How Examining Fear & Gender Roles Impacted My Mental Health

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“Cry, Jay Z, we know the pain is real
But you can’t heal what you never reveal”

When I was asked to write about my mental wellness journey, what immediately came to mind was the commute to my first cognitive behavioral therapy appointment. Feeling the tightness in my chest and shortness of breath I associate with my anxiety, I remember taking a step back to acknowledge the irony, and began to beat myself up over my cowardice without thinking twice.

If you conflate the idea of vulnerability with weakness, as I did, you could understand why my body began to physically reject the idea of emotionally opening up. Take a look at my idols growing up: Beyoncé, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Princess Leia, Judge Judy, Michelle Obama — these are all powerful and unimpeachable women. As long as I could present myself as possessing a fraction of their strength, I felt safe.

Don’t get me twisted, though. I’m so proud of the parts of me that are considered extrinsically “brave” or “strong”—being a woman of color in tech, traveling alone and my love for tattoos, horror movies and thrill-seeking. But what’s obvious to me now, looking back on the last year, was that it was more important to seem empowered than to genuinely feel it.

Until this point, I was peripherally aware of meditation through my brother and friends, and while it helped to relieve my feelings of stress and anxiety at the moment, I was still experiencing deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I was instructed to visualize my thoughts to be like a river while picturing myself sitting on the riverbank watching them flow by like waves. Since I was still in the infancy of meditation and mindfulness practice (which is OK!), I found it almost impossible to dismiss feelings of anger and hopelessness once they came up.

Because the mind is powerful enough that it will work to manifest what you choose to focus on, I felt like my thoughts were dragging me underwater, which IRL led to my unchecked emotions spilling over into my closest relationships. I was faced with a tough reality: I could fruitlessly continue trying to “fix” my mental health alone, or face my fears and reach out for help. If my thoughts were like a river, standing at the door to my therapist’s office felt like jumping into the middle of the ocean.

What scared me most was to be presented with the evidence of my own self-harming habits and have my worst opinions of myself validated. I was scared my family would think I was “crazy.” I was scared to inform my job that I was in therapy and had committed to weekly appointments. I was scared to lose the things I was clinging to for security, although I knew they were unhealthy for me. I was scared to be accountable for a meaningful change. Ironically, the most valid of my fears is what propelled me forward: I was scared of how it would impact the lives of my loved ones if I didn’t get help soon.

Fast forward a little and the first few sessions were basically like pulling teeth. However, the blessing in disguise after the initial weeks of extreme discomfort was that my therapist was able to identify the different coping mechanisms I employ to avoid expressing emotion in honest and healthy ways. I didn’t think I was ready to be told about myself, but the surprising benefit of having a safe space to take a look at my behavior was feeling myself slowly beginning to accept the positive and negative internally and externally.

It wasn’t until my therapist and I began to look into my closest relationships, that I saw how much I was withholding out of fear of judgment. Looking even closer, she helped me realize how much of my fear and frustration came from never feeling secure in my communication skills. Eventually, I didn’t feel like I was treading in open water anymore. I had a boat and a guide. Today, I’m so proud to say my relationships with my friends and family are beginning to blossom the more we find ways to speak mindfully and mutually support each other.

I began to really appreciate how much connecting with others plays a powerful role in mental well-being and I’ve had to come to terms with how much I was neglecting this for myself. I learned I was opting out of a sense of belonging to avoid my fear of disconnection. As women, we internalize a lot of pressure (real or imagined) to juggle everything on our own and to always look flawless while doing it. I used to tell myself the biggest “shame” was to fall short and have to rely on others. I realize now that I have the privilege and responsibility to break the cycle of isolation for the women in my blood. It’s scary AF but I’ve never felt more alive or blessed.

Turning to face the fear and possible judgment has allowed me to start feeling more authentically like the badass leaders I tried to channel. As I grow into this new awareness of myself, I’m practicing balance in not fleeing from but metabolizing the emotions as they arise. What might show up as anger or resentment may have roots in hurt and trauma, and I tell myself to honor that and embrace any opportunity to heal.

Self-mastery will always remain a moving target but I’ve redefined vulnerability for myself as an openness to the unknown regardless of whether I can control the outcome. Openness to all aspects of life, good and bad. Breathe deeply, dive in and don’t be scared of what you might find.

Your pain makes sense. For crisis resources and local support, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

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