Something exceptional has happened recently.
My entire mindset has seen a shift towards good mental health after having come from a place of poor mental health. In this newfound space, my whole life has exposed itself with more awareness and clarity than ever before.
Today, I wanted to write about one of the biggest changes I have subconsciously been moving towards and that is: openness. Particularly openness in my relationship.
I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for just over a year. He is undoubtedly one of the most important people in my life because from day one, we made it clear to each other that we wanted to spend our lives together and make this thing work. And let’s face it: dating in this day and age takes up so many different forms that relationships do require that level of clarity. In the past, I’ve been with people where the focus was more on having fun in the moment than about a lifelong partnership so opening up and sharing our problems almost wasn’t necessary. That’s cool too. But in the context of this relationship, opening up has been key to its quality and to my happiness… and I didn’t even know how to do it until very recently.
Growing up as a woman is difficult. It is pleasing to see that sexism is dying out as each generation is made. However, most women are still shaped from early childhood by the beliefs of their mothers who may not have been subject to such female liberation. I come from a family of women where our strength is defined by our ability to put up with things and not make a fuss (as I’m sure many women are). Putting up with things can often mean not showing our emotions, not being allowed to be upset because we have to be seen to be putting on a brave face and ‘holding it together’ for those around us. Many of us have seen our mothers hide difficult emotions from our fathers because that’s what it means to be strong. I have found myself growing up with this same belief: don’t share it, just keep it inside and ‘deal with it’. That’s how to be a strong woman.
Moreover, being a woman in 2018 can sometimes mean we are taught to overcompensate. We are encouraged to flaunt our independence and wear our singledom like a badge of honour. Things like living alone, travelling alone, not being ‘tied down’ by relationships and being sexually liberated are all associated with this notion of the ‘independent woman’. Whilst I believe that all of these things are important (especially as I’ve done all of them), it’s easy to start thinking that we should be independent all the time, even in our relationships, whereas in actual fact interdependence (where you rely on each other for support but are both able to effectively stand on your own two feet) is much more constructive.
In essence, I’ve always seen opening up as a sign of weakness. Being vulnerable and sharing my insecurities have always been a source of paralysing fear. I’ve grown up thinking that if I don’t have the ‘upper hand’, in a relationship with a man, I am the weak one. I thought that in order to be strong, I wasn’t supposed to show my emotions. Instead, I had to be confident and secure in myself all the time. This is literally an impossible task.
So you can imagine that when I became anxious and depressed it always felt like there were ten million things going on in my head but I couldn’t even really get them out because of the shame, guilt and fear associated with being emotional, upset or insecure.
Many of us live with this feeling every day and one of the greatest places where it manifests is in our relationships because that’s where we are most vulnerable.
For instance… I felt incredibly insecure about the fact that my boyfriend’s dating history was way more colourful than mine. The fact that he’d slept with more people than me used to make me feel inadequate because a) I never got that opportunity and I resented him for it and b) what if these girls were hotter than me, smarter than me or more fun than me? The thing is, whenever it came to trying to tell him this, it was like someone had petrificus totallused my entire body. I was literally too shaken with fear to tell my boyfriend that I felt this way. I didn’t realise that it was okay, normal, even to experience these emotions. I thought I had to hide them and act like I was completely fine because that was the strong woman’s reaction.
I used to feel stupid about the fact that I was a less rational and more emotional person than my boyfriend. I thought of myself as inadequate because I couldn’t logic my way through situations like him. This meant that every time I experienced unhappiness, jealousy or anxiety over anything related to the relationship, I convinced myself it was my fault because I wasn’t chilled out enough or cool enough like him. So consumed was I by my own judgement of myself that I couldn’t even bring myself to talk about how I felt, for fear that it was irrational or dumb.
One time, he did something that really hurt me. It took me three whole weeks to muster up enough courage to tell him that. All the while, I felt miserable and berated myself for feeling that way. The worst part was that when I spoke to other women about this (close friends of mine) they didn’t even particularly encourage me to stand up for myself… perhaps because putting up with certain things is how a lot of us are taught to approach life. (Needless to say when I did tell him how I felt, he understood immediately and it was settled).
It took many months of working hard on myself to move past these old habits that weren’t serving me. Where self criticism and judgement ruled me, I replaced it with compassion. I became understanding of my emotions and kind to myself instead of constantly putting myself down. This didn’t come easily: it took masses of time, effort, patience and practice.
Through this practice of self compassion, I realised that holding all this crap inside me just wasn’t serving me any more and one by one, I let things go. And that hasn’t been by holding it all together, overcompensating or pretending to be the ‘strong woman’. It’s been by opening up, taking each insecurity I have and laying it out on the table before the two of us. As each one hits the tabletop, it seems to lose its power over me and I seem to be able to move on a little bit more with my life, one insecurity at a time.
Three weeks ago, I told him one night, over the phone that I needed him. By that I meant that I hadn’t opened up to him before and I had finally realised that I needed to. And I needed him to be there for me. He got it.
Yesterday, my boyfriend had plans to see one of his really good friends… who he also happens to have got together with a few times. I trust him implicitly and he’s a seriously good human being so he’s never given me reason not to. But this doesn’t mean I never get jealous either. So when I turn to him and say ‘Babe, I’m kind of insecure about you going to see her tomorrow’, and he goes ‘See who? You’re literally the only person in my life’, and then we talk about it and he validates my feelings, I get to move on and he gets to go see his friend and we both get to be happy.
Today, I brought up a five month old wound that I was too afraid to talk about five months ago. We talked a lot. I cried a lot. We both left feeling like we’d got something out of it. The five month old wound healed faster than I’d ever let it heal before.
Opening up like this still isn’t easy but it’s a hell of a lot easier than it was when I first started doing it. Self compassion was the game changer: the catalyst that made me realise that by holding things back, we are doing a disservice to ourselves. I plead to all you women out there, we have to stop thinking that being strong is all about putting up with everything and that our feelings are worthless and stupid. Our emotions are powerful and our vulnerabilities are strongholds when we’re aware of them.
Strength doesn’t lie in our ability to paint on a brave face. It lies in owning our insecurities and our flaws so they stop having power over us. Happiness lies at the other side of that fear.
Hope you all enjoyed the rant. Stay compassionate. Love, Gowri xx