Friday, July 25, 2014

I Am Powerful

Dear Reader: I write to better understand my experiences of life; I share with the hope that my words will touch something inside you, and together we will remember that we all walk through life with love and loss, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, faith and uncertainty.

In this post I write about struggles particular to women not because women are the only one with struggles, but because these are the struggles I have personally lived with and experienced, the ones I am able to write about.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.



Yesterday I was clever,
So I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise,
So I am changing myself.

– Rumi

For a long time I believed in Magic. More precisely I believed that I was magic, that I could wield magic. Now I hadn’t figured out precisely how to do this, but I could feel the strength of my magic inside me. And sometimes it felt so powerful I was afraid of it; afraid that if I unleashed it, my magic would blow off the roof and the walls. At times like those when I felt my magic churning and building inside, it was both exhilarating and terrifying.

I felt it, just like that, when I told Todd about it early in our relationship. To his credit he didn’t tell me I was delusional; he didn’t mock me. He did seem awfully uncomfortable and at a loss for words. Stuck in that moment poised to unleash my magic and risk having the building blown apart, in uncertainty and fear I clamped down on it.

It has been a long, long time since I believed in magic. I certainly don’t believe that I have latent powers that, understood and exercised, could render basic laws of physics ineffective. I’ve long since put that whole idea aside, and haven’t really asked myself what it was that I felt inside me, thrumming with unexpressed power and eager for expression.



Malala Yousafzai
The other day on Facebook I saw the following quote: “The woman who does not require validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet.” A quick search showed this to be the title of an article by Mohadesa Najumi from Huffington Post about, not surprisingly, the onslaught of societal pressure girls and women constantly receive to not express their personal power (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/mohadesa-najumi/ban-bossy-women-who-do-not-need-validation-are-feared_b_4971919.html). Without yet reading the article, I went to bed with this idea on my mind – and with it the two comments left on this Facebook post, both by men, both insulting: “No such woman exists....” and, “I actually fear women who need constant validation...”

The single biggest challenge a woman faces in learning to not look to others for validation, is for her to learn to tune out the constant demeaning and condescending messages that come in the form of supposed humor (see above), advertisements, casual conversations at work and on the street, from well-meaning but clueless friends and relatives, really, from everywhere.



For any of you on a journey of self-discovery, whether through spiritual, religious, meditative, fitness, or psychotherapy means, you are well acquainted with this scenario: You have that recurring issue that seems to crop up time after time in your life. You’ve tried to respond to it and think of it so many different ways, you’re convinced you’ve tried everything. And yet when it comes around once again, it still gets under your skin and you know you still haven’t figured something out.
Winona LaDuke

Meditation, spiritual practice, and psychotherapy are all designed to help you see through your blind spots so that you can figure out what it is in you that needs to change. And let me be clear here: I absolutely do not mean to suggest that the solution to every problem is an attitude adjustment, and I do not mean to suggest that I am the problem behind every problem (or that you are). But still, if we want to stop being snagged by these recurring areas of stress, surely there is either a new understanding, or new approach, that can render them less painful and debilitating.



As I was trying unsuccessfully to sleep I kept thinking of the woman who does not require validation. And I thought about the bane of my existence, my recurring theme (see This Tedious Path) whose reappearance makes me want to weep.

This time around in my struggles with an authority figure, I am gaining insights that have so far in my life eluded me. My defensiveness comes both from indignation that my good efforts and work ethic are being questioned, when in truth they are exemplary; and from a childhood where good behavior did not always save me from getting in trouble. Now as in childhood, I walk this planet with pride in my good works while simultaneously prepared to fight anyone who might challenge that.

Rosa Parks
For as long as I can remember, I have had a hard-wired sense of right and wrong; a compass that points towards injustice, and a compulsion to do something about it. Fighter for truth and justice? Yes, that describes me. But what also describes me? I’m generally a quiet, private person who abhors drama (of the unnecessary, human-manufactured variety) and who wants to live her life without dramatic intrusion. You can see how these two traits might not get along well.

So here’s how the theme plays out (for convenience I’ll use the work setting, since that is one we can all relate to, and since many work environments are prone to misuse of power): I have a new job where I happily get up to speed and learn how to improve my efficiency and accuracy. I fly under the radar, steering clear of gossip and office politics, and am quite content. Then after a time I start to notice “things.” Or perhaps someone brings “things” to my attention. Or worse yet, someone blames me for “things.” Suddenly I can’t hide from the injustices that are going on in this work environment. Without a doubt these injustices impact others, not just me. So now the two parts of me start their tortured dance. The one part wants to pretend that nothing has changed, that I can continue to do my job and ignore everything else; that should be my right, I didn’t ask for any of this other crap. But the other side of me cannot carry on in silence, and I feel a physical compulsion to shed light on the injustices.

Serena Williams
What ensues is an extraordinarily graceless tug-of-war, as I try simultaneously to address the injustice while maintaining my anonymity. I am hopelessly ambivalent about my role in bringing to light the wrongs that I have witnessed, and resentful about the repercussions of doing so. I suspect that it is because of my ambivalence, my back-and-forth behavior, that I am often scapegoated as the injustices are revealed. So I leave my job because my work environment becomes completely inhospitable. I have succeeded in shedding light on the injustice, and I can hope that meaningful change will come. I have done what my gut compelled me to do. Yet I never wanted this drama, and somehow I end up being the one disliked or blamed or shut out. The entire experience is exhausting and frustrating and makes me wonder, “Why me? Why again?”



So back to the woman who does not require validation, and the woman who felt a “magical” power vibrating inside herself. How would these recurring themes play out if, instead of approaching my duty to reveal the injustice reluctantly and ambivalently, I approached it with unapologetic strength and conviction?

To approach something with true strength is not defensive, bullying, demeaning, or aggressive. True strength is self-confident and comes from an inner sense of power and right-ness. Do I set in motion my own scapegoating with these behaviors: initially hiding my head in the sand; an evident unwillingness to confront; moving back and forth between standing tall and avoiding?
 
Suffragist Parade
I feel pride in my moral compass, and in unveiling injustices. I know in at least a couple situations my efforts have helped bring about significant and long-lasting change. But I always seem to be sacrificed in the process, and I’m dog tired of that ending.

What would it take to shed the fear (or heck, just pretend to not be fearful) and face up to the problem the very first time something demeaning is said to me? The very first time an unrealistic expectation is made of me? The very first time my good intentions are misinterpreted as negative? The very first time someone is passive aggressive? What would it take for me to respond with strength and confidence to the very first slight, no matter how slight?

How would it feel if I accepted ownership of my part? I see injustice and I make waves; I do not tolerate it; I do not keep my head down. As much as I want calm and peace, there can be no peace if there is injustice. Knowing that, can I lose the ambivalence?

And how differently might things go for me as the whole story plays out, if throughout I present myself as strong, self-confident, and self-validating?



Of course it is tempting at this point to paint a rosy picture, to commit myself to standing strong and not playing the scapegoat one more time, and to forecast a bright future for myself, Slayer of Injustice. But for women it is more complicated: The woman who does not require validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet.

Women and men who act with confidence, assertion and strength are labeled differently (bitchy, bossy, aggressive vs. strong, confident, take-charge). Women are often put down for displaying these qualities, not admired and cheered on. In fact women who act consistently with strength and conviction are often scapegoated. Just think of women who have stood up for justice and been vilified for being strong, active and opinionated: Rosa Parks was arrested, then fired from her job; Malala Yousafzai was gunned down for advocating education for girls; suffragists were ridiculed and dismissed: “depictions of spinster suffragettes were normally slender in a time when curves were celebrated; their faces likewise were severe and gaunt, the lines of disappointment etched deep by the illustrator’s pen.’ The spinster suffragette’s clothes and physical appearance emphasize that she is a failed woman and wannabe man. The lady wants to vote because she couldn’t get a date” (from http://mentalfloss.com/article/26234/war-suffrage).

Women who are strong are often feared. People who are feared are often derided and/or hated.



Saudi woman breaking the law by driving
I suppose the take-away question is, what would feel the better way to live my life? If there is something inside me that is compelled to call attention to injustice, and if I am proud of this part of me, then it makes sense that I will feel better about myself if I carry out this mission with strength and self-confidence, if I surrendered to my role of injustice unveiler, however modest.

The point is, I cannot control how I will be perceived. The point is, as I learn to self-validate that will become less and less important to me.




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