Women and the forgotten self
A few years ago my dear friend Sabrina shared with me a study that she found interesting. The study had been conducted by a group of psychologists from UCLA who were examining the different ways men and women respond to stress. These psychologists found that while men’s bodies automatically turned to the strategy known as “fight or flight”, women’s bodies automatically prepare them to do what researchers called “tend and befriend.” That is, when stress mounts, a woman’s own hormonal system naturally inclines her first to protect and nurture her children (tend) and then to turn to a social network of supportive females (befriend). This, the researchers said, was the biggest difference between men and women and their responses to stress.
The full impact of what my friend shared with me didn’t resonate at the time as earth shatteringly important, but I feel like I am starting to gain glimpses of the impact of this study. Let me explain. “No man is an island, entire unto himself,” wrote the poet John Donne. Rare is the woman who needs to be told this. Most women, in fact, would probably find it laughably self-evident. The human species has survived because of communities of women tending and befriending, protecting and sharing food, resources and information with each other.
Women and connection
Our connections – relationships – are not separate from our sense of self; as they can be more commonly with men; they are a part of us, included as much in our experiences of our self as our talents and abilities, or even as much as our arms and our legs. Chances are, you can feel a tear in the fabric of one of your relationships right in your body. The desire for connection and relationship is something our society often puts women down for. Women can be labeled “needy” and “dependent” and women who show more care about connecting than competing frequently get passed over for promotions. It's crazy – in our interconnected world, it is becoming clearer that success depends on sustaining good relationships than on ruthlessness. but old attitudes die hard.
When women don’t feel their needs for connection met, they often feel it is their fault, or that something is wrong with them; that they are too needy and they want too much. This is just unfair, it's like a man slowly starving to death thinking that he should adjust his caloric needs, that maybe he is just being too hungry.
But the pull towards connection leaves women vulnerable. So vital was connection to the sheer survival of our fore-mothers that many women have trouble disconnecting, even when they want to. If you can feel a tear in the fabric of one of your relationships right in your body, then losing an important relationship, even a bad, unhealthy or violent one, can feel like losing a limb. Doing or saying something that could conceivably cause a break in a relationship can bring up a strong feeling of visceral fear, as if you were indeed risking injury or death. It doesn’t matter if your rational mind tells you that you “shouldn’t” feel this way. Something within us sets off this powerful reaction. At those times, the need to connect and be connected with can become so strong that it overrides all other impulses that arise from the inner self. Because of this, many women - including smart, intelligent, competent women – will let go of their own inner voice, rather than risking the loss of connection.
What do I mean by inner voice? The inner voice is the wisdom of your entire self as it makes itself known to you. It expresses itself in many ways; as impulses, as urges, as body feelings, as a sense of knowing what you need to and what to do, as a deep desire, and sometimes as a wisdom that can seem to come from beyond the physical realm. But even when you don’t listen to your inner voice for years or decades even, it doesn’t reject you or disappear completely. It simply goes into the background, becoming softer, ready at any moment to show you a way to take the smallest step, if need be, back towards living in a manner truer to yourself. If you are filled with strongly critical, attacking thoughts in your mind, then by definition, no matter how accurate those attacks may seem, what you are hearing is not your inner voice. Your inner voice includes everything you know, feel, sense, and want, whether you are conscious of these things or not. Beyond even that, the inner self includes your connection to the larger self (for another blog post!).
When a woman (or a man) loses touch with her inner self, when she believes her inner self is destructive or untrustworthy or when she feels that it would be impossible for her to live according to it, she suffers. Some women feel like they can’t remember a time when they were in touch with their inner self, some feel like they lost it in adolescence, and others feel like they lost it slowly in a relationship with the wrong person or in a lifetime of compromises. In each case, the connection to the inner self was lost because time after time, the woman reached out for connection from her inner self, and instead of being mirrored she was deflected.
What is being mirrored? It is to look in another’s eyes and know that you have been seen. Being defected is the exact opposite. It is offering the gift of a part of yourself to someone and having that person unwilling or unable to take it. While deflection can sometimes be angry or hostile, ore often than not, it is done without any conscious intent to harm at all. Mostly it is simply expressed in a simple lack of listening or accepting. It can be felt when someone changes the subject when you share your hopes and dreams, or in a silence that says, “don’t tell me you are still feeling upset, you should be over this by now.”
Since the sting of deflection is something everyone wants to avoid, we soon learn what will be mirrored and received, and what will be deflected. In many relationships the inner self is not mirrored. Instead, what gets mirrored are the actions you take to satisfy others needs and expectations. If those that share your life don’t see you, you’re in danger of becoming invisible to yourself. If they don’t hear you, your desire to connect with others starts the battle with your desire to be true to yourself. How does this happen? When does it start? Clearly for most of us the foundations start in early childhood.
There is a way out. and it doesn’t come from fixing, improving or changing a single thing about yourself. Living from the forgotten self comes from losing connection to our inner selves, to what we know, sense, feel and want. While these passageways may seem asleep, these passages way are still there. We just need to know how to open or reopen the pathways within and travel their lengths, and listen to what your inner self is trying to tell you. Then you can come back to knowing what you know, sensing what you sense, feeling what you feel, and wanting what you want.