Moody Musings: Close Your Mind to Corrupt Culture

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.

Suggested Resources:

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.

Question Everything

“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.

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“Express Yourself”

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.

Suggested Resources:

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

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Moody Musings: Stuff Your Smiles

One of the first things I read this morning was a well-meaning article on the benefits of smiling. I’m sure there are many benefits and as my therapist tells me, “it is important to focus on the positive.” So why, when I read it, did I have to quell an overwhelming urge to throw my phone through the window? I’ll tell you why.

It’s Monday. Morning. It’s raining. And just, NO.

If you’re a woman on Earth, I’m sure you’ve been told at some point to “smile,” or that “you’d look prettier if you smiled,” or some similarly obnoxious statement. Not necessarily just by men either. It seems some people just don’t like to see you frown and they’re seriously concerned…about how your face looks and how it affects them. Isn’t that sweet?

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I could be clinically depressed, have just lost a loved one, or read the news. Maybe all three. You don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head.

You have no idea why someone else is frowning or just not inclined to smile at the moment. They could have a mood or behavioral disorder. In which case, walking up to them and telling them to “smile!” is about as productive as walking up to a person in a wheelchair and saying, “just stand up and walk, it’s so easy and good for you.”

People have said things like that to me during depressive episodes and I felt so much worse afterwards. I felt like my inability to feel happy was inconvenient for others. I wanted to smile. I wanted to be in a good mood. I wanted to have the energy to make an effort. But sometimes, I just didn’t.

I already felt bad about this. I already wondered what was wrong with me, why I couldn’t be “normal” or “happy” like other people. I mean really, why wasn’t it easy to do basic things like laugh at a joke or just enjoy something, anything at all? Because of neurotransmitters, chemicals, and hormones I don’t control. Having someone tell me to stop being a “Debbie-downer” or to “smile more,” not only invalidated my feelings, it invalidated a very real, widespread, and legitimate illness.

But even if I didn’t have a mental illness, I’m still a human being with my own individual thoughts and feelings apart from yours. Living in this world is not always easy or happy. Sometimes we get sick, we die, our loved ones yell and hurt our feelings, we get laid off, and on and on. There are so many reasons to feel emotions besides happiness. We all have a right to those feelings and to their expression. So just as you can tell me to “smile,” I can tell you to buzz off.” And just because you can do something, doesn’t make it a good idea. It’s too bad if my feelings are difficult for you or affect your mood. But that is your issue. Don’t make it mine.

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It may seem something small and simple. But my body is my business. You don’t dictate what I get to do with it. Any of it. 

This is a basic boundary issue. If I’m not hurting anyone, then it’s nobody’s business what I do with my face or my body. It’s also none of my business what you think of my face or my mouth or anything at all. Your blunt command for me to “smile” crosses the line.

You get your body and your mind to do and think as you please. So do I. I don’t care if I’ll “look prettier” if I smile. I am so much more than a face or a pleasing expression to be admired by doting passersby like I’m a piece of furniture.

big lebowski meme.PNGTelling a stranger to do anything with their body is weird and creepy. It places that human being on level with a dog that you believe you have the right to command. “Sit!” “Stay.” “Smile!” “Good girl!!!” No. Just don’t. You are not my master and I will not obey. We’re not pets to command or dolls to arrange at your pleasure. 

Now that I’ve covered the basics of why it is disrespectful to tell someone to “smile.” I’d like to point out that the results you’re looking for, that pretty, shiny, happy face doesn’t appear on command. When you force someone to express a feeling they don’t actually feel, the expression will be just as fake. A genuine smile doesn’t just appear on command. This does: forced-smile-hilary

An expression of thinly veiled annoyance with a barely detectable upturn of the mouth. If we do smile at your command, we’re labeled “stiff” and “unnatural.” If we don’t, we have “resting bitch face.” So tell me again, why we should smile?

Suspect Sexist Standards

I consider myself a feminist, but this post is about the goal of equality within feminism.  I want to discuss some disturbing trends I’ve noticed regarding women’s treatment of men and other women. Sexism isn’t confined to men’s behavior toward women. Yes, I acknowledge there are several important sexist issues there, and I’m sure I’ll blog about the many instances I’ve personally experienced soon enough. But what about the guys? In what ways do we as women hold them to double standards, different expectations, and unfair treatment?

My first long-term relationship was from age seventeen to twenty-three. A high school junior at the romance’s first blossoming, I was smitten with literature, poetry, and Shakespearean plays. I was still in that teenage phase where I considered Romeo and Juliet to be terribly romantic, not creepily co-dependent or extreme. When my boyfriend opened car doors for me or paid for dinner, I thought it was romantic and chivalrous. I didn’t stop to wonder if he could afford it.

I moved in with my boyfriend when I was nineteen, convinced I was one of the lucky few to find “the one” in high school. Daydreams of marriage and family in my mind, I settled into our new apartment and figured I was on my way to “happily ever after.” But after a few years, I started noticing that I wasn’t happy. I felt bored, confined, and even trapped. Sometimes at night I would take long drives and pretend I wasn’t coming back.

In retrospect, I think a large part of my problem came from my false belief in the modern myth that once you’re in a relationship, you’ll be happy and feel complete. I had an expectation, as I think many women do, that settling into a relationship with a man would bring me financial security, physical protection, and emotional intimacy. I think these beliefs caused me to underestimate my own role in my happiness and discounted my own abilities to take care of myself.

But it also overestimated the man’s role, his responsibility even, to provide happiness and safety for me. Why should I figure out how to make myself feel happy and fulfilled if a man was around to do it for me? This way of thinking was not only harmful to my own feelings of self-worth, it was harmful to my boyfriend’s too.

gender equality

Since that time, I’ve noticed a number of sexist standards that I’ve applied to men and that the women around me accept as a standard. I’ve lived in a small town in the Midwest and a large major U.S. city on the West Coast, and I’ve found the attitudes and patterns in both areas. I’ve worked hard to become aware of my own attitudes and consider if they’re really fair to myself and my loved ones. When I fight to stand up for my own rights, I also try to stop and consider the rights of the other person involved. This has been a long and difficult process, as I’ve had to admit to myself several times how my thoughts and behaviors are unfair.

Along the way, I’ve become more sensitive and more aware of other women’s expectations and beliefs about gender roles. I started wondering where my own beliefs came from and started looking around at the people around me and the roles they assumed. I quickly discovered I was not alone. Many women who want fair and equal treatment in some areas, don’t seem to want it in other areas such as finance or emotional intimacy.

Troubling Trends:

Unequal Economics

First off, I’d like to acknowledge that my current boyfriend makes more money than I do and I have borrowed smalls sums of money from him in times of financial difficulty. During my time with him, I’ve received serious remarks from women indicating that I was lucky to have found a “sugar daddy” or someone “who can take care of you.” As a recovering codependent, I bristle with pride when I encounter these assumptions. I’ve worked really hard to remain independent and make sure I’ve earned my own way in the world (as do many people of all relationship statuses).

I notice when female servers flirt and laugh with my boyfriend and then register a small expression of surprise when I reach for the bill. I notice the thinly veiled animosity after I announce my boyfriend’s occupation or expensive hobbies. I notice that women assume my male partner foots the bill or make jokes about withholding sexual favors if and when he denies me money. Is my body up for auction to the highest-bidding male? Is a man’s earnings something for me to manipulate into my possession? What year is it again?

Must Marry?

I’ve had women ask me why I’m not married or assume I want to get married and have children. Now, I’m not saying these things are not right for some people or not the path for many to find happiness and fulfillment. But I do question why it’s assumed that I am in any way with my partner for financial reasons, or that I “of course” accept financial support from him, and want to get married, and squirt out babies.

Yes, that’s the right path for many women, but is it the only path? I think the assumption that I accept money from my boyfriend exposes the widespread expectation that men shoulder the majority of the financial burdens. Perhaps some men want to do so, and perhaps in some relationships, that is what’s best and that’s great. But when anyone suggests that financial support is something owed to me and that my sex life has anything to do with it, I get really creeped out. First of all, that’s nobody’s business, and secondly, that’s nobody’s business!

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Some women have those dreams and goals to marry, have kids, and focus on family. More power to you! Some men want to provide for a family and take pride in being the supporter. Awesome! But why is it assumed that those are my main goals and dreams too? Or my boyfriends? Why am I looked at with curiosity or pity when I declare: “No, I’m not married.” “No, I don’t have kids.” “No, I don’t have plans to get married.” Why are my single friends continually set up on dates or warned about their aging ovaries? When did men become walking wallets and women just a uterus? Why do women tell me I need to “step up my game” when I state that I’ve been with my boyfriend for six years and we’re not married. Are relationships just games?

Emotional Inequity

Many women in my family tend to be emotional creatures, myself included. Although I think it can be a harmful stereotype to assume all women are emotional, I do believe there is some truth to the notion that women tend to be more emotionally expressive than men. In my experience, women show no remorse or shame about their feelings because they know they have the right to their emotions and their free expression. But men don’t always receive the same consideration. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard women say they like “tough” guys or mention how they’re put off by “sissies” or “weak” men who openly cry or discuss their feelings. Why is it considered normal for a woman to be emotional and cry during difficult situations, but men are supposed to be stoic, quiet, and tough? Are men not human beings with the same emotions as women?

My first boyfriend was emotional, sensitive, and comfortable showing what he was feeling. I’ve since learned how rare that is for men and why. I can’t imagine being shamed for mourning at a loved one’s funeral or crying at a moving film, but I’ve witnessed men subjected to shame in those situations (both shaming speeches were by women). I can’t imagine being met with anything other than support and hugs from my female friends when I start crying. But sexism mediaagain, in my experience, men don’t have this luxury of release or honest expression. They’re taught to keep it all in, support the family, and if they have to express an emotion, the only acceptable one is anger or annoyance. Does this sound like a recipe for violent outbursts to anyone else? or homophobic hate crimes?

Yet men are expected to be romantic and show gushy expressions of love to their significant others after years of cultural conditioning to suppress their feelings. I can’t help thinking they’ve been screwed over a bit when Valentine’s Day rolls around each year. I know I’ve hyped up the holidays and placed unrealistic expectations on arbitrary events. If there isn’t a giant teddy bear and a sincere display of emotion, he must not love me. Because Hollywood says so. And when has Hollywood been wrong?

I know that I’m making some generalizations and I know m
any men and women share my observations and frustrations. I’m just tired of hearing about women’s trials in expecting fair and equal treatment while also hearing women complain about men not doling out enough money, or showing too much emotion, or not enough emotion, or being just as human as we are. Yes, women have a long history of oppression, sexism, and unfair treatment. But how are we as women holding ourselves accountable for our expectations and treatment of men or our treatment of each other?