How to be full of your self
Being consciously tender towards ourselves and others goes a long way in correcting conditioning that forces us to give when we have nothing
Last week I agreed to a 'termination' session with my therapist. The word sounds cruel and cold. I'm searching, still, for its replacement.
It had been months since our last session, surprising, considering how intense and dislocating my experience of this time has been. Perhaps my ability to account for all the emotions that entered my body during this span was what made therapy redundant. I hadn't foreseen arriving at this moment so organically; this transformation from acknowledging that I was broken to this wholeness that arises from my having reconstituted myself.
At our last session in January, my therapist had offered me stringent advice. "You cannot give from an empty cup," she counselled. For that session, my homework had been to think about my conception of generosity. I had shared with her my memory of the story I had internalised as a young Catholic girl.
Christ is with his disciples near a synagogue, and he witnesses a poor widow reaching towards the collection box to put in two small copper coins. In theory, it is less than the amount offered by the rich. But Christ reminds his disciples that this woman probably gave all she had. This was true generosity.
My therapist was not impressed. She admitted she didn't know this particular story, but she wondered what it would sound like if it was told from the widow's perspective. Was she eager to give, or did she feel burdened into donating? Did she keep anything for herself? Was she even in possession of her selfhood, her agency, or was she such a good subject that she was content to have nothing left over?
Since then, I had been spending more time and energy understanding how to be more full-of-one's-self. It seemed counter-intuitive to the way I had been conditioned by the world around me to perform womanhood. I was brought up to share more easily, to not feel entitled to claiming ownership even over my own work or subjectivity. I hadn't before thought about how so much of our generosity is facilitated by our inherent, unspoken desire for validation.
Growing up ugly, I felt almost indebted to anyone who wanted to associate with me. I gave in so easily to any demands made of me because I felt undesirable, and felt overly grateful when someone had the audacity to desire my friendship or to solicit my opinions. It's difficult to fathom for how long I had been functioning from this space of hollow insecurity.
It's hard to even gauge how much emotional manipulation I actively enabled because of such low self-esteem. Arriving at this realisation through my therapy session in January felt like a breakthrough moment. Around that time I also learned, from my therapist, and from reading bell hooks and Audre Lorde, the foundational role of kindness, towards self, and towards others. Lorde says, "We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit."
Pursuing tenderness towards the self as a daily coping mechanism makes of it a practice. You learn to wrestle with your emotional past by recognising how so much feeling arises from shame. Shame is a rod by which we are beaten into submissiveness and by which we exercise power over others. It is one of the most effective tools of patriarchy. More of us around the world, across cultures and genders have known shame more than love. It is often shame that prevents us from loving even ourselves. It is for fear of being shamed that we live continually in avoidance of our own feelings.
I had wondered, some weeks ago, about that final verse in Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. "Maybe there's a God above/But all I've ever learned from love/Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya." That's a lesson I had been taught for sure, that it was legitimate to attack your opponent in self-defence; how to make witty comebacks, how to decimate your attacker's self-worth with sharp words, even belatedly. I wish I had learned how to empathise, instead, or how to return a bad intention with something more positive. In other words, I was more susceptible to being shamed because an unkind word triggered in me a base insecurity or humiliation.
I'm able to hold myself better now. And that's the consequence of my journey into my own psyche. It has felt like an Odyssey. Except, instead of wandering through the geographical territory, I had to delve deep into my fleshy, aching core. It took a lot of courage. And I had to shed a lot, besides tears.
I get why so many people are afraid of therapy — they're apprehensive of the work it demands. Who wants to willingly rewrite the stories we were told and those we constructed to facilitate a more comfortable experience of our realities? Therapy involves recomposing these neatly arranged narratives and delving deeper into the self, and learning how to practise emotional hygiene.
I wouldn't say I'm 'healed'. But the most significant change has involved experiencing an alignment between body and mind. This gradually emerging faith in one's self must be a precondition for encountering joy.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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