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The feminist antidote to anxiety

Updated on: 22 March,2024 04:43 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Rosalyn D`mello |

Having faith in myself and my near and dear ones, rejecting guilt and resting in the knowledge of having made empowering choices have helped me deal with panic

The feminist antidote to anxiety

I’ve been trying out a recent suggestion to learn to sit with the discomfort of having displeased someone. Representation Pic

Rosalyn D’MelloUnsure when to inform my two-year-old about my impending solo work trip to Dubai, I began scouring the internet for suggestions from mothers who have been in similar positions. One journalist mother decided to assuage her panic around separation by interviewing experts. Strangely, I remember little of what they said. What impressed itself in my memory was her sage advice to remember that anxiety, at its very root, stems from lack of trust. It really hit home, this sentence. After reading it, I paused for a second and felt a lightness take over. I began to dwell on my circumstances and realised I deeply trusted the people who would be caring for our child in my absence. It got me thinking about what lies on the other side of anxiety. What happens if and when you dive deep into the feeling and begin to untangle it? Is faith its logical opposite?

Having been around highly anxious people, I felt sure I didn’t share their attributes. In retrospect, I understand that I had simply not been allowing myself to feel the emotion. Because if I had truly wrestled with the bodily consequence of it, I would have better interpreted the conditions that were enabling the feeling. I would have made better choices in the past. I hadn’t fathomed how being around anxious people felt familiar. I never made the connection between people who have regular tempestuous outbursts and their internalised anxiety. I suspect I often felt like my behaviour merited the outburst and it was my job to dissipate the negativity and make everything ‘good’ again.

I’ve been musing about the link between anxiety and people-pleasing. The desire to keep the people around you happy is rooted in deep fear of the negative consequences of their disapproval. People-pleasing is a survival mechanism. Because, in patriarchal cultures, shame has conventionally been used as an instrument of repression. You ask a child for a hug, and they say no, instead of respecting their lack of consent, the tendency is to shame them into acquiescing. The child (frequently female) learns that they are responsible for the feelings of others. This is a small example of the many sexist layers of gendered conditioning.

I’ve been trying out a recent suggestion to learn to sit with the discomfort of having displeased someone. When you sit with it and allow it to be, thus validating and acknowledging its existence, funnily enough, it passes. Of course, depending on the degree of your people-pleasing tendencies, the amount of time it needs to pass can vary. I’m slowly understanding that saying no to requests people make of me is linked to this ability to be okay with disappointing people. Because when you occasionally say no, you are asserting the limits of your body. You are telling someone that you do not have the resources to commit to something. You are thus protecting your body’s energies.

For a while now, one of the ways in which I have been alleviating my anxiety has involved priming myself ahead of time and visualising the circumstances that are the source material for my panic-stricken state. My brain simultaneously computes a list of options or worst-case scenarios. As you may have surmised, a lot of my anxiety tends to revolve around travel, changing buses, getting to the right platform, etc. all of which got compounded after having to navigate a child in a stroller. At some point I realised the futility of trying to always be autonomous. I simply had to learn to ask for help. Since I want our child to be able to ask for help when he needs it, I had to start to model this behaviour. It still irks me that in so many instances, people are not able to innately see or perceive that you are in need of help. But I am learning to be more forgiving of their lack of intuition. I am also learning to distinguish between circumstances within my control and those that lie totally beyond its purview. 

Having cultivated a feminist spine means I am able to acknowledge that there is enough reason to distrust the world. Most systems were designed to preserve the illusion of ableist-white-heterosexual-male supremacy. My body is the opposite of that. I am learning to trust myself and the community I have built both within my immediate surroundings and back home. My faith in them grows stronger. 

I realised, eventually, that I feel zero guilt about entrusting my child to my partner and in-laws’ care for the four days and nights I am away. I am offering him an opportunity to practise resilience and am enabling them to build on the strength of their bonds with him. Not feeling the guilt makes me feel so much lighter. These days I don’t even question if I’m a good mother; I believe in the core of my being that I am, just like I know in my soul that my partner is the best father I could have imagined for a child. Maybe resting in the knowledge of having made empowering choices is another feminist antidote against anxiety.

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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