(The lotus is the only flower that thrives in muddy waters. This talk, given by Anna at the Inner Wheel Club, Kottayam, is about promoting empowerment for women in a collective society – a society which makes many demands on the roles women must play.)
To empower means to enable or to permit.
A lot of organisations, individuals, governments and community, work towards promoting physical empowerment of women. However, this evening I share with you my thoughts on a different type of empowerment, psychological empowerment. Psychological empowerment is a need in our current society, as more and more women are shedding, or stepping out of traditional, stereotypical roles and entering a new work arena. In fact, data is showing that India is experiencing a social crisis because of the change of traditional social roles.
While we educate our young girls to become independent, take jobs and responsibilities, we also need to provide them with life skills to manage and cope with their uniqueness. They need to be informed that it is impossible to excel in multi roles and that choice is acceptable. No two individuals are similar, each has a set of strengths and limitations, yet society expects them to be perfect and excel in all the roles they play. If they do not, they are branded or marked as failures. For us women to understand psychological empowerment, we need to understand a prime factor or issue that prevents psychological empowerment – shame.
Shame is a psycho-social construct. We are a shame based society, that controls members of a system – like a family, a clan, or group, by shaming and humiliating members when they do not live up to the expectations thrust upon them.
All of us have multiple roles and identities that we are expected to fulfil – those of a mother, daughter, in law, granddaughter, sister, employer, employee, etc. We get deeply embedded in these roles and constantly feel pressured and stressed, trying to fulfil the demands of these roles. We fear being ridiculed, shamed or humiliated. We fear exclusion.
Inclusion is the third most important need in the hierarchy of needs, after food, water and shelter. All human beings have a core need of being acknowledged, included and accepted, as a human of self worth and dignity. Example J
Fear of exclusion disables us from experiencing the liberated feeling of who we want to be, aspire to be, or dream to be. Instead, we constantly feel cornered, trapped and victimised.
When Talita invited me here this evening, to talk to all of you on women and empowerment, I experienced feelings of joy, of being included, of being acknowledged and recognised as an individual who has the ability to address all of you. Simultaneously, I also had feelings of fear, of being judged, ridiculed and excluded.
In 2000, when I stepped out from being a homemaker into the professional arena – I had fears and was scared, because I was only a homemaker and yet, I was going to be working with individuals from B-schools of premier institutions. I was scared because I was not confident that I was equipped, and felt anxious that I would be shamed and not included. I feared I would be an outsider!
Today, I feel the same fear as I have failed in one of the identities that my community had expected of me – I have failed to live up to the expectation of being an ideal, good in-law. I was willing to be a caring in-law but parallelly, I wanted to continue in my professional journey, which entailed a lot of travel and time away from home. This was perceived as neglect and selfishness. I had made a choice to take care of my core need, for which I was accused, blamed and humiliated.
I share this part of my personal shame with you, because to feel empowered, one has to have the courage to acknowledge openly your failures, imperfections and vulnerabilities.
Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher on shame states, that women experience shame as a web of layered, conflicting and competing social community expectations of who we should be, wh3at we should be and how we should be. This is our identity in society. Shame can be specific to the different roles we play and to the expectations of these roles. The fear of not fulfilling these roles, fuels our core feeling of shame.
Psychological empowerment is the ability to accept that you are a human being of dignity and self worth and to also acknowledge your vulnerability and imperfections. Empowerment is a social community issue, because for us women to feel psychologically empowered, we need to be aware, to acknowledge, and to courageously experience our feelings of shame, if we fail in any of our various roles.
To become empowered and to empower, we need to embrace our unique truths, imperfections and inadequacies.
Since society a shame-based, it uses power to control, influence, exert and retain. There are two types of power. There is over-power and there is real power.
Over-power is to exert, to control, to force and bully. It is a type of power that is used for all of us to feel powerless and to experience in short supply, feelings of self worth, love, care and acceptance. The feeling of short supply of positive feelings, promotes us to be critical, judgemental, persecutionary and forceful. When individuals indulge in these behaviours, it is indicative of their core, which is one of worthlessness and inadequacy. They attempt to feel worthy through over-power.
Real power comes from within. It enables individuals to change something if they want to, it is limitless, and we don’t need to fight for it. It is available abundantly. It is not forced on us. In fact, it is what we create and build along with others. It is inclusive.
Real power has three components, conscious, choice and change. For us to empower ourselves, we need to be conscious, make choices and subsequently change. It is real power that enables us to connect with our inner core. It also promotes us to develop social support networks and create power through interaction. In interaction, the personal zoom lens that was inward looking, starts looking outside. Social support networks develop only through sharing our own feelings, experiences and issues, while interacting with other individuals.
When an individual is going through a difficulty, they are inward looking, so their struggles are magnified, their stress increases and they are unable to problem solve.
When we share, we are talking aloud and therefore get clarity in our own thoughts. It is therapeutic, because we also learn problem solving when people share from their experiences. It is through sharing that we finally acknowledge our feelings. Acknowledgement is therapeutic because we have moved from denial into reality, which is the key to problem solving.
Dr. Uram, a trained psychiatrist, explains that most of us adults think of traumatic events as big events (like wrecks, disasters, natural calamities). We tend not to recognise that the small, daily, quiet, traumas that we experience, trigger the same brain survival reaction, that a large traumatic event creates. That is, flight, freeze, or fight. These are all defence mechanisms, these are all shame screens or denial mechanisms.
That is why, very often, before we actually recognise that we are experiencing shame, when we feel criticised, ridiculed, rejected, we actually experience bodily reactions. That is because the brain registers that there is a threat beyond our control and we get sense of a wound.
The neo cortex, which is the part of our brain that is involved in problem solving and logic, is paralysed and unable to function. We are in automated positions of fight, flight and freeze.
Shame screens create a barrier that disallows or prevents an individual from experiencing their core feelings. It is when our shame screens are in position, that people experience us as powerless, having no presence and no potency. Intellectualisation, justification, blame, generalisation are varied types of shame screens. As women, for us to harness our personal power and empower ourselves, we need to become conscious of our predominant shame screens and the triggers which prompt us to pull up our shame screens.
Sharing and acknowledgement of our shame is an antidote to shame. Shame gets paralysed when we acknowledge it.
However, it is important for us to note and be cautious, whom we select to share our feelings of shame with. We need to share with wholehearted individuals. The tenets of wholeheartedness are empathy, non-judgemental and mindful behaviour. Each of us, to promote our empowerment, need to be conscious, to make choices and to change.
To be conscious means to reflect, observe, identify our shame screens and triggers. Once we are conscious of our shame screens, we are able to look at various options available and to choose what we need to let go of, edit or change. We then make the choice of what behaviour we would like to alter. We make the choice that is appropriate to the context. Once we make the choice, we embark on the journey of change.
An empowered person, has the ability in themselves to change when they become conscious. They are more accepting of themselves and the other and embrace imperfections, uniqueness and vulnerabilities. The lotus begins to bloom.
As fellow women, take a moment and ask yourself – as a mother, as a sister, as a daughter, do you want to equip your younger generation of women with psychological empowerment, or do you want to continue to judge, criticise, ridicule and put down other women, leaving them powerless and ill equipped to live harmoniously and positively in today’s changing world. I encourage each of you to become the flowering lotus in your pond.