Today is Mental Health Awareness day and after this week’s headlines and debates, I think it is especially important to address how we can all defend our minds against toxic cultures. By culture, I mean the society at large with its barrage of sexist ads, harmful stereotypes, and impossible expectations. But I also mean the smaller groups we find ourselves immersed in on a daily basis, such as our family, our work, our group of friends, or even the culture we create for ourselves in our own minds, all of which are influenced by that larger societal culture of which they are a part. Are the beliefs, opinions, and thoughts in that culture helping you or hurting you? Are the messages of your culture useful?
“A girl begins to believe that the negative images her family and culture reflect back to her about herself are not only totally true but are also totally free of bias, opinion, and personal preference. The girl begins to believe that she is weak, ugly, unacceptable and that this will continue to be true no matter how hard she tries to reverse it.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Honor Your Instincts
Listen to your gut feelings. Now, this isn’t the same as listening to your fear and running from every situation that gives you butterflies. If it did, I’d be cowering in a closet with a box of donuts trying to stuff down all the fears incited by last night’s Presidential debate. As someone with severe anxiety, I know how difficult it can be to tell the difference between fear and the inner knowing that there is danger in the air. But with time and practice, you learn to identify the differences.
Even when you feel fear, if you are taking a step towards what you truly want, there will be a sense of excitement and pride beneath all that fear. That’s my first clue to telling the difference. But as I am still new to this process myself, I highly recommend that you find resources to help you start listening to your instincts. Start to trust that you, your past, and your DNA contain wisdom your conscious mind may not always be able to comprehend. Strong women came before you and their wisdom is written in your blood, working its will from the inside. To ignore those instincts is to shut out the soul.
Author Martha Beck has written several books on the subject including “Find your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim your True Nature to Create the Life You Want.”
She also has a blog at MarthaBeck.com.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is another helpful author if you’re open to meditation and mindfulness practice. He wrote “Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness” and several other books on the benefits of meditation.
Many people also find yoga helpful to this process. Yoga resources surround us so I’ll leave you to discover those.
Mute the Malevolent Messages
Literally. When a sexist commercial starts, when an offensive person starts speaking on the radio, or a family member or friend begin a familiar rant, you have the option and the right to ignore it and walk away. I’m not suggesting that the solution lies in just ignoring the problems and hoping they go away. It is just as important to speak your truth and have your say. But I believe that after so much repetition and force, those messages start to sink into our psyches and change our thinking. It is one thing to be aware of the messages, know they exist, and work to argue against them. But it is another to listen to them repetively when you heard the message loud and clear the first time. You don’t have to change everyone else in order to honor your own truth and maintain your own integrity. Focus on who and what you control: yourself.
Surround Yourself with Strength
Trade in the ads, the tabloid gossip, and the petty stereotypes for the voices of your role models, your heroines, or just the folks who make you smile. Follow Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, and Emma Watson on social media. Join a book club of kindred spirits. Read books, magazines, and blogs that educate and inspire you. Learn about women who thrived in oppressive cultures. Find your flock and focus on their messages of hope and encouragement.
Take heart in knowing there are women out there working to change the status quo. There are so many daring women out there unafraid to speak their truth and expose their souls despite the knowledge that there are larger, louder crowds that would silence them. Look to Michelle Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Malala Yousafzai, J.K. Rowling, or Maya Angelou. Then look in the mirror and see their strength in you. It’s there.
“The most destructive cultural conditions for a woman to be born into and to live under are those that insist on obedience without consultation with one’s soul…” –Clarissa Pinkola Estes
When those toxic messages do slip through the cracks, remember to stop and really consider them. Ask questions! Who does the message benefit? Who does it harm? What is the context? What is the relevance? Is the message based on fact? What are the facts? What do you think? How do you feel about the statement? If everyone acted in accordance with the message, how would the world look?
Consider every movie, every book, every status update, every eye-roll as an opportunity to practice analyzing a message. Use your imagination as much as possible. Journal. Practice respectful debate. Ask questions. Get curious about the why and how of every thing that interests you.
To cultivate your own voice and discover your own values and beliefs, you need a space entirely your own where you are safe and free to express your honest thoughts and feelings. I am a writer so I like to journal and blog. I also turn to music and movies to gather inspiration and courage to share my own stories. For you it may be dancing, singing, painting, running, crafting, designing websites, etc. As long as there is one corner of the universe that belongs just to you now and again, you will have the freedom to explore and discover your own beliefs.
Embrace your “Imperfections”
We live in a world where we are constantly barraged with “shoulds.” You should be thin, you should be quiet, you should be smart but not “too smart,” you should be independent, you should be maternal, you should be pretty, blah, blah, blah. These toxic beliefs create the perception of imperfections. We start to see our natural foibles and human quirks as flaws and sources of deep shame. I still struggle with this hourly. I could list my imperfections for days.
But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t love donuts a little too much, bite my fingernails, laugh during awkward silences, or use sarcasm to cope with intimacy. I’d be buried under a fake facade of socially acceptable behaviors. It takes a lot of practice to tell that wicked stepsister of a superego to shut up so I can just be. But I think it is worth the constant effort. There is a dangerous predator stalking our every move, just waiting to pounce and feed on our flaws. It’s just part of our wiring as animals. That doesn’t mean we have to listen. In time and with practice, the voice will fade.
I highly recommend reading author, Brene Brown, to help you on your quest to silence the shaming voice of perfectionism. She wrote The Gifts of Imperfection and most recently, Rising Strong. For a preview, I also recommend her Ted Talk: The Power of Vulnerability.
Be Kind to Your Body
This one is the most difficult for me. I’m an emotional eater and I tend to feel lethargic when I’m depressed. I also get exhausted from the constant tension that comes with chronic anxiety. But even I have to admit that when I exercise, eat more nutritiously, and sleep regularly, I feel so much better. My therapist once told me that even if I didn’t believe that I deserved to be taken care of, if I started going through the motions, eventually I would internalize the positive messages I was giving my body.
Once again, she was right. When I started to schedule the time to take walks, take a bath, do some yoga, and eat more fruits and veggies and fewer donuts, I did start to both feel better and feel more worthy of the efforts. I think that is what the struggle really comes down to in the end. Some people wait until they feel like they deserve to be respected, deserve to be healthy and feel good. But that may never happen. Start by just taking a walk around the block, and tomorrow take the stairs instead of the elevator. Go through the motions of pretending to care and eventually you will feel worthy of the effort.
Thanks for reading!
A few more recommended resources:
Anything Alain de Botton.
SARK’s books and blog.
“Women Who Run With the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D