At what point in our life do we start to feel unworthy? What will have happened to us when we go from being wide-eyed, carefree kids oblivious to judgement to people who feel the only place we belong is under our shell or the only way we will be worthy of acceptance is if we are someone we're not? I found myself asking these questions after reading an article by Dr. Adia Gooden in TED (it's in #Repost this week) who shares her own experiences and subsequent desire to understand self-worth, first for herself and now as a psychotherapist, for others. She says on her website, "Growing up, I always cared deeply about people and often fantasied about a world where everyone was loved, accepted, and able to freely share their gifts. As an adult, I am committed to making this world a reality." It made me wonder how our worth is often dismantled once we leave the protection of being in our own little worlds to find ourselves absorbing everything outside of it--from how we think our parents or caregivers see us and then eventually, to how we perceive we are seen by our peers.
My path to recognising my self-worth is ongoing. It's like a muscle needing to be exercised every single day, with every thought and situation that arise to challenge it. I can look back at my life and can see how that worth was undermined, never intentionally, but simply by familial cycles and circumstance. That would become the basis for all other events that would then challenge my self-worth and how I enabled events and people to continue to perpetuate what I was already feeling inside.
I grew up with loving parents. Parents who did what they could with what they had and what they knew. My brother and I were given all that we needed and more. Our parents' love for us was and is never in question. But they had their own baggage to deal with, their own histories, and their own psychologies that challenged how they related to each other and what they expected of us. Life in the Rajpal household wasn't always happy, there was constant tension, but there were also times of fun, memories that soften the harsh moments of our childhood.
My father suffered from depression, a sense of abandonment and his own lack of self worth after his mother died when he was 5 years old. My mother, who grew up with parents who adored her, lived through China's Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward which forced her out of her idyll and into a world that focused on survival. For her, there was no time or energy to spare for depression no matter how one was feeling. For her, (as she often said), feelings didn't pay the rent or put food on the table. It was within these two very different psychologies, behaviours, and subsequent clashes, where my brother and I navigated our way through our childhood and to some extent, even today.
While I never questioned their love for us, I grew up feeling desperately alone. My mother worked alot, both out of necessity and perhaps even as an escape from having to deal with the tensions at home. My father, who was a teacher, would often be too tired to deal with his kids' needs after dealing with a classroom full of them. My brother, 3 years older than me, didn't want his little sister hanging around him. So, my friends became my source of fun and attention. But as life can be, things changed. I moved away, first to a different school, then to a different country. I would make new friends, but, as I look back, I could see I would become emotionally dependent on them. And when some friends would cancel or make plans with others without me, I would take it personally, I would think they had better things to do than to hang out with me. Just as I assumed of my family.
When I was single, when I would be out at parties or bars, I would see my friends getting attention and me being left aside. I felt unseen. I thought I had to look a certain way to get the attention. I had to balance that with the expectations of my culture to behave like a "good Indian girl", one who didn't go out with boys, party in clubs, and one who had to do well in school, get a good job, get married to the right man, and live happily ever after. Perhaps, as I discovered during a therapy session, that's why I had ended up doing a job where I would be seen by the world. One that also acted as a buffer to stave off those expectations.
Yet, none of this would be enough to stave off feelings of unworthiness. Even having a coveted job I felt I had to be twice as good as others to be seen, to feel worthy of that position, to be grateful even. There is that saying "you live by the sword, you die by the sword." It's the same when it comes to working in television. If your viewers love you and shower you with attention and compliments--and that feeds into your self-confidence--then when there is a negative comment you feel crushed. That's why I learned early on to never believe my own press--which meant, if I bought into the good stuff, I would have to believe the bad too. Still, being on television doesn't in any way help one's sense of self-worth. It can't. Nothing outside of ourselves can. Because those things are like waves--they come in and they go out. And that's not a solid way to build a foundation of self.
As for relationships, I often felt I had to be chosen instead of seeing myself as the one who would be the one to choose a partner. That's also a remnant of a patriarchal society that is the Indian culture. While my parents raised me with the belief that I could do anything I put my mind to, there was the subtext of what girls should and shouldn't do, how girls should and shouldn't behave. All of this resulted in a mindset that meant I had very porous boundaries. Until I learned otherwise. Until I saw myself as someone who was in the driver's seat on the road to my own happiness.
My parents will probably describe me as being headstrong, determined, rebellious even--choosing to do things my way, questioning why things were done in a certain way in the first place. Today mother often tells me how proud she is of my strength and independence. Perhaps she saw me breaking the cycle that threatened to engulf my life and that my rebelliousness was my saviour. Perhaps she sees in me some of the woman she was on the cusp of being before life and circumstance redirected her path. But I can't take full credit for my strength and confidence. There was a pull that came from within when I was in my 20s that urged me to go out into the world to find what I was truly made of away from the tight embrace of familial constraints. It almost felt as though I had no choice/say in the matter. That was the second step on my adventure of self-discovery (the first being the rebellion I guess). It would be a long road filled with bumps and bruises, tears and traumas that would lead me to where I am today--a woman who is proud of her emotional provenance.
I still have challenges to my self-worth. I still look in the mirror and find faults. I still feel if I was thinner, taller, angular, you name it, I wouldn't be judged and that I would be happy. Yet, I know, the rational side of me knows, I am the only one doing the judging. This isn't so much about self-esteem as it is about finding my worth in my physical self. Finding that worth of being me, looking the way I do. I am still trying to uncover where that lack of respect for my body comes from. It's also why I have huge issues dealing with my old clothes from when I was an anchor. They hang in our spare room on rails waiting to be sorted. I walk past that room pretending they're not there, even though I know they are. The bright coloured, silky, designer baggage reminding me of how I used to be. The irony is, even back then when I wore those clothes I felt uncomfortable in my own body. The body that healed numerous times after I had major surgeries and illnesses. The body that held me up even after I tortured it with gruelling workouts to try to be a size that was never mine to be. The body that gave me my son.
Arianna Huffington wrote recently,"Each of us has defining moments--those experiences that suddenly put everything in perspective and shape everything that follows." It's those moments, and sometimes those moments may not be defined overtly, that when we look back help us understand where our perception of ourselves started to change. That's why our stories matter. They help us understand our psychology. They are the ingredients in our recipe of self. The first few ingredients are ever present but the others can change once we know what works and what doesn't. My parents' histories are part of that story, which I don't see as being a sad one. I now see it as interesting. It's when we understand the origins of our behaviours, we can see why we made the choices we made, why we thought what we thought, why we felt what we felt. It has also helped me see my parents with compassion, as the individuals they are who were doing their best with what they knew--which, for that generation, wasn't about digging deeper, rather, it was about fulfilling expectations that were placed on them.
Life isn't about linear or ascending growth. I have learned to see life as chapters in a book--one that never ends-- as my story continues through my son, just as my parents' stories continue through my brother and me. It is seeing my life that way that helps me understand our individual struggles, the unfiltered understanding of why things were the way they were, and how we continue to grow and evolve. Ultimately, how I choose to see my story and the power of it, is how I know I have reclaimed my worth. We are worthy because we exist. We are worthy because we're here, living, breathing, feeling, surviving, striving, failing, and getting up every day to do it all over again.
Understanding and sharing our stories is an act of courage and pride in the path we take to uncovering who we are. It then helps others feel they can uncover their worth too. It's as Dr. Gooden says, "this journey (is where) you'll find strength, become grounded in your humanity and know that you're worthy." It's practicing Kintsugi, which means, "literally, ‘to join with gold’. In Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot should be carefully picked up, reassembled and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a very luxuriant gold powder. There should be no attempt to disguise the damage, the point is to render the fault-lines beautiful and strong. The precious veins of gold are there to emphasise that breaks have a philosophically-rich merit all of their own." Just as the parts in our stories have a rich merit all of their own.