Updated: Nov 13, 2021
I listened to a fascinating podcast with Asha Dahya, author of Today’s Wonder Women, in which she talks about her experience growing up in conservative Christian culture. In general these conservative communities have rather strict guidelines about how women should behave in the world. Asha had this to say about it, “Any time I would butt up against the rules or the barriers, [I assumed] the problem was me.” This struck me as so insightful. Many of us go through life trying to conform ourselves to expectations and limitations given to us by our cultures, families, and religions. When these don’t quite fit, we assume we are the problem and adjust ourselves to fit the outside expectations. Very rarely do we question the expectations themselves and wonder if they are unrealistic or harmful.
A similar idea came up in another conversation I listened to this week. Martha Beck (one of my favorite authors) launched her new book The Way of Integrity with an online event hosted by author Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). The two of them were so fascinating to listen to. At one point Martha describes the “Just World Hypothesis” in which people have a cognitive bias that assumes the world is a just place and we “get what we deserve.” So you put good things out in the world and you get good things back. You put evil out in the world and you get appropriate consequences back. The problem is that this hypothesis can break down in many ways. For instance, it is a very common phenomenon that people who have survived abuse live their whole lives finding ways to blame themselves for what happened to them. As Martha described it, when the world is crazy you find ways to make sense of it, usually to the detriment of yourself.
So here we have two completely different conversations coming to essentially the same conclusion. We spend our lives living with the idea that our world/culture/religion/family’s expectations are perfectly reasonable and we need to beat ourselves up in order to conform to them, no matter how bad that is for us.
I hope you see the problems with this. At the very least, it is confusing to figure out who you are supposed to be in the world. Even those families that have perfectly normal ideas of who we should be still don’t necessarily know who YOU should be. Your family may expect you to become a doctor, but what if that isn’t your purpose? What kind of damage will that do to your body and brain to force yourself to be a doctor even though your purpose may be to become a journalist? At its worst, this can be deeply damaging when the social expectations are unreasonable or harmful. There are a lot of really messed up expectations of who we should be out there. There are still cultural groups who think women should be subservient, men should be ultra-masculine, and all relationships should be heterosexual. What happens if you don’t fit those particular molds?
There are a lot of people out there trying to fit into expectations that run counter to who they really are. Many of these people are unhappy, sick, or trying to make the best of a life they hate. They may think the problem is that they have fibromyalgia when the issue is really that they are stuck in a way of being that fits them about as well as the clothes they wore in junior high. It doesn’t matter what kinds of medications they take, they won’t feel better until they rip off the old clothes and find something that is actually the right size.
If this sounds familiar, maybe you have been living up to someone else’s expectations rather than being who you really are. How do you figure out if you are living in ways that don’t actually fit you? Well, for starters, ask your body how it feels. If you are dealing with health issues, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, or anything like that, then there is a pretty good chance your body is yelling at you to make some changes. You can read more about why your body is your best sounding board here: Your Body is Trying to Tell You Something.
If your body is sending you signals that you and your life don’t match, then you need to start doing some detective work to figure out where the problems lie (there’s usually more than one). Pay attention to the expectations and limitations placed on you by family, culture, religion, etc. When you come up with a barrier or expectation that doesn’t feel like it fits, stop assuming that the problem is you. Allow room for the possibility that the expectation itself might be unreasonable or unnecessary. Then take some time to question whether you need to conform to fit the expectation or the expectation needs to conform to fit you.
I know that alarm bells are ringing for some of you right now. “Oh no! We are going to fall into a morass of existential relativism that will bring about the end of civilization as we know it!!!”
Calm down. Remember, I said that you should question whether you need to conform to fit the expectation or the expectation needs to conform to fit you. That means that sometimes the appropriate action is to conform to the expectation. Wearing appropriate clothing for a trip to the mall is a reasonable expectation to adhere to without violating any deep sense of self. No big deal.
On the other hand, let’s talk about the # MeToo movement. For many years our culture has adhered to an expectation that demands certain sexual things from women that violate their sense of self and safety. Many women conformed to the expectations to the detriment of themselves. Now the movement is teaching women that when the expectation doesn’t feel right, sometimes that means it isn’t right. Listening to the signals of your body and not conforming to the expectation is the correct thing to do in this case, as is calling on the culture to change the expectation.
So, step one is to question whether the expectation or barrier is reasonable before you go changing yourself to fit it. How can you do this though? Sometimes the answer isn’t obvious. Sometimes you may think that the expectation is unreasonable, but not conforming will definitely upset others. How do you deal with that?
Let me just say that the actual work of determining what to do isn’t easy. It takes some practice, some getting to know yourself, and (sometimes) a lot of courage to buck the system. I can’t give you everything you need to learn how to do this in a blog post, but I can tell you a few good places to start.
Get in touch with your intuition, particularly the intuition that resides in your body. Your body is a very trustworthy source of information about what you need and who you are. It’s even better than your mind at determining what is right for you. You see, your mind operates with a lot of subconscious programming running in the background. Some of that programming might be beliefs about yourself and the world that simply aren't true. Your body, though, isn’t tricked by those beliefs. As Amy B. Scher writes in her book How to Heal Yourself from Depression When No One Else Can, “The body is trustworthy. Its responses are always authentic, never clouded by ego or self-delusion. We can trust the body. It too is intelligent.” (Listen to this podcast where Amy shares about her book.)
How do you get in touch with the wisdom of your body again? The first thing to do is to listen to it. Listen to your aches and pains. Listen to when it is tired or feeling low. Listen to how it feels when you are happy and enjoying yourself. Essentially you need to learn its signals for when something feels “right” and when something feels “wrong.” Do you know what your body feels like when it is under stress? Do you know what your “flight or fight” signals are? How about its signals that you are in a safe place and able to relax? Do you know what it feels like when an activity is a good fit for you? If none of these questions make any sense to you, then you have some work to do! You need to start getting back in touch with your body and trust that its messages are true.
If you are someone who has experienced serious trauma in your life, then getting back in touch with your body can be a major challenge. Please don’t try to do this alone but find a skilled therapist or counselor that can help you do that in a safe and effective way.
If you are someone who has just lost touch with your body through the normal course of life, then you may be able to do this on your own. Here are two resources that might help:
Finding your Own North Star by Martha Beck (I’m assuming her new book that I wrote about above will be excellent too, but until it shows up in the mail for me to read, I can’t actually say that). This book is all about using your body as a compass to find your way toward who you are supposed to be.
Becoming Safely Embodied by Deirdre Fay. I have some criticisms about the editing of this book which makes me a little hesitant to recommend it, but since the concepts and exercises inside directly relate to this issue, I think it is worth throwing out there. The author gives many ideas about how to get back in touch with your body and learn to listen to its wisdom. She deals directly with trauma victims, but most of us could use some practice with these skills.
Another good place to start when deciding if an expectation is valid or not is to get some outside perspective on the issue. Find someone who might see the world differently and ask them what they think. It is a challenge to open yourself up to a worldview that doesn’t conform to yours, but it is SO helpful. Particularly for those of us who often butt our heads against the expectations of our culture/family/religion, etc. this can be a liberating experience. "What? Are you telling me that not all families eat dinner at the table naked? It’s OK for me to be uncomfortable with this expectation? No way! That’s amazing!"
So before you conform to an expectation or limitation because it seems like “everybody” else does it (or believes it is OK), try to find someone outside of your usual “everybody” and ask their opinion on the subject. I talk more about this concept of figuring out who your “everybody” is in this blog post: Who is Your Everybody? It doesn’t mean you have the take the alternate worldview, but it will at least give you the opportunity to explore and choose a different option.
Which brings me back to where we started. If you don’t seem to fit into a set of expectations put forward by your culture/religion/family, please don’t just assume the problem is with you. Twisting yourself to fit into expectations and limitations is the best way to lose touch with who you are and what you are supposed to be doing with your life. If you find that you are stuck in a life you don’t really like or want, then ask yourself if you have spent too long conforming to expectations that don’t match who you really are. Maybe you aren’t the problem. Maybe the expectations are the problem and it’s time to break away from them. Maybe it’s time to find a new “everybody” who will have different expectations. Or better yet, find an “everybody” who is interested to find out who you are without any expectations at all! Then you will be free to step out of old clothes that don’t fit very well and figure out who you are when you aren’t twisted up into someone else’s vision of you. Now that’s a great way to get unstuck!