less of a human. If you did not prepare for that exam well—own it. Say it out loud. It is liberating.
- Make Efforts to Find a Voice—Voice is an expression and values are the foundation. A thorough examination of the latter may help us find ourselves. Explore what you stand-up for and examine if you are consciously making choices around the same. If you wish to pursue a career your parents do not approve of, find a way to communicate that—directly or indirectly. As a self-identified hopeful woman, Pratha Shah, a researcher, remarks, ‘I don’t have my voice, but I can find it.’ Makes me wonder, can’t we all!
- Honour Hurt—Tackle the feelings of shame, guilt and disappointments. Identify their sources—culture, family, gender or pop culture etc. Being a woman, if people shame you for not cooking well—explore how and why it affects you. Having a conversation around it, either with trusted people or a therapist may help. Create boundaries/distance with people-situations triggering these feelings, if need be.
- Find Safety—This fearless act of being ourselves may involve disagreements. There are chances of experiencing abuse, violence or complete social exclusion. Consequently, it may stop most of us from taking that first step. Hence, ensuring a safe environment may act like an enabler—like a personal safe room, friend’s house or a library. Books, paintings or old photographs might offer emotional support when surroundings seem dreadful.
As you are done reading this list, place a palm on your heart. Notice the heartbeat. Rub it. Gently. With all the care, say softly—I am myself.
Say it every day.
Say it to yourself.
Say it to your friends.
Every time you say it, remember…
We are listening!
*Name changed to preserve identity.
- Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Daring Greatly ; How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown
- This Jungian Life-Episode 144 : Fierce Female Initiations: Claiming Authority and Selfhood through trials
Vaidehi Chilwarwar is professionally engaged as a psychologist and arts based therapist. She works with individuals and groups on therapeutic platforms. Her doctoral research revolves around exploring arts based and community driven practices of coping and resilience. Explorations around mental wellbeing are central to her learning and living. Lately, podcasts, poetry, DIY videos and sleep occupy her spare time. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.