Recently, I went through a very rough time in my personal life. A lot of that is attributable to me being an Indian woman in my twenties. Having almost come out of that low phase now, I have been thinking of writing about a lot of things, a lot of things that I realized in the process. The most striking observation was how at some point in life, while making her own life decisions, almost every Indian woman faces an unreasonable emotional pressure to follow expectations of other people I call stakeholders in life – friends, partner, parents, relatives, in-laws, elders in society, etc. in order to show respect/obedience, in order to be seen as a considerate person or, in order to not hurt the sentiments of these stakeholders. As a trade-off, women often have to give up on something they believe in or wish for.
This pressure is often felt during several minor instances but is usually more pronounced at the time of making major life choices of career, identity, lifestyle, marriage/life partner, kids. Until this point in my life, I was under the wrong assumption that only women with certain backgrounds and personalities are more vulnerable to such pressures. But it can literally happen with anyone because there are several stakeholders that add in life at every stage. Few supportive stakeholders will not guarantee avoidance of such situations and also not all stakeholders are going to be equally supportive of your beliefs. Also, although Indian men and people from other nationalities face similar pressures too, my writing is majorly based considering Indian women since that is the group I identify myself with. I have heard several personal stories from this group.
I want to start by reflecting on my understanding of why such pressures are created in the first place.
One of the best things that happened during my low phase was that I studied in a US university, worked at the Walt Disney Company (both greatly appreciate diversity) and specialized in Human Resources/Organizational Behavior field. This gave me a lot of perspective into cultures across the world and human psychology. I have been interacting with people who are very different from me yet value the same things in life – achievement, recognition, respect, love, good health and happiness (I refer to them as “constructs” after this). Differences are in terms of the concepts of “society”, “beliefs” and “norms”. And mind you, I am not talking about these differences in terms of nationalities of people; they also exist among different groups of people or even individuals belonging to the same country/culture.
Many of these differences are in fact quite contradictory. However, I have not seen these differences putting anyone at a disadvantage in achieving the larger life goals (i.e. the constructs I mentioned). Yes, there are several ways of interpreting what constitutes success on those constructs (although some are obvious – like ending up on the streets can’t be an achievement/happiness for any rational person). For example, what I acknowledge as an achievement for myself may not seem an achievement to another person; love could be for God, for other persons, for oneself (say in case of someone who has been afflicted with abuse or has low self-esteem) or even a combination of these.
What I am trying to say is that only an individual can define those constructs for oneself to feel truly satisfied in life. The trouble comes when others start defining those constructs for you and expect you to agree exactly with the same interpretations. It creates a confusion in the thought-process of an individual since his/her interpretations may be misaligned with those others. The individual’s reaction to such confusing situations is typically denial or acceptance of others’ definitions depending on how clearly the individual has already formed his/her concepts of those constructs – and that depends on lot of factors such as an individual’s background, upbringing, education and independence of thought and action. Twenties is an age when most people are still developing their own thoughts. Depending on the factors I mentioned, some thoughts are more concrete and some less so. It is almost impossible that any individual in twenties will have perfectly formed ideas on those constructs and more so, even if they do exist, they are often transitionary. Hence, in this phase, when one is trying to figure out what one wants in life, exploring individuality, there is vulnerability to pressure from the stakeholders.
I have personally known of several Indian women succumbing to such pressures to varying degrees. At first it makes them feel sad, angry or helpless but gradually they just accept living according to others’ expectations as a way of life to keep harmony. This in turn always keeps them unsatisfied deep within and leads to a loss of their individuality. Worst, they sometimes end up perpetrating the same on other women as a way of venting out frustration. The cycle continues and sadly, women end up losing a sense of purpose in life; the purpose gets defined/restricted by others.
If you face conflicting situations in your life decisions where you are torn between deciding what is right or wrong, or, between choosing others’ emotions or yours, doubting your own beliefs, decisions and feelings might seem to be the easiest solution. But believe me, that will set you on a path of perpetual self-doubting and loss of individuality. I can vouch for it because although I have always considered myself to be a balanced person and enjoyed independence in most of my life decisions, one pressurizing situation made me go through a horrible phase of self-doubting and affected my personality until I consciously realized it. The self-doubting interferes with your rational thought-process and in turn affects those around you. I am not suggesting a solution, but just saying that in such situations you need to work really hard to keep that faith in yourself strong or you will lose your mind. You need self-confidence and a rational mind to be assertive and work out your way smartly. Once you give up on yourself, you give up forever.
I want to share what I learnt through my experience with other women (and even men) who face emotionally conflicting situations in life while making individual choices:
– Seeking support is the most crucial step. And this support often comes from those who have absolutely no involvement in the situation. Also, it is necessary for this support to be open-minded, non-judgmental and sensitive – someone with whom you can freely talk about your deepest concerns and fears.
– Don’t judge your own feelings. Realize that you’re feeling them because of a valid reason; almost every time there is one. Try to think about what is causing those feelings in your mind rather than discarding them as overthinking or as simply wrong thoughts. Often you’ll realize that the events leading to those feelings were influenced by something beyond your control. Then you learn to accept your feelings for what they are and not make yourself feel guilty about them.
– Don’t base decisions based on fear of bad consequences or mistakes. Issues do not have a cutoff point for deciding whether they are significant or insignificant. If you are getting affected, they are significant no matter what others perceive them to be. In reality, there is nothing right or wrong, good or bad. Nobody can define it clearly. Several scholars/philosophers have failed to define concepts such as “culture” and “values”. Most things are gray in nature. Don’t create strong value ideologies especially based on people around you. That approach is heavily biased because you have only seen the perspective of similar kind of people. But there are many more people out there in the world who have a different viewpoint about same things. Try to have a broader perspective going beyond just immediate family and friends. Even if you make mistakes, you’ll embrace them and learn better when you are completely responsible for them.
– In action, sometimes you may have to give up and do things that are contrary to what you want. However, set the stage during this time. It is important to be assertive and demonstrate your individuality even if it is not seen as the ideal. Just as you are considering stakeholder interests, they also need to accept you for who you are. When required, put your foot down in a positive, assertive manner so that the pressure doesn’t continue forever. Do what you want with a firm mind but without aggression.
– Find out some creative ideas for reducing anxiety and mind-chatter that automatically accompany the emotional pressure. Whenever I got anxious, I started writing as that helped me clear my thoughts. I also felt relaxed because writing is a way for me to vent my emotions. Some people do art and craft, some dance or some tidy the home. Explore what works for you.
– Lastly, meditation and exercise make a huge difference. I am not a religious or a spiritual person. But I believe in the science of meditation. We usually don’t consider mental health as part of our mainstream health. However, anxiety affects the body in ways which we do not even realize; the way we talk, the way we breathe, our energy levels. Meditation is a form of mental exercise. And of course, physical exercise releases hormones which in turn influences our thinking pattern.
To conclude, I know how difficult it is to see the bigger picture when one is trapped in such situations. That is why I thought I must not delay writing this post and Women’s Day was the befitting opportunity. Not all people can relate to this and it can look as rambling to many. But I am absolutely sure that there are several women (in fact even men) who know exactly what I am talking about and I hope they can feel better after reading this. I couldn’t have felt better without the support that I got. I am very grateful to them. And to pay it forward, I am very happy to talk and lend a shoulder to anyone known or unknown who might be facing similar issues. Please feel free to reach out 🙂