2018 has been quite an year, with a lot of perspective shifts. Not immune to the spirit of reflection that comes from the year ending and my birthday being close together, I decided to do the exercise I end all my facilitation sessions with: listing all the “aha” moments from 2018, and some of the biggest lessons it brought. Here they are –
1. “wholehearted and half sure”
I first heard this beautiful phrase in a talk by Diane Moore, and it’s one of those guiding light-like things that has just stayed on as a mantra of sorts. A reminder that at every moment, I want to be present in every situation with everything I know, including the little nudges from my shadow side, yet be aware at the same time that there is a lot I don’t know in that situation.
2. The idea of active surrender as an act of growth
We spoke about this at length at one of my favourite collective sensemaking gatherings, speaking about how do we let go and find compassion for ourselves without using it to make excuses. To this dilemma, Devin offered the idea of seeing it more as “collaborating with life”, letting life have some say, letting time take some responsibility while doing my part.
3. “Think of balance through the metaphor of dance rather than walking a tight-rope”
This was one of those ideas that came up during a therapy session that shifted my perspective majorly – I realised that this whole time, I had been talking about balance like it were something that required a lot of focus and practice, like walking a tight rope, and failing at it would mean falling off the rope. To think of it through images from dance allows for a lot more freedom in movement, and losing some balance still allows the opportunity to start again.
4. “Give, receive, process”
Speaking of balance, a mentor told me that it was important that my calendar had the balance between giving, receiving and processing – be it information, love, time, emails… It’s been interesting to pause
when I am overwhelmed and think about which of these I am missing, and make more effort towards that. Works like a charm!
5. “The lack of self-care is terribly near-sighted”
I have had my fair share of lecturing about my time-management all my life, but this exclamation really pushed me to think. I started to pay attention to when I was romanticising busyness, I began to see time through a lens of abundance and it’s certainly changed my relationship with time.
6. “For a good relationship, make sure you trust the intentions and impressions the other person has for/of you” (~Will C.)
This has to be one of the simplest truest sentences about relationships I have heard, and pretty much sums up all the heartbreak this year has brought.
7. So many of the lenses I have about examining the world are masculine, western/individualistic and positivistic.
Early this year, I was in a salon gathering discussing #metoo, which triggered me more than I expected to be, in ways I did not anticipate. At some point, the conversation turned to what #metoo looked like outside the US, and this hit me. For example: My definitions of power, even in my feminism, came from a rather masculine perspective. The idea of self as we understand it in the human rights context is a rather western/individualistic idea that need not be universal. Similarly, the way I think of “data”, despite my inclination to qualitative methods, comes from a positivist lens, scouring for empirical evidence. The last year since this realisation has been a lot of effort to pay attention to these lenses, and begin to at least imagine what an alternative could be, and that has changed so much of how I interpret the world – it has given me a more expansive understanding of the self, it’s been wonderful to change my relationship with tenderness and softness, and has me believing more.
8. “Make sure your vulnerability is not performative – does this only look vulnerable or does it also feel that way?”.
I have been experimenting with vulnerability for a while now, and thought I had some decent understanding of it. Then in a debrief about one of the collective sensemaking gathering, a friend challenged a lot of what I claimed was vulnerability. Asking this question has allowed me to continue digging when it got uncomfortable, and has been its whole kind of epiphany (which I have written about here).
9. Most of my anxiety and sadness came when I wandered from the present
I am a persistent daydreamer and ruminator. And while I still enjoy that – I do think a lot of my work stems from this – it has been extremely useful for me to come back to the present when I feel anxious or depressed and not use daydreaming and overthinking as enablers.
10. “Trying to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders in hard. It hardens us. We become aggressive, impatient – pushing, manipulating, charging forward… Our hearts soften as we feel the world carrying us” ~ Jason Garner
When I moved back to India and was figuring out what I wanted to do, I was nervous, angry, scared, annoyed. And then a friend sat me down late one night and challenged all the assumptions I was making about my work and definitions of impact, and asked me to examine what my current definitions served for me. That conversation has stayed with me and humbled me as I made decisions since. I read this quote much after, but it summarises the things I have since learned.
11. “When in doubt, turn to wonder” ~ Parker Palmer
This definitely has to be one of the most beautiful sentences I have read. And I hope to bring more of this spirit into 2019.
(Or rather, a guide on how not to not be vulnerable)
Context: In 2015, I spoke to strangers about love, during which, vulnerability emerged as one of the most common things everyone spoke about. “For me, love is when I can be vulnerable with someone” – most people had a variation of this statement. I had started asking questions about vulnerability, trying to define it — what does it feel like? When do you feel vulnerable — why do you call that vulnerability? We had made vulnerability scales and plotted our intimacies on them. (I wrote about my conversations on vulnerability here).
Curious, with questions of my own, I experimented with trying to be as vulnerable as I possibly could, only to learn that one cannot be vulnerable, as much as, one can decide not to not be vulnerable. (I wrote about what I learnt about vulnerability by experimenting with it here). Based on some of the comments I received, I decided to write this starter guide for becoming more vulnerable.
[Before I begin, let me state this: I am not an expert on vulnerability. I do read up a lot on it (a list of references included in this blog post), and I have had a chance to play with it and learn. This blog post is more of an invitation to experiment with me. So, please, do let me know how this goes for you!]
One of the biggest lessons I learnt about vulnerability is that one cannot become vulnerable; one can only decide not to not be vulnerable. In other words, in order to be vulnerable, we need to start peeling off the protective filters so that our innermost, authentic, wholehearted selves become visible. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ever have filters; just that we don’t put up the filters out of fear, but out of choice.
And in the best case scenario, that would be what you would achieve at the end of this experiment. On board?
Step 1: Plot your starting point
I don’t know if vulnerability feels the same for everyone (I have a feeling it does), but I do know that the things that make you vulnerable are often different for different people. Figure out what your definition and relationship with vulnerability is.
Some questions that I find useful to figure this out are:
Think of the times you felt most vulnerable. What did you feel?
Now think of the common themes in those times: What about those situations made you feel vulnerable? Why? What were you scared would happen?
Think of what the outcomes to those times were: What happened at the end of these situations? When did you land up doing things despite being vulnerable, and when couldn’t you? Why? Were there any people/ relationships/ types of relationships that were common?
Try and plot these on a number line: on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the most vulnerable you think you can be, what is your average vulnerability? What is the highest you have experienced?
(Bonus: If you haven’t seen it already, start with this super popular TED talk by Brene Brown on vulnerability)
Step 2: Start observing your filters
It might not be wise to immediately start blindly peeling off filters/ layers of protection. We use them for a reason. And also, we have been using these filters for so long, that they are almost stuck to us. We need to slowly loosen the grip these filters have on us.
The easiest way to do this is to start noticing when we are putting on filters and to become aware of what it is that we are protecting against. Pay attention to when you stop yourself from doing/ saying/ being something you naturally want to be. Why?
One question I ask myself in these times is: What am I afraid will happen if I am vulnerable (or if I do/ say/ be something)? Why is that such a bad thing/ why am I afraid?
I have a diary that I always carry with me, so I was actually physically making note of each of these whenever I could. A little table at the back of my book with four columns:
Initially, this is feels like a major task, and we aren’t always attentive to the filters. We didn’t know how to distinguish the times of vulnerability from when we were simply choosing one way or the other.
So, I found the following strategy useful:
Start by paying attention when you find yourself having second thoughts about something. Or when you find yourself saying one thing out loud and another thing in your head. Or when you find yourself saying, “not now, “… Initially, you will have to specifically be reminded to do this. After a while though, you will find yourself noticing this all the time.
Another way to do this is to focus on one aspect of your life – either a context, like work or relationships or social occasions, or a certain kinds of situations like when I wanted to say something and you don’t, and start paying attention to the filters you use in these situations.
Either way – once you have enough data about your filters, slowly trends started to emerge. There will be some things you are constantly afraid of, some filters you were using most often. Make note of these.
(Bonus: Here‘s Amanda Palmer being her beautiful self and talking about the art of asking, which is one form of intense vulnerability)
Step 3: Deconstruct and test these fears
Here’s the most important think I have learnt, re-emphasised: the goal isn’t to get rid of the fears but to not let them control our actions. And the second most important lesson: a lot of these fears were based on assumptions I was making, assumptions that may or may not always be true.
Once I began to see the trends in the fears that were driving my behaviours, I started to think about why I was so afraid, often changing my relationship with these fears. I could respect them when they were indeed important for protection without being bound to them.
Sidenote: a little bit of what psychology says about these assumptions
Several of the assumptions underlying all of these fears often came from some experience that had affected me enough to generalise. Martin Seligman, the father of the Positive Psychology movement explains this phenomenon in his book Learned Optimism as “explanatory style”.
“Your habitual way of explaining bad events, your explanatory style, is more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought, learned in childhood and adolescence. Your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world – whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless” (p.44).
He goes on to state that there are three crucial dimensions to explanatory style, the 3Ps:
Permanence: Whether you believe that the bad events will persist permanently or how often the good events repeat themselves – does this always or never happen, or do you think it happens sometimes? Pervasiveness: Whether you believe that the cause of the bad event is universal – do you assume it will go this same way in every aspect/ everywhere? Personalisation: Do you blame yourself when things go wrong? Do bad events affect your sense of worth?
When faced with things going wrong, we must question the assumptions we make about these three Ps:
Will this always last?
Will this affect all aspects of my life?
Am I really to blame?
(This article might be a good starting point to learn more about how your explanatory style affects how the bad events turn into fear. If you want a real life example, here is Sheryl Sandberg talking about it in the context of her process of coping in her Berkeley Commencement address. If you want to read more in detail, Learned Optimism is definitely a great read)
Another reason psychologists have found us to be bound by fears is because of how bad we assume we are going to feel when things go wrong, something that Albert Ellis calls awfulizing/ catastrophizing. We assume that that that feel like the end of the world; which might not really be true.
Here’s a term we have come to find surprisingly comforting: test it out with more data. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, in what they call the “Immunity-to-Change” (ITC) approach, go into detail about how to examine some of the assumptions. In borrowing from what they say, here are some questions you might find useful to think about the fears after you have noticed them:
Look for contrary evidence: Have there been times when things have gone differently, and actually the opposite of what you feared happened? Or, are there other possible explanations for what could have happened? Being able to add examples when the fear is not true helps reduce the feeling we have that our fear is always true.
Explore the history: Think a little about why that fear is so overarching in your life. What are some of the memories that have made that fear so important in your life (as against other fears that do not bother you as much)? Being able to understand where the fears come from also make them more reachable to work on.
Test the assumptions: Run little experiments to see if the assumptions are true. What if you tried to do it the other way one time? These do not have to be wild tests, and you do not have to be testing all the time. But when you feel safe, it’s worth seeing what happens.
Evaluate what you learn about your assumptions/ fears after testing them. Are they always true? Could there be other possibilities? Not seeing assumptions/ fears through the lens of absolute can loosen the hold they have on us, and often just that much is enough.
(Bonus: Here’s a hilariously insightful story about facing fears by Jia Jiang who voluntarily planned for 100 days of Rejection – which is such an incredible version of a vulnerability experiment!)
Alternative Step 3: Pay attention to the shoulds
Sometimes, you will notice that the underlying assumption under your fears or actions isn’t a fear but rather a strong “should” that you carry – the belief that you should behave one way or the other. While “shoulds” are useful constructs we inherit from the world around us, it is always useful to see them as guidelines rather than rules, and to choose to abide by them if they make sense to us rather than be bound by them.
Notice how many times you use “should” (or “must”, or “have to”) while listing your fears. Pay attention to when that comes with a value judgement – you should do this if you are a good woman .
It might be useful to spend some time thinking about the genesis of these shoulds, and also which ones make sense to you and which ones cause more damage than good. Same thing about all the ideas about perfection we keep trying to work towards.
You might want to run a few tests for the latter – which of these shoulds and ideas of perfection are healthy for you? And which of these cause mostly just shame when not followed? Please test the latter the same way you test the fears.
(Bonus: this delightful TED talk about the love and embracing the “sort of poetry of deliberate awkwardness” by Yann Dall’Aglio)
Step 4: Start peeling off the layers
When you identify the fears and shoulds and images of perfect that you now feel have a less hold on you and you are willing to shed them when not needed – try that. Pick a safe area in your life. Pick a safe occasion, a safe person – a space where you can try being without that layer. And practice being without it. Practice being courageous. And slowly, it will start to shed.
You don’t have to start by shedding all of it at the same time. Pick your battles. And start building your vulnerability muscles there.
(Bonus: This slightly graphic but lovely TED talk about embrace our “inner girl” by the prolific Eve Ensler)
Step 5: Care for your self
Chances are, a lot of emotions might emerge in the course of all this experimentation and toying with vulnerability. I like using this metaphor to explain this –
you know how babies sometimes cry just because they need some attention? Sometimes, when you are busy, you just need to pick them up and carry on with your work, and they are fine. But you can’t do that all the time. Once in a while, you need to actually play with them.
Our emotions are a lot like that. We usually just pick them up and carry on with our lives. Several of us even manage to tune out the sounds they make. Being vulnerable involves paying attention to them, and once in a while, attending to them.
And that can be stressful. Despite all the risk-taking this experimentation encourages, psychological safety is important. Take care of your self. There are three things I think are essential in self-care if you have to be vulnerable:
Make sure you have a support system: Find people you trust, people you can make mistakes with, open up to, people who understand you. Tell them you are doing this, and let them support you – by being sounding boards, by being perspective-givers, by giving hugs… whatever support means to you, ask for it.
Figure out practices that work for you: All of us process things differently, we de-stress differently, we introspect differently. Find the practices that work for you – Do you want to journal? Or use a more physical form of processing like art? Do you meditate? Do you read? Figure that out and use it. You will be discovering new things about yourself and new emotions (that is one test that you are doing this right), so definitely figure out practices for processing the new information.
Make time: Make time for this processing. For stillness. Put it in the calendar. Switch off your phone. Do what it takes, but don’t run through this. Please.
(Bonus: This beautiful talk by Elizabeth Lesser about the healing process of seeking truth & connection, and taking the time to do it)
Step 6: Repeat
This, is a lifelong process. It will get familiar, if not easy, with time. Keep at it. Keep discovering new things. Keep getting more vulnerable. And I hope you find joy in it.
(Bonus: The fabulous Marina Abramovic’s TED talk about her experiments with vulnerability in her art)
Optional Step 7: Tell me how it went
I am learning too. And I’d love to hear how this goes for you and learn with/from you. Do write to me and let me know how this goes!
Lessons I learnt about vulnerability from consciously choosing to be as vulnerable as I could for some time. With a little activity in the end if you feel like experimenting.
Late 2015. I had spent a few months now speaking to people about love. The word “vulnerability”, not surprisingly, had shown up often in my conversations. “For me, love is when I can be vulnerable with someone”, several of the people I spoke to would tell me. So, while I was reading up on it, I had started asking questions about vulnerability, trying to define it – what does it feel like? When do you feel vulnerable – why do you call that vulnerability? We had made vulnerability scales and plotted our intimacies on them (I wrote about this here). I had done my homework. I had read up on it. I knew what vulnerability meant. “Emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty”, Brene Brown defines it in her TED talk.
Now. I am an experiential learner. As I plotted my own vulnerabilities on a graph, thinking deeply after every conversation about my own experience of vulnerability, it felt only obvious to try it out. What would happen, I wondered, if I were fully vulnerable (as per my knowing conscious) with every single person I met? With nothing much to lose at that point in my life (I was already interviewing strangers about love), I decided to find out.
Synopsis: Let’s start with the spoilers first
In a conversation with a friend about this, she asked me to what being vulnerable meant to me in this experiment, throwing me my own question. I explained with a metaphor, the obvious one, one that I have frequently used since.
Being vulnerable is like deciding to be okay being naked. No make-up. No well-fitting clothes carefully chosen to highlight the good selected parts. Embracing the bodies we inhabit. Being open about our blemishes and scars and muffin tops. You embrace them as fact, whether you like them or not.
The first few times I stepped out “naked” in this way, it was interesting. There was an Adrenalin rush, even. Luckily for me, I was in the middle of interviewing strangers about love, so this blended quite easily.
Once that wore off though, the doubt began. The thrill faded. The supportive-ness of “early adopters”, as it turns out, was not universal. I was sometimes met with skepticism. With sarcasm. With apathy. I had to clarify more than once that I wasn’t, I swear, hitting on them. I made mistakes, several of them. Initially, I didn’t think much of them; they were a part of the process after all.
Then one day I saw the patterns – there was a design flaw. That’s when the experiment truly began. Long story short, that’s when I then started learning.
It has been over two years since. I have suspended the experiment – sometimes consciously, sometimes conveniently, and also come back to it in little spurts, each time starting at a different point than before. Sifting through my notes from the experiment days for perspective recently, I thought I was finally ready to write about it. This post is a little bit about the experiment and what parts of it did and did not make it beyond the experiment. But mostly, it is about finally being able to put all the lessons together for coherence – a set of reminders I could frequently use myself.
Here it is.
Step 1: To be or not to not be
How does one start being vulnerable?
In the post-Brene Brown world, we are inundated with images of vulnerability where it has worked – raw op-eds and honest talks and emotional books. So, I started with that as a plan. Radical honesty. Tell it as it is. Let people in. Don’t be afraid to cry. Tell people you love them.
Then one day, I was at a college giving a lecture on story-collecting and story-telling. When the questions started, someone asked me about some of the hardest stories I collected. I told them about interviewing a man who used to be an abusive boyfriend, and what it was like to listen to his story while managing my own triggers. The conversation escalated quickly. The students spoke about the support groups they had for abusive relationships and the things they had learnt. It was emotionally charged, raw and a tad bit jostled. As we walked out of that lecture, my friend who had invited me to that class, commented: “You can’t turn it off, can you? This vulnerability thing?” I don’t think she meant it as criticism, but it certainly wasn’t a compliment.
We sat in the staff room afterwards, had coffee and spoke about a lot of things. I do not remember them. But I remember thinking about this question as I walked out of the college. When does vulnerability become a bad thing? Where does my responsibility lie? What are my boundaries?
Step 2: Peeling off the layers
I went back to the metaphor (I think better with them). That’s when it hit me: This whole time, I had been trying to “look naked”. Sure, that was also uncomfortable, but that wasn’t the same as being naked. Being naked was about stripping off the layers, not about wearing a body-fitting naked-looking suit. All this while I have been trying to be vulnerable based on my version of what vulnerability looks like. All I had to do instead was not try so hard to not be vulnerable. What I needed instead was to not hide under the clothes because I was uncomfortable with the nakedness but because I was choosing to be that way. I needed to be more mindful of why I was wearing the clothes in the first place. I needed to be comfortable in the skin and body underneath, so that I don’t feel exposed and defenseless without it.
Basically, instead of trying to act vulnerable, I had to be vulnerable, which meant starting to peel off the layers that prevented me from being that way. This needed to be done gently: I had been wearing some of these filters for so long, that I’d almost forgotten how they were different from the skin itself. Think of it like taking off makeup like the fake eyelashes. You cannot just rip it off. You need to gently peel it from the root, from where it is attached.
So, I started paying attention to the filters I was putting on. What was I afraid of? Why were the assumptions I was making? What was I protecting? Initially, just observing, not trying to change anything.
I realised that I had three kinds of fears I was trying to protect myself from. I was afraid that:
(1) … I’d be hurt (or that I won’t get the response I want).
If I let someone in, I was afraid, they’d then be able to hurt me. And I didn’t want to be hurt. I’d rather keep someone out (and miss out on the possibilities that could bring) than being hurt. I was terrified of being hurt.There was another thing: I’d been taught, mostly through the popular culture, that the coolest women (or people) were the ones who didn’t allow themselves to be hurt. The girls who got hurt because they let someone in, had after all, had no one to blame but themselves. That getting hurt was my fault, that it meant I was weak. And I wasn’t going to be weak.
Sometimes, this fear wasn’t about hurt, but more about not getting the response I’d like. Like when someone crossed their boundaries a little bit, I’d be afraid to say that they did because I was afraid they won’t respond understandingly to it.
(2) …. I’d be exposed.
On my better days, I felt like I’d managed to find the right balance between what I wanted and what was expected of me. On the worse days, the balance was hard to find, so I’d often find myself resorting to being who I was expected to be until I figured out who I was. The fake it till you make it strategy, which, to clarify – need not always be a bad strategy; sometimes, like at work, it was actually a good idea. However, when stemming from fear, I realised that sometimes it was more a response to fear than a strategy. On the days that I was afraid, I had my strongest filters on – because these are the days when I am most afraid of someone finding what’s underneath – because I was most unsure if I liked who that person was underneath. Like a debilitating perpetual impostor syndrome of sorts.
(3) … I’d find out things about myself I am not yet ready to know.
This was the easiest to miss, and added to the list much later, several layers down. It’s like not getting that strange rash checked because you don’t really want to know what has happened, and you’d much rather hope it just goes away. There were sides to me that I didn’t want to know, and I was afraid that if I let myself be myself, I could no longer pretend I have these sides. For example, If I told him I cared for him, in the anxiety that follows of what he will say back, I’d have to face the fact that I really really want him to like me back, that there’s that slightly needy side to me – the side that does actually want a relationship, the side that is terrified of being unlovable, which the “cool, doesn’t care about what the world thinks” side of me doesn’t want to accept. I’d rather rationalise what I feel for him and convince myself that it is not that important, than deal with finding out why it is important to me and face my “shadow side”.
Let me add one disclaimer here: some of these things I wasn’t ready to find out also had hidden within it trauma from the past, which I truly wasn’t fully equipped to work on yet. I needed help and support to work through these things. Sometimes our minds protect us with good reason, and those times need some extra care and even some extra help. Being vulnerable also meant asking for that help when I needed it.
Step 3: Fact checking
The thing about these fears is this: while they are not entirely untrue, they need not always be true. And that whole grey area in between is where the empowerment happens. If these fears were strong enough to influence the decisions I made, I wanted to know they were valid fears. I started paying attention to what happened when I did something against that fear. Let me explain.
Let’s take the first fear – that I’d be hurt. When I found myself putting on the anti-hurt filter, I asked myself what I was really afraid of. “Will they not reply when I send this message?” “What if she makes fun of me (either in front of me or behind my back) when I tell her this?” “What if I get attached to her and realise that she doesn’t care for me as much?” “What if I fail?”. All of these had the probability of being true, but also that of my fear been proven wrong.
Sometimes, when I felt safe, I tried this out.
For example, I’d send that message. I received a reply more frequently than I anticipated.
When I didn’t, I’d ask myself how much it bothered me.
Sometimes, I realised that not that much, actually.
When it did bother me, I’d ask myself why it bothered me that much.
Sometimes, because that reply was logistically important – I needed to make plans, I needed to buy something, etc. In that case, I’d message again, explaining why it was important.
When I did, sometimes, I’d get a message with a sorry. I’d accept the apology and move on.
Sometimes, I didn’t get that reply even then. I’d ask myself again why it bothered me.
Then, sometimes I’d realise that that made me feel ignored or that I wasn’t that important. This is where it got tricky.
On my better days, I’d try to re-consider that conclusion. What were all the other options of what could have happened because of which they didn’t reply? Why was I jumping to this conclusion? Why was it so important for me to be important? Would it be okay for me if I wasn’t that important?
I’d then sometimes have a conversation with that person explaining what I was feeling.
Sometimes, they would respond to that with a reasonable explanation. So long as they acknowledged what I was feeling and I found the reason believable (even if I’d behave differently), I’d move on. Sometimes I didn’t, and I might or might not pursue it further. Either way, it was at least nice to know that they weren’t responding because I wasn’t important – and not personalising it that way would itself reduce the hurt.
On my worse days, I’d let myself feel hurt. And then remind myself that it wasn’t the end of the world. That’s all I’d have the energy for,
Sometimes, however, my fear was indeed true. I did, in fact, get hurt. Those days, I’d feel bad, and I’d let myself be. I just made sure I didn’t tell myself I told you, so! It was still not proof that it was always true.
The tests didn’t always go well, but to bring my fear to the grey area was massively empowering. When I took these risks in relatively low stakes situation, I realised that one of three things happened with each other:
(1) The test went well – what I fear didn’t happen, or, sometimes, even happy things happened instead.
(2) The test did not go well, but I realised that my hypothesis about why it wouldn’t go well and/or what I would feel if I didn’t go well didn’t hold true – i.e. the reason things didn’t go my way were actually not the worst case scenario I imagined and/or it didn’t suck as much as I expected it to if it didn’t go well.
(3) It went badly. And the fear was true. And it sucked. Just the way I imagined it would be.
Even if the probability of all of these three were equal, the possibility of my worst fear coming true was only 33%. That made it way less risky – at least enough to not be debilitated against that fear. Add to that equation the happiness that came from the time that it did go well and suddenly the fear seems way less daunting. As that popular Instagram quote by Erin Hanson goes, “What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?“. Or, as the Mountain Dew men would say “darr ke aage jeet hai (there’s victory after fear)“. [That’s all the motivational talk I have, promise!]
So, what did I learn from these tests?
As you can imagine, there were a lot of mini lessons, several of them rather specific. Generally speaking though, there were three biggest (albeit obvious) revelations:
(1) So much of what hurt me actually had nothing to do with me!
We personalise a lot of what happens to us: “He did this to me”. “She doesn’t care about me”. When I ran the tests, most commonly I found out that all that hurt actually often had very little to do with me. When she did not reply, it had more to do with the fact that she was low on mindspace – she needed more space, and that took priority. When that boy I was flirting with suddenly started seriously dating this other girl, he was choosing her – which wasn’t the same as he was rejecting me.
That doesn’t mean that everything was forgiven. It just meant that it didn’t have to affect my self-worth. When the friend did not reply because I was not her priority, I still had the choice to decide if I wanted to continue reaching out to her. I could still be upset. It just took away the feeling of “there was something wrong with me/ I wasn’t enough” as an interpretation of the situation. That difference took a while to see clearly, but the more I detached someone’s response to my sense of worth, the less I felt like crap. Sure, I often was sad and upset, but I learnt that it was easy to get over those emotions without the “I wasn’t good enough to be important” was not looming into how I saw myself and carrying forward after that. Her not responding had nothing to do with how good enough I was. And you won’t believe how liberating it was to actually feel that (and not know)!
(2) I was measuring my worth with a checklist of way too many “shoulds” that I didn’t always believe in
As I started questioning the masks I was putting on, I realised that I had an image of what “good enough” looked like: a conditional checklist to measure my worth. I should be someone who always says the right things. I should be someone who is always liked by everyone around me. I should be all put-together all the time. I should be the perfect student/ daughter/ employee/ girlfriend/ <insert any role here>. I should be extraordinary to be worthy…
You know what I mean. We all have our own lists, lists that feel as real as job descriptions. As I began paying attention to the “shoulds” and started deconstructing them, trying to think of where they originated, I realised that so many of these shoulds actually did not make sense to me. Several of these descriptions had been inherited blindly by those around me. Several of these were embedded in generations of patriarchy and other forms of status quos. Several of these were assumptions. Some of these, I did care about and agree with.
As one of the easiest tests, I’d ask myself “would I admire Meryl Streep (<or insert anyone else you really admire> any less if she wasn’t this well put-together once in a while? Sometimes, I realised that it might not affect what I feel about her at all. Those were the “shoulds” I dropped from the list. Sometimes, when I thought that it might affect my admiration, I asked myself why. That enquiry usually led me to see that should differently, or rephrase it logically – she would be a less perfect woman because she would be less compassionate/ kind/ loyal/ truthful, etc. And those were then values that were worth spending my time in.
So, at the end of this, I did not have a list without any shoulds; I was just a little more on board on the ones that still remained, making it easy to consider them in my behaviour and decision-making.
(3) I, as well as the world, was a work in progress
This sounds obvious. I was pretty sure I knew this. This experiment, however, made me realise how often (and how conveniently) I forget this. Or how often I think “well, he/she/they is a work in progress, but I should be this finished piece, and thus had to be perfect right now”.
Realising that it was okay to be a work in progress allowed me to try. To make mistakes. To be wrong. To be in a learning frame of mind. It allowed me to measure progress by the growth that came from this. And it allowed me to take myself (in my current form) less seriously.
Let me explain all this with another metaphor:
The core self I found underneath all those layers of protection, was like a mould-able piece of clay, which could be shaped and reshaped. For a while, I’d thought that I’d managed to get the clay to be shaped exactly the way I wanted it, and so I didn’t want to touch it, thus protecting it with these filters I’d picked up along the way. But, this clay isn’t finished work. And as I learnt more about the shapes that made sense to me, the clay needed to evolve. That took time, and often, it wasn’t the shape I wanted it to be. Sometimes, there were things outside of me that also affected the clay; like say a rock falling on it that flattening it. In those times, I had to take off the rock, and re-shape it. Sometimes, I’d start with an image of what I’d like it to be shaped as, and sometimes, I had to just let the shape emerge. Sometimes I liked the shape, sometimes I didn’t.
In all these cases, I needed to keep working on it. And when I stopped, the clay hardened. It was still mould-able, it just took a while to become flexible again. Vulnerability, I realised, was letting the clay out in the open, ready to be shaped.
Believing in my capacity to change, in turn also helped me be more compassionate to others, and to the fact that they were also works in progress.
Speaking of being in a learning frame of mind, here are some of the things I learnt from the mistakes I made in the experiment.
What vulnerability was not
(1) It wasn’t sharing everything that was on my mind. It certainly wasn’t oversharing.
It was more about sharing only the things I meant. It was about not stopping myself from sharing just because I was afraid. At the same time, it was being aware of the boundaries of others while I shared. It was also about consent. I find the clay metaphor useful for explaining this. Being vulnerable is allowing someone else to help shape the clay. Sharing responsibly is letting people decide if they want to get their hands dirty. It is also taking responsibility for the clay — when the clay is really messy/ watery, are you bringing in someone else and getting their clothes/hands/feet dirty with the expectation of them being able to mould this when you don’t want to yourself? Are they on board with this?
When the situation got (emotionally) intimate, or had the potential to become that way, I’d let the other person know that I was doing this experiment. I’d specifically request them to tell me if they are uncomfortable. I’d check in at different points to make sure they were as well as pay attention to the non-verbal cues.
This took me time to learn: it was hard to tell the difference in the beginning. With time (and feedback), I learnt to pay attention closely. I figured out the pace and tone that worked (most of the time). More importantly though, I became more attune to my own intention when I shared. I started asking myself more frequently – Why am I sharing this? Was I sharing it for approval? Was I sharing it because I was desperate to receive a certain kind of response? Did I expect them to hold the weight of what I was sharing? Often, this clarified the intention and made the decision easy.
There were friends who had, over time, taken the place of being able to share some of the burdens to be there for me – there was a more established consent from them. In this case, I could share a little more, while still being aware that they were not always in a place in their lives to respond – and that their lack of response (the way I wanted it) or sometimes not consenting to the sharing wasn’t necessarily them failing as a friend.
For those who I had just gotten to know, I learnt to be a little more discerning. There were two main questions I asked: Had they consented to this? And/or Was this conversation mutually interesting/ valuable? For the second question especially, the questions I had about my intentions helped. If I was looking for to share simply because I needed validation/ to be heard, it wasn’t mutually beneficial.
So, how does one make it beneficial for the other person? One way is to mutually sense-make: I’d ask myself – what is a bigger question I have/ a bigger theme I am trying to make sense of when I share this? Can I learn something from the other person in response? It is one way of interpreting this beautiful touchstone: “When in doubt, turn to wonder“.
(2) It wasn’t an excuse to do what I wanted to do under the guise of being “authentic”.
As follows from the previous point: Being vulnerable isn’t about not being accountable. It isn’t about pretending my actions did not have any impact, or not caring about the impact. It is about taking the risk to do actions that felt right and then taking the responsibility for the impact it had. It is apologising when that impact is negatively, and learning from it so as to never repeat it again. And I say this with a warning – the consequences are not always fair.
I lost a couple of friends through some of the mistakes I made in this journey. I apologised sincerely, learnt thoughtfully and tried hard to not repeat the mistakes after that. One friend forgave me after a few months. One other friend unfriended me on Facebook. Yes, the experiment had real consequences. I am still deeply sorry for the mistakes I made. I am still trying not to repeat the mistakes, while not being too harsh on myself for them.
(3) It wasn’t blindly trusting. Or falling in love with everyone you meet.
Or forgiving everyone for everything. The more I became aware of what I was feeling when I was being vulnerable, the more clear I also was about what my boundaries were. I was also examining what made me uncomfortable and why I was drawing the boundaries – these boundaries weren’t coming from a blind fear. When in doubt, sometimes it helped to ask the question: is this interaction/ person helping shape the clay for better or is it destructing the clay? Being slightly more clear of these boundaries also allowed me to assert them more clearly. I used to struggle to speak up when my boundaries were being intruded, and expressing that I was uncomfortable sometimes felt even more vulnerable, especially because I had no idea how the other person would respond to this. But wasn’t honouring what I was feeling in the face of that uncertainty what vulnerability was about?
This also made a huge difference in my close relationships. When I was interviewing people about love, one of the most common things I heard was “for me, love is when I can be vulnerable with someone” – a feeling I quite understood. I’ve mistaken connection (that comes from vulnerability) to be love in the past. As the experience of vulnerability became more common though, so did the sense of connection with people around me – and with that my threshold for what counted as love moved. I could cherish the connection without getting overwhelmed by it. And in many ways, that deepened my capacity for intimacy, and has actually brought me closer to my intimate circle.
(4) It wasn’t weak. It wasn’t about being a doormat. And it certainly wasn’t passive.
I think this follows quite clearly from the above paragraphs. But it’s worth stating specifically: being vulnerable made me more willing to take risks, and in order to do so, build my capacity to face the consequences, learn and grow from my mistakes, and face things that I initially feared. I have a long way to go, but I definitely became more courageous than I was before. Courage, that was mostly in the form of believing a little more that I could deal with what happened. Courage that came partially from being a lot more tuned into why I was doing things, drastically reducing regrets that I previously lived with. Courage that came also from taking agency over my actions because I was now “acting” (rather than only thinking) more. And that counts for something, right?
In (kind of) conclusion: So then what happened?
(1) It changed my relationship with myself
For me, the biggest change that came from this experiment is that (for the lack of a less cheesy way to explain this) I became friends with myself. I have always been a flawed human, I was just no longer (as) ashamed of it because I was more tapped into/ focused on my ability to evolve from it. I was a lot more attuned to my inner self, and that was certainly a mutually beneficial relationship to cultivate. On the good days, I am able to grow and change while honouring my feelings, I am able to better negotiate with my own self, without taking myself too seriously. On other days, I am able to be a little more patient with myself.
In the metaphor of being naked, I was now a lot more comfortable in my skin. When I liked my “body”, I became a lot more patient also about the muffin tops and blemishes and the things I didn’t like about it. Choosing to be vulnerable did not mean suddenly liking all of these parts. When I stopped trying to cover them up though, it actually pushed me to work on it harder without shaming myself (as much) for it. Growth mindset ftw? When I felt “unfit”, with hiding no longer an option, I had to get running and get fitter, while being comfortable with whatever shape the body took in the process. Sometimes that took longer than I’d like, sometimes it didn’t produce the results I wanted – and that was all okay. I was just clay that could continue to be shaped.
In other words, I was now able to surrender and claim more agency at the same time, and that made a massive difference to the sense of security I felt.
(2) I began “collaborating with life”
That sense of security in my capability to deal with things along with the agency to do so empowered me to deal with things better and to grow through them. In weird ways, it centered me, shifting my center of gravity more within me. I became more sensitive to stimuli, willing to receive, while feeling a little more confident in my ability to deal with things when they went wrong. As I took on more agency in what actions I took and how I responded to the consequences, I was (better) able to surrender to the things that weren’t in my control. As my friend, Devin Karbowicz, beautifully stated, this kind of active surrender is a way of “collaborating with life” without micromanaging it. And something about that is deeply humbling!
(3) It changed my relationship with the world
When I became a little more secure in myself, a lot more accepting of my flaws and boundaries, I was also able to accept the flaws and boundaries in others more compassionately. It shifted my focus to my locus of control. Now that I was channeling more energy into the shaping of the clay underneath the filters and enjoying that process, I was no longer walking into relationships afraid of what happens when they see the clay, when they mould it. I was now seeing relationships as spaces for growth, and somehow that made me feel less burdened by them. I was a lot less afraid of being hurt – I would still be saddened by things, but I was now a little more aware to not mix that with my insecurities and sense of worth. I was no longer reduced by the sadness (or all the other emotions).
This made it easier for me to let people in as co-conspirators in this process of moulding and growing, while that also somehow made them trust me more and let me in, helping them in their process. Relationships with growth at the core of it have been a lot more fulfilling, and I am a lot less afraid.
Let me end by saying this: Just in case this makes me sound sorted, I am not. I often forget this. Sometimes, I shelter myself under a lot of filters. Some days, being vulnerable is harder than I remember. Some days, I am still convinced this is a bad idea. There are several days when my internal compass is too muddled, too overwhelmed, too impatient, and I just need a little bit of makeup/ validation/ extra assurance/ protection. But on the days that I have managed to remember to be vulnerable, I have been astounded by how much space it makes for me to grow.
I don’t know if the things I experienced are universal. But I do think, based on my experience as well as the stuff I have read, that there is some merit to trying this out. If you are interested in trying this out, I compiled some ideas for where you could start in this blog post. It includes list-making, flowcharts of questions and things you can read to learn more.
This past year, I have been growing into my feminism, and being comfortable as it grows to become a much more prominent part of me.
This past year, I am re-discovering what being feminine means to me. It isn’t the yin to your yang, and it certainly isn’t the dainty and delicate version of soft. I am re-claiming what “soft” means to me. For years, I have passionately pushed back against the term “soft”-skills because of all the connotations it has carried about being feminine, and thus something not as serious, and somehow lower on the hierarchy of skills. I am learning instead to find the fierce, passionate, vulnerable, confident version of “soft”, and nourish that powerful kind of feminine as a strength instead.
This past year, I have suddenly become acutely aware of the “masculine” language around me, which has so long been my lens to see the world. I find myself wary of the misleading masculine rhetoric that I seem to have imbibed through the years, and disappointed with how much mediocrity I was taught to accept and admire from powerful charming men through the years through that lens. I am learning to hold the men I admire and love to higher standards, and not feeling guilty about it. I am reminding myself to allow my non-male heroes more leeway to falter sometimes, as I have with the men.
This year, I am learning about a leadership that is ferociously feminine, and learning to practice this kind of a leadership that enables, and take responsibility for that power without the hierarchies and designated positions that I seem to have been taught are essential in this “tough macho world”. I am resisting that conditioned voice that constantly measures my own styles against the inherently masculine standards I have inherited. I am allowing myself the opportunity to live my version of feminine as I carve my way into the world instead.
I am angry, I am grieving, I am frustrated, and I am allowing myself to feel those things without judging. I have been raised to glorify silence as graciousness, and I am learning to find grace in my voice instead. I am remembering that there is a zero between the positive and the negative, while also becoming aware when my “rational objectivity” is a way of masking my complicity, and finding courage to speak up then. I am learning not to mistake assertiveness for aggression, and resisting the politeness that I have used as an excuse for my fear of confrontation. While at it, I am searching for forgiveness, kindness, compassion and love – things I stand for – amidst it all, without compromising on accountability and responsibility I have come to expect.
This year, I am growing into my femininity, and learning to embrace all forms it takes. Sometimes I will be wrong, sometimes I will make mistakes and sometimes I will falter into my old habits. Sometimes this will seem too loud, and often I would have to keep working on unlearning all the images and standards I have been taught and finding new ones for reference. This Women’s day, despite all my skepticism about it, I am reminding myself to allow for the space to blossom and learn and evolve through all of that.
In between the flurry of conversations about the Republic Day and all the crap going on in our country(ies), read an unsettling conversation today that reeked of “I told you so” and skepticism (and fear) about the #metoo movement this morning. I have had my own struggle with despair and cynicism (and anger and frustration) these past few months, and found myself reaching out to several people for wisdom. I wrote it all down as a reminder to myself a little while back – and it felt appropriate to share a part of it today:
The #metoo movement, or any movement for that matter, is not perfect. Changing the status quo never is. It requires challenging years of conditioning. Challenging that conditioning in itself is like setting off the trigger – it brings out all the fears and insecurities that we have picked up over the years. Challenging the conditioning also means giving up the security of the known and starting to think of possibilities within a space that we actively participate in and create when we start this process. With that responsibility comes the definitions of fairness and justice we carry, the definitions that in themselves come from the conditioning and fears and insecurities we are fighting. It is a long process and it’s hard. And damn, it’s easier to justify hopelessless on some days. But maybe, just maybe, the hopelessness also stems from perfectionism, that darned belief we have all inherited about the perfect answers. The need for the change-makers to know the very perfect answers before they ask for it is yet another way the status quo maintains its power.
Stop asking the movement to be perfect. It’s about baby steps. It’s about noticing that there needs to be a movement and standing by it. It’s about then doing your very best to figure out the best way to do it. Allow the making of mistakes while holding high standards – remember that by asking for change we are venturing into a world that is new to all of us, with new questions, and hierarchies and outcomes we might not be able to predict. That’s the difference between blind idealism and believing in possibilities. Be the latter, and then set high standards of integrity and kindness while you are at it. Remember the things you felt when you experienced injustice, and let that be a reminder of what you shall not take anymore for/from anyone, even as the one asking/fighting for a little more power. And while you are at it, take the time to think, to consider, to reflect on what it is that you are fighting for and with, and that that is good enough to stand for. And then, stand for it.
One of the questions I get asked most commonly when I talk about my work is “how do you get people to tell you all these intimate stories of their lives?”. Umm, I don’t really know. I don’t have a strategy. I just love talking to people and have been doing this for really long, so I hadn’t really formally thought about it. Then recently, I found myself reading and listening about conversations, trying to learn from the best conversationists I know, and analysing what I do, realising that there were indeed some very specific steps I had followed that worked.
Now, I am by no means an expert, but over the years with conversations being integral to the work I do, I have come to develop some of these skills and they have been immensely useful – the conversations I have had have inspired me, brought me jobs, taught me so much of what I know, and given me a strange kind of robust support system, one that involves intimate friendships that I can count on as also a whole world full of strangers to learn from. Conversations have seen me through my worst times and humbled me through my best. I have found belonging in the world through these conversations. Which is why, I thought I would put down some notes of what I learnt about meaningful conversations while interacting with strangers as my day job. Kio Stark, who talks about stranger interactions, describes this pleasure of conversations beautifully: “This is almost poetic. These were really profound experiences. They were unexpected pleasures. They were genuine emotional connections. They were liberating moments”.
So, I wanted to write down what I learnt, also as an invite for people to experience the joys of it.
Before I get started, let me add two qualifiers.
(1) No, I am not fully an extrovert (if we were to at all conform to that dichotomy). I love people, and I get a lot of my energy from talking to people, can open up to anyone, but I am also terrified of large gatherings and large group conversations and will usually occupy an observatory corner spot when I do attend those, love spending conspicuous long amounts of time alone and preferably even away from the internet and cannot have small talk to save my life (no seriously, if you put a gun by my head and told me to have small talk or you will kill me, I will die). The point being, this isn’t an extrovert or introvert-oriented list.
(2) As many stories I have of the most fantastic conversations, I have also messed up more times that I would like to admit, in more ways that I fully comprehend, and have my own share of dramatically embarrassing moments. I shall spare you the details, but this list also encompasses the lessons I have learnt after.
Anyway. Without further ado, here is a seven-point non-preachy checklist for having better, more meaningful conversations, with about anyone:
Do your homework – get your foundation right
“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” – Matt Kahn
You are “people”. You cannot have a deep and meaningful conversation with someone else if you have never had one with yourself. The best conversations have elements of wholeness, of thoughts and opinions that are connected to beliefs and values, and by extension, to feelings and emotions. One cannot respond authentically to a story about sadness and hurt, for example, if one has no idea how it feels to experience sadness and hurt. You don’t have to have gone through what someone has gone through (and you probably never will) – but the language of emotions can become a shared vocabulary only when one can empathise with what that root feeling is.
And it is not just about responding to emotions. For someone to go to deep places within themselves in conversations, it is important to create a shared safe space where that is okay – and if you are hesitant about those spaces in your life, or if you have never gone there on your own, people know, and that will almost always block off deeper conversations.
Let me take a moment to clarify what I mean by “deep”. I do not mean the deep dark secret places where all the TMI is stored. I mean more of the things that people hold slightly more intimately, not just in the forms of their stories, but also their perspectives; aka the places where connection happens. These places might sometimes not be as brightly lit or as happy as one would like and might indeed often have stories that are slightly hard to respond to, but in my experience, the best wisdom I have found in conversations, the parts that I have carried with me – they all come from there. And if you have never sat in those places in your own hearts, you will probably not be able to be comfortable in someone else’s deeper places.
This metaphor (also a result of a beautiful conversation) explains this beautifully: you cannot build a strong house on the surface. You are going to need a strong foundation to build a strong house. And that foundation requires some digging. If you have never got your hands dirty, that digging is going to be way harder for you.
We know this in many ways. You know how we often say “there was something about her that made me want to talk to her”? I made a list of people I would put in that category and had conversations with them about this. And one thing struck out – they all really did inculcate those traits. Maybe they didn’t start off that way all the time, but genuine interest in someone else’s life, some measure of curiosity, a certain amount of positivity and cheer, a definite kindness – these are all things that they had consciously worked to build within themselves, and that showed. I am sure there are ways of faking this that I don’t know of, but here’s my philosophy – if I can actually be positive and kind and curious with a little bit of effort, wouldn’t that make more sense than constantly putting in the effort in pretending to be so? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Plus, in just more practical terms, this self-work is also a good way to know what works well for you, and what doesn’t, what your triggers are – and allows you to be more alert about them in the conversations.
2. Practice good conversations
While it is completely possible to have incredible conversations by accident, it can also definitely be induced by a little effort. If you have never before had a great meaningful conversation, you wouldn’t know one when you see one. If you have never shared a deep conversation, when you have one, chances are, you might get inundated. Or let me put it this way – if you have had one of those before, you will be able to respond much better when you have one in the future.
And this is where friends come in – gather your friends, bring out your favourite drinks (and maybe a cupcake) and talk. Really talk. Ask the stupid questions. Ask the questions that came up when you tried digging on your own. Ask the questions that you always thought you should know the answers to, but aren’t fully sure. That’s where the best conversations lie. And having them with people you share some history with are the best ways to learn about the dos and don’ts of navigating these.
Saudade (the love project) started like that. I was heartbroken in more ways than one, and the more I tried to deal with it, the more convinced I was that (a) everyone else knew some thing that I had completely missed the memo of, and (b) somehow the way I felt things was an aberration. So, trained in research methods, I decided to find out. I began to ask my friends questions like “when you say you feel hurt, what exactly does that feel like for you?” or “do you ever feel like you are hurt and that feels crappy and you want to just really wallow inside your damn warm blanket, but you also are feeling worse because you don’t want to be a victim and so you would much rather pretend like you weren’t hurt, but that only makes you more cranky” (btw, almost everyone said yes). Apart from the fact that I have absolutely fantastic friends who played along and answered my questions, I think these conversations allowed us a sneak peak into each others’ shoes in ways that we hadn’t had access to before, while at the same time giving words to our experiences. With the unintended outcome being that it helped us understand ourselves as well as the world better.
I like to think of this process as building a database – next time someone said they were hurt, I not only understood better what it means by hurt, but also have a vocabulary/ image/ context outside of myself that allows me to respond to them better because I get that a little bit more. But there was also a more nuanced outcome that came from this conversation – a subtle sense of solidarity that gets formed when you know that someone else also hurts in ways that are similar if not the same as you; a sense of comfort that comes from knowing that what we feel is slightly more normal and universal than we care we remember.
As a student of theatre, I am professionally trained to improvise. And thus for the longest time, I was way too comfortable in my ability to “wing it”. I mean, I know my crap, I know how to use it and how to turn things around, what can go wrong, right?
Then one day, without intending to, I told a whole room full of people I admired, that I essentially had no idea what I was doing in my life and thus single (this is a very mellow version of what really happened). I have had a whole variety of embarrassing moments, but this one really hit me. After I got out, I dissected this: all I was expected to do was introduce myself with a very little twist in the question – how hard should that be? I introduce myself to people all the time! But I had been having a few bad days, I was tense about something, and at that point all of that was on my mind. So, in moment of panic for being put on the spot, that was the first thing my brain found. Now, I am sure most people’s brains probably do not have the same sadistic sense of humour that mine does (it is abnormally adept at always finding the most awkward thing to say with much panache), but since then I have been way more intentional about what I have most accessible in my head before I go to meet someone. And that has made a world of a difference.
As far as possible, I try to keep at least a 30-40 min recess before and after I meet someone and use that time to “get into the zone”. I schedule a lot more time before I go for a professional meeting, but even generally I’d try to keep at least some space to gather my thoughts. It not only makes sure that I can make the most of the meeting, but also makes it possible for me to be 100% present at every meeting. When in a professional meeting, I actually have a standard set of questions that I make notes on: (a) what do I know about this person – not just in terms of what they do, but also how they think, (b) what they care about, (c) what do I know about those topics, (d) what do I want to know about those topics, and (e) what questions I have for them. I also often actually practice the introductions, or at least think about what aspect of myself I am going to highlight in the conversation, like making sure I have revised what I know about that experience. I know this sounds really strange, I mean, duh, I know everything there is to know about me. But, at least I have found it to be immensely useful to make this information readily accessible in my brain – it frees up brainspace for me to actually process what the person is saying and making all the relevant things I “know” only a few connections away from being found.
I am a lot less organised when I meet someone for a more casual conversation, but I still take the time to just gather my thoughts – What’s on my mind? What am I looking to get out of this? How am I feeling? Taking the time to breathe. To neatly shelf out all the other thoughts that are boggling me. to ensure that I am fully present in that conversation and not trying to process something else there. It seems like an obvious thing, but at least for me, simply being intentional about it has been game-changing. It not only prevents me from doing something stupid, but also allows me the mental and emotional space to really take in whatever it is that I get in that conversation. And just generally, I think rituals help, particularly on bad days when that state of mind is harder to come by.
4. Ask good questions
This is the simplest one to learn, and you will probably find much better resources out there on how to do this better. The thumb rules I have with my questions (some of them are on the list because I have messed this up when I didn’t follow them) are:
Don’t ask what you could find on Google. Or, as a friend once told me, don’t ask because you are too lazy to find those answers on your own.
Open-ended questions. Always. Not just in how they are framed, but mostly just making sure that the other person always has the space to explain, that this doesn’t feel like either a a job interview or a trial. When in doubt, a “why do you think” and “what do you mean by that” are the safest options.
Don’t ask if you are not willing to really hear the answers or if you aren’t ready to hear with an open-mind.
When I go with a particular end in mind, I always let the other person know that in advance or at least in the beginning of the conversation, and give context to make sure they know why I am asking. This rule is also helpful when someone else has initiated a conversation with me – it helps the conversation feel like a mutually beneficial one rather than an interrogation, because the motive is consensual and no one has anything to prove.
5. Listen. Pay attention. Be present.
Probably the most overstated advice when it comes to conversations. With good reason.
The tips for this are classic, so I won’t get into it. But here’s something I know for sure: people know when you aren’t listening. They know when you aren’t present in that conversation. When you are not paying attention. Or when you are faking any of it. I am sure there are microexpressions and subtle cues that go into this, but regardless of how, people always know. And nothing pisses people off more. And rightly so! Almost none of us, given how we fill our calendars, have extra time lying around to spare. So if someone makes the effort to give you time and effort, it is basic manners to do all of this.
Everyone does this differently, so figure out what works for you and how you can get yourself to listen, but there is tremendous merit to doing that. But this shouldn’t be a trick, this absolutely needs to be genuine. There is nothing more condescending than someone who pretends to listen but isn’t really. Celeste Headlee, who gives this absolutely brilliant TED talk about having better conversations, says this best: “There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention”.
6. Invite them into sense-making
This is the one tip you don’t get very often (although the same sentiment is often brought up differently in many places), but in my experience, it is mostly this that gets people to open up. Like I have said elsewhere, vulnerability is different for different people – not just in how vulnerable they are willing to be, but also what vulnerability looks like for them. Some people would be perfectly okay sharing a personal anecdote, but won’t tell you how they feel. Some would never tell you what they really think of something. Whereas some others might tell you the lessons they have learnt from their experiences, but never share the experiences.
That being said, one of the most vulnerable things to do is to make sense of something with someone, because that encompasses all the forms of vulnerability – it requires you to accept that something doesn’t make sense to you while also allows someone else to being a part of that process, and thus, affecting you. Which is why, I have found that inviting someone to make sense of something is perhaps the most profound way to show that you are vulnerable, while allowing the other person to decide how and how much they would like to be vulnerable. They might decide to do so through their experiences or opinions or questions of their own.
At the same time though, this is also the easiest way to equalise the power in a conversation. Sure, there will always be a dynamic of slight inequality, which might have to do with experience, knowledge, age, stature or sometimes even extroversion and introversion. But, regardless of what it is in the beginning, a shared sense-making not just equalises it to a large extent by making space for that conversation to be useful for everyone involved. All of us have some questions about life, none of us have figured everything out, yet all of us know a little bit about something – inviting someone into sense-making establishes all of that as context, and builds meaning into the conversation. But when you open up the space to do this, it is the one absolute surefire way to have a fantastic conversation that people remember.
The way I usually frame this in a conversation is:
<This> is what I have been thinking about (with a line or two about why I have been thinking about it, usually involving a concrete short anecdote that allows for empathy, and why my own prep about making my thoughts accessible helps),
<This> is why I am talking to you about it (this is where the “what does the other person care about” homework comes handy),
And then opening up the space for them to comment with “what do you think about it?”.
Almost always, the response to that includes them telling you what they know, and then also framing open-ended questions they might have – and that makes a continued conversation so much easier! Plus, in my own romantic way, I like to think that doing this allows me to connect the dots between the people I meet and the people they have known, while also learning more about the world in the process. I believe that this has not only made my conversations more meaningful and how I learnt so much of what I know through them, but has also brought me much much more belonging into the world. Just something about this process makes it easy to walk around with a curiosity mindset, to constantly learn, and while doing that, contribute to a collective sense-making about the strange world we live in, while also opening up possibilities in places and ways we did not know existed. Also, I make notes about this, which are systematically organised and thus accessible (I use the time after a meeting to do this, or get back to it at the end of the day).
7. Follow up
Again, this part is obvious – write a thank you note, send them the resources you say you would send, and keep writing to them once in a while to stay in their memories.
Here’s how I learnt to do it better: I write a genuine thank you note, also bringing in little snippets (a line or two) about what I learnt in that conversation – this not only helps me demonstrate that I listened and makes them feel good about themselves (and everyone keeps an email/ message that makes them feel good about themselves), but gives them a concrete context to remember me by. This context I have found super useful in keeping in touch: Say I learnt a really interesting perspective or metaphor for an issue from person A, and I use it in conversation with person B – not only does it make person B trust me more because they now know that I actually remember and listen and quote other people, but also becomes a good reason for me to write to person A and say “I was telling someone about what you said, and they said this, and I thought of you and would like you to know”, opening up more space for conversations. Moreover, this context also becomes a reason they get in touch with me – I often receive messages and emails from people because they were reminded of something I said, and a conversation thus ensues. And, of course, while doing that, I only learn more in the process. It’s a win-win-win.
(and you might already know this), conversations often do go wrong. All of us have some of those stories to share. I believe strongly that the solution to that isn’t less conversation, but more, while learning through it. To be able to laugh at that and learn from that, cliche as that sounds. At the end of the day, it is all about getting better, right? (Without, perhaps, taking ourselves too seriously!)
Hope that helps! Would love to hear people’s thoughts on this, and/or how it goes when they do try it out!
Despite all my skepticism for social media campaigns, this one felt important to participate in. To acknowledge the fact that I have struggled to say “me too” in the past, and never quite known how to.
9 years ago, a security guard groped me and pinned me against the wall before I could run away. Accordingly to the “morality” that had then been imposed on me, I had technically been somewhere where I shouldn’t have been, at a time I shouldn’t have been at with someone I shouldn’t have been there at. A fact that the guard pointed out before he used that situation to find me alone, and all of us, in that fear, had given in. I did not remember the face of the guard: I was in shock.
That night, I told one of my closest friends I had been molested. He was standing on the step lower than the one I was standing on, still taller than me, and with his body suddenly tightened, he asked me kindly: “what exactly happened?”. I described the event to him, still shaken up. “Oh! I thought it was a lot more when you said molestation. Thank God! That was just groping. I am sorry that happened to you, but it happens to women all the time. You will be fine”, he said. I liked to believe then that he was trying to make me feel better, and swallowed the “don’t be too dramatic, you will be fine” suggestion he gave, and shut up.
Thankfully, I had other friends who did not feel the same way. The friend that I was with remembered the face of the security guard and they complained. The guard was fired, and the issue was closed, right?
A gnawing feeling followed me though. Although still not sure of the nuances it entailed, I still called myself a feminist and had been for a while. When this incident, I was ashamed, more than anything else – this wasn’t how a feminist was supposed to react, right? The story of what happened was muddled with so many other stories that I wasn’t ready to own up to yet. I wasn’t ready to tell the story of why I was where I was. I didn’t want people to know that I was actually a coward who had not come forward to take action. I wasn’t even sure this was molestation (“groping”, as I had been corrected, remember), and I liked to believe I was strong for not letting that incident be important. I liked to believe I had “moved on”, because at 18, that’s the version of the stories I had heard.
A little more than a year later, I did tell the story though. On stage, as a part of a play. Something about telling the story again and again made me feel like I had owned up to it. Another friend came up to me after one of my performances and said “it was such a nice light-hearted play. You had to add your melodrama, no? Why can’t you deal with your crap in your own time?”. He then laughed. “Attention seeking” and “drama-queen” was squeezed in somewhere in all the mockery that followed. Guessing this was yet another social memo I had missed, talking about it felt less cathartic and right. There had been women who had hugged me for that piece, but it was this voice that continued to pierce through. I decided to “move on” again and not talk about it. After all, it wasn’t a big deal, being dramatic wasn’t cool and this happened to everyone all the time, right?
I grew up, learnt how to say no more strongly and fiercely, and said so in the coming years. I evolved to find friends who didn’t think there was something wrong with it. I forgot this had happened and assumed that meant that I had “dealt” with it, right?Or so I thought until a few years ago. It was the day after my birthday, and I intended to recover from the last night by treating myself to a late morning and a beautiful brunch. I was woken up instead, early on a Saturday morning, by a friend calling me to tell me that he had been molested. By another male friend. Who I didn’t know was in the process of coming out. As I heard his side of the story of impulsive lack of control that he deeply regretted, sitting with all the other male friends who were present when this had happened, I struggled to find my objectivity and “balanced view” – how does one begin to reconcile the images of the “kind of people who do this kind of stuff” with someone I deeply respected? I was driving the friend who had been molested back to his house when he, still shaking, looked at me baffled and mumbled, “this wasn’t even a big deal, women go through much worse. I am terrified for my sister who goes through this all the time. I don’t even know why I am so affected! I just don’t know how I am supposed to respond as a man”. I tried to push behind all the triggers that were pounding at me then – all the other chauvinist comments he had made in the past that had pissed me off, and all the layers to what he was saying right now. I don’t remember what I told him. I knew I had to tell him he had every right to speak up, to feel everything he was feeling, but given how I had responded in the past, I remember feeling hypocritical. I remember trying to find, once again, the right language to help him describe what had happened – (“grabbed?” “squeezed?” “groped?”).
I work with stories, and thus, by default, I am hyper conscious about how we tell our stories: the language we use, the images we paint, and what that means in how we understand the world. Recently, as I drafted this story as a part of another speech that I was writing, I struggled to find the right words. On one hand, my speech needed to be powerful, and there were certain ways that stories like that become powerful; I had learnt enough of that. At the same time, I also needed to make sure I wasn’t painting myself as a “victim” – I needed to retain my credibility. I remember poring over the words again and again – would saying “groping” be too graphic? “Molestated” sounded vague enough but powerful enough. Am I coming across as less of a “feminist”? Is it too “dramatic”? And as I pondered over what all of this meant, it also hit me that for such a long time,I was so busy with not being the victim, so concerned with making sure the story fit into my larger narrative, that I hadn’t given myself the time to hurt, and thus, heal. I hadn’t forgiven myself for not remembering the man’s face. For not being careful enough. For not finding the courage to complain. I mean, if I had been scared then, couldn’t it be possible that I wasn’t as courageous as I thought I was? Every time I had visited what had happened, I had found ways to make myself worse, a skill that they teach the girls so damn well.
Like I said, I work with stories, and in working with people on drafting impactful stories and building toolkits for people to do so, I find myself coming back to these questions again and again. How do we narrate these stories of what we go through? What does it mean to share this, in a context where we know “powerful” to be only in a certain way? What happens when what is powerful isn’t that easily true for the self (not just in terms of what happened, but also how one tells that story) or worse, vice versa? What does it mean to be a “victim” of sexual assault, across the spectrum of that (I cringe as I type that)? Can I not be a victim and still allow myself to hurt and grieve and heal (and cope)? Can I allow myself to be “a victim” and still be empowered? Does changing the language from “victim” to “survivor” help, or do the connotations follow? How can I forgive for my healing, but still be angry enough? When does this constant portrayal of “powerful” stories that look and sound and end only one way normalise it, and what does that normalisation look like?
I find myself struggling with these questions again as I type “me too” into my facebook box (which I must also say, I did do, for I think it is also important our fact-obsessed culture to “empirically” see what this is): What does it mean to say “me too” ? What does it mean when our entire timeline “outs” themselves as survivors? What are nuances of the normalisation that it beings about? What kind of solidarity does it stand for? Who gets included and excluded in this narrative? What does it do to how I, too, experience it and thus, how I, too, respond to it?
My mum told me that if you are in touch with your body well enough, your cravings tell you what you really need right now. Not the cravings for chocolate and maggi, she’d remind me, if you get your body used to the good healthy diet, it will truly crave the healthier things you need.
I tried this once. I don’t know about weight loss, but I remember my skin glowed at the end of it. And my body craved a lot of fruits – bursts of nutrients that scatter through your body, like the tickles of a child’s fingers – the kind of good that’s subtle in its presence.
I think it is the same with our lives and our mental and emotional and spiritual healths. I think our bodies and deeper parts of our minds know what we need, and we crave that. Cravings we lose touch with when we get too wrapped up in our calendars.
I have been craving kindness. I didn’t know that.
More than anything, she’s awfully kind, a friend, A, said a few days ago as she introduced me to someone for work. A strange trait to point out in the middle of a professional meeting perhaps. But K (the third person in the room) and I smiled. That’s an important characteristic to spell out in introductions, she chimed.
Despite all the long list of incredible ideas that meeting gave me, this one, for some reason, stayed. If I were being introduced to someone, I aspired, this is how I would like to be introduced.
I met this “kind” person a few days later. I don’t know what left me warm at the end of the meeting – the great conversation we had, the kindness she exuded or the fact that I was suddenly more aware of it because it had been pointed out?
Suddenly I started to see kind everywhere. In the meetings I’ve had these past few days, with people at varying degrees of high on my “admired” list, I am beginning to see how “kind” has perhaps been such an essential measure towards the admiration.
I told this to another friend, who had just introduced me to someone else with a note of he is very, very kind. We then spoke about a bunch of things before we circled back to the kindness I was suddenly so aware of. He called it humility. That too, I said, suddenly feeling the need to justify, but kindness feels like it’s so much more than that. Empathy? Compassion? Generosity? All that, but not quite. I didn’t have any more ways to describe this qualitative difference in words; I might bode fairly well with words, but my brain thinks in the form of images: pictures. and smells. and sounds. and feel. and kindness, had its own catalogue entries in my senses. And I didn’t know how to curate that to explain.
I met the “very, very kind” person today. I was perhaps looking too hard for it.
I saw that kindness today. There’s a way that kindness touches you that makes something in your body relax. You know that feeling you get when you are meditating, and you can feel your body release tensions as you pay attention to it – something like that. Attention, like kindness, is in short supply lately. I wonder if there’s a connection.
I think I finally know what the term “kind eyes” means: it is the way eyes expand and pupils dilate because someone is interested in what you are saying, because they are taking in and considering it gently and patiently, not just without judgment, but with a sense of calm curiosity with an open heart, a light that shines from that opening.
And as I walked away, carrying this lightness and becoming aware of it at the same time, I started to think of this theme around me that had shaped up over the past few weeks: I was craving kindness, my source of it within myself slowly leaking away as I piled my jenga of unfinished things higher and higher, waiting for it to fall.
I didn’t know where to find the kindness to replenish my supply from.
The type-A me poked her head out as I thought that – she had never gotten along too well with the me that liked to think about things; the two of them have a classic product vs. process struggle with their values. So, I took my book out and scribbled, letting the both of them speak. And now that they are done unloading all that pent-up-unkindness, they are slightly more accommodating of each other.
I then showed them the images I had collected from last few weeks: above all, we are kind, I reminded them. Gave them a product and process to work on. A prescription for a diet of fruits, in some ways.
Part 1: Understanding vulnerability (DO try this at home)
It’s kind of hard to talk about love without discussing vulnerability. Or so I realised when I interviewed strangers about love. For most people I spoke with, not surprisingly, vulnerability was something that was reserved for their intimate/ close relationships. For anyone who has ever been vulnerable, that seems like an only obvious thing to do.
In the mood to question everything though, I began to question the notions of vulnerability we held and why it was something that was considered so sacred/ personal/ private. That’s where my experiments with vulnerability began and where I learnt all that there was to learn about it.
In my interviews, I would ask questions like: “what does vulnerability mean to you?”“what does it feel like?”. And almost always, there was an image of powerlessness that was painted: most people felt vulnerable when the control for things in their life shifted to someone else in some way. Predictably so. Much like its dictionary definition, which is something like this:
the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.
Not one to be appeased easily, I probed further: “what makes you vulnerable?”.
The answers I received can usually be slotted into the following “categories”:
(1) how much access they give someone to their private world – how much information they share, how much of themselves they show to the other person? (here, the handing over the control is in the form of allowing someone to form an opinion/ respond/ judge them, without fully knowing how they will)
(2) how much someone can affect them – affect their moods/ states of mind, if someone could hurt them, if someone’s opinions mattered to them? (here, someone else’s actions, which one has no control over, has the power to affect them in ways that are unpleasant and not predictable because of the lack of certainty about how someone else will act, and thus the handing over of control)
After discussing these meanings of vulnerability, I would lead them into my favourite activity to do in these interviews. I’d ask, “What would your vulnerability scale look like? If ‘one’ was the least vulnerable you are and ‘ten’ was the most vulnerable you imagine yourself to be, what would your ‘one to ten’ scale look like?”
I would then work with them to chart their definitions of vulnerability on this scale and discuss what different places on this scale felt like, also plotting their relationships in terms of their vulnerabilities on that scale. So, questions like: “what is your average vulnerability, with say an acquaintance?” “what is the most vulnerable you have ever actually been (and what did that feel like)?”. And then, I would encourage them to trace what the difference between those two points was: “what is it like to surrender control at the different points on that scale?” “What are the walls that come up as you go lower on the scale?”.
Needless to say, I had first tried all these experiments on my own self and in my relationships. I’d made most of my closest friends do this exercise with me. (Thank God for friends who play along!) I’d sent them a message explaining this exercise and made them all plot their own vulnerability scales and shared my own with them. We had shared our averages and the maximum we have experienced, and plotted where we lay for each other.
This is where it had gotten really interesting.
A few of my closest friends claimed that their average vulnerability was about a 1 or 2, that the maximum vulnerable they have been (as against the most they think they could ever feel) was about a 7 or a 8, and that I was a 3 or 4 for them.
On the other hand, my average vulnerability was about 4, my highest was a 9, and they were my 7s and 8s. So, it looked something like this:
Because I was doing this over messaging, I received all of these responses almost at the same time, and to say I was taken aback is an understatement. Imagine finding out that you were “kinda sorta a 3 or 4 to your 7 or 8” – and to find that out all at once. Reminding myself to hold objective distance, I kept all my taken-abackness and disappointment aside for the conversation (after all, I had promised them no judgment) and started to dig deeper. I started having really honest conversations about what these numbers really meant in terms of how we experienced vulnerability and how that shaped our boundaries, the differences between our averages and where we were for each other, and how attachment thus looked different for us. We spoke about how our ways of letting the people in were different, depending on how we defined vulnerability, and that itself made a difference.
For example, for the friend whose chart I have showed above, vulnerability for her had to do with how much she allowed someone to affect her – so the way that I would respond to things in her life, how I was there for her was most vulnerable for her, whereas for me, my vulnerability had to do with someone’s opinion rather than the emotional effect of their actions, and thus what she thought was most important. And technically, that had been staring at us all along, right? Her way of showing and receiving love had to do with certain kinds of actions and responses, which wasn’t the same as the way I showed and received love – and thus attachment itself looked do different. Things that were easy for her and didn’t make her feel vulnerable, did make me very vulnerable – I don’t care about the opinion of people except for the people in my close circles while she can be immune to opinions in a very different way – and thus she could now be more mindful of how she shared her opinions with me; and the same for the things that made her vulnerable that I could be more mindful of.
As an extension to the conversation, we then matched the spheres of relationships (“How did we categorise people in our lives?) with our vulnerability scales (“What are our vulnerability points in these spheres according to our scales?”).
More on the spheres exercise later – but here’s what this matching revealed about vulnerability: often, the scales itself that we were plotting our vulnerabilities across the spheres on were different – for example, the way we divide our friends, might have to do with how much and how often we share our information with them, but some of the people in our intimate spheres might be plotted according to affectability (I don’t think that’s a word, but I am going to use it anyway). My family was super high on affectability, even though I wasn’t sharing all my information with them. My spheres, thus looked like this (the numbers on the line depicting the points on the vulnerability scale).
Seeing the spheres like this really changed how I saw the relationships between them. For me, personally, that has to be one of the most pivotal conversations that I have had in my close relationships – it gave us the language and space to really delve into the places that we occupied in each others’ lives and made visible the differences in how we let the other in, allowing us to be cognizant of our boundaries and respect them in ways that we might not have consciously done before. (Definitely recommend this activity for everyone. If you are interested in knowing more, write to me and I shall email you the activity).
I also did this exercise in my interviews, and saw similar patterns. I often also took this activity a step further there – I would delve into why that feels vulnerable to them; why their vulnerability scales looked the way they did. I’d ask about the experiences that had evolved the scales in the form that they were now: the times they had been “burnt” and when they had been “applauded” that changed how they shared information about themselves, how it led to them being comfortable sharing certain things and decided never to share some things again. The additional checks they started to put in place before they shared to check for trustworthiness. The way they made themselves harder to be affected by people, the ways they learnt not to care. The games the played to protect themselves, right from the “don’t double text rule” to the deeper running “I don’t date anymore”s. You’d be surprised how predictable these patterns seem when we organise them like this – and at least with the people I was speaking to, we were all experiencing this in very similar ways, just in different degress.
There was one thing that stuck out closely: with time, most of us had shrunk on the vulnerability scale, becoming more closed off and cautious rather than the other way round. In many ways then, the stories that came out of the conversations was also a reminder of the porcupine/ hedgehog dilemma – we crave to be closer, to find warmth in our winters, but trying to do that only leads to the danger of hedgehogs poking their spines into each other – a dilemma that Schopenhauer says relates to intimacy too. When we seek the intimacy, we are bound to be vulnerable, and then get hurt. Right?
However, what surprised me in the conversations, what shone through in all of this is what has stayed with me the most: vulnerability, like other things we feel, have culturally/ socially come to be termed in the language of good and bad, with deeper underlying notions of how that makes us feel about ourselves. When we as a culture, for example, think of “being hurt” as something that not just simply feels unpleasant, but also we also attach the connotation of victimhood to it, we are indicating both powerlessness and responsibility. When we do that, being hurt becomes a “bad” thing rather than just an unpleasant thing: being hurt not only feels unpleasant, but also secretly chips away social points. As a consequence, we then avoid being hurt not just out of emotional self-protection but vehemently and defensively to also guard against social consequences: we would much rather not care and suffer loneliness than be hurt, because being hurt means that we are considered to be weak/ victims, and by extension, at some point, not caring starts to be considered bada$$ and cool and everything… and a whole cycle of that social norm gets perpetrated. Sure, Brene Brown and so much of the media lately speaks extensively about that not being true, about the power of vulnerability, but the fears and value judgments that these implications contain run deep, and run wide: Think of the notions of masculinity and femininity hidden in these classifications. Think of the definitions of power at play… Way more powerful than just the sheer personal benefits of vulnerability, right?
And while that is all of this is a deep/ long/ interesting study in itself that I would love to undertake, at a more reality level that I could actually observe, my conversations on vulnerability taught me this: the spheres where we restricted our vulnerabilities, were also spheres that were closer to our cores of who we are. Spheres that are integral and precious to us, spheres where our happiness and growth occurs were also where we were most vulnerable. Shrinking vulnerability also shrinks these spheres. Closing off these spheres (by closing off vulnerability) because we are afraid, tightens and reduces these spheres, and at least in the conversations I had, that didn’t look like it felt good either, despite how much we rationalise it.
In a phase where I was up to experiment and try out anything and everything, I began to think of how I formed these spheres more deeply, and of my own vulnerability. I wondered what it would be like to be vulnerable to more people, and then, to all people. As I experimented with that, I also began to observe my own vulnerability closely: what closed me off, when did my walls go up, what did that change in me and the dynamic with the other person. More on that in Part 2.
26th Sept, 2017. 10.23pm
PSssst: If you are at all curious/ interested in activities and conversations like the ones described above to do with your friends/ partners, get in touch? I am currently working on building tools for that, and would love to have people to pilot with it.
My friend arrived for dinner visibly agitated. In one of his leadership classes, one of his classmates had shared an example of sexism at work – as an intern in a fancy firm, she was apparently kept out of the conversation in her first week by all the men she was working for. “That’s not a gender thing. Every intern goes through that”, he had protested, and had subsequently been, in his words, attacked by the other women in the class. “You feminists”, he started narrating the incident to me in anger, “so conveniently turn your weaknesses into a complaint about injustice”.
Another friend on the table chimed in, recounting his experience with feminism. He had been in a group activity in class where they had to find a solution to a hypothetical problem that involved stranded ruined planes in deserted islands. One person in the group made a “rather stupid suggestion” that the group heard out patiently, before they decided to go with the suggestion offered by another person, who did in fact, with have some flying experience. The former was a woman of colour, the latter, a white straight cis-gendered man. This distinction was pointed out by someone during the debriefing, as a sign of subtle racism and sexism working in the group dynamic; a suggestion the group found offensive. “I have nothing against feminism”, the third friend said, “I just don’t know why everything has to be about gender all the time.” The first friend nodded. The terms “humanist”, “bra-burning femin*zi”, “men’s rights” were thrown around in the conversation.
My first instinct was to judge, brand them as chauvinists. I wanted to lecture them, trace the history of feminism through the many waves and schools of thought and the broad range of issues it encapsulates, convinced that once people know the same things as me, they have to feel the same way; right? I felt like a defender of the whole feminist movement, the same way one feels about one’s family; it’s by no means perfect, but if anyone says anything against it, one must vehemently defend to protect the honour. Being a feminist has been such a huge part of who I am, of the battles I’ve fought and the things I’ve believed – this felt personal. Losing this “battle” not only meant being proven wrong, it also discredited so much of what I stood for.
One of them noticed the frustration evident on my face and changed the tone, “we are on the same side, J”. I didn’t agree with a lot of what they said, but this debate looked a lot different from the same side; it felt less like a battle. It was now no longer about who wins a territory, but rather a discussion about what is best for the territory. Suddenly my defensiveness vanished. “Feminism is complex”, I tried to summarise what I was feeling, “and it’s kind of unfair to reject an entire movement because you don’t agree with some people’s versions of it”. I confessed that I was saying this as someone who has had her fair share of tussle with several tenets of feminism – do I agree with all of them? I don’t. If feminism as a whole perfect? By no means. Is feminism still important? Yes. Absolutely.
“What is your feminism”, one of them asked. I paused. Usually, I am pretty clear on where I stand on most issues. Pro-choice: definitely. Strongly vouch for inter-sectional conversations in feminism. Vehemently protective when any girl is accused of “asking for it”. Kind of pro-slut walks. Each of these, however, felt like different spectrums that I stood at different points on. To reduce it all to one center point where all the spectrums merge perfectly would probably be a blessing, but if it were a good idea – I wasn’t entirely sure. Also because a part of me wanted to leave the space open to change my mind on those issues, not out of flakiness, but more as openness to points of view hadn’t yet considered. Yet, some sort of allegiance felt necessary. However, on merit of the same allegiance and family metaphor, I shouldn’t have to defend my feminism – despite what places it takes on the different spectrums, they all lie within the basic tenet of equality, and thus within feminism. Why then did it require extra justification?
Words from Roxane Gay’s TED talk, “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” rang true in my head: “We demand perfection from feminists, because we are still fighting for so much, we want so much, we need so damn much. We go far beyond reasonable, constructive criticism, to dissecting any given woman’s feminism, tearing it apart until there’s nothing left.” For an “intellectual issue”, there was too much feeling, too much decision making in that tiny situation on the dinner table. I could hear the responses I was used to hearing play out on cue in my head “seriously, stop being so dramatic about it”.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am dramatic. Proudly so. I also happily take the blame in being an “overthinker” who “reads too much into things”. But sitting on that table, all these thoughts and feelings stirring up inside me, I couldn’t unsee this. My discomfort came from a place of power inequality – a dynamic that I am as much to blame for playing into – but a dynamic that is very real, despite all the good intentions. A dynamic that comes from a certain assertion of normal, which puts (my) feminism outside of this “normal” forcing me, indirectly, to justify my stand to those standing within that normal to be accepted by them. “Hegemony”, I was taught this was called in college. The “normal” that was created by a group that yields power, a “normal” that gets so embedded, that everyone just assumes it is true. A normal that then becomes an ideology that makes decisions for the people within that dynamic, often without the person even realising that they are agreeing to this cultural domination. Sitting here, in this group of well-meaning men I love being asked to justify my feminism, we were all playing by this normal, perpetuating it, without really being fully aware of it.
I tell them that, as kindly as I can. Thankfully, they take a moment to take it in (or maybe just to eat their food, but I am going with the more assuring explanation of the silence that followed) before one of them responds, “but aren’t you trying to create your own hegemony, such that the new normal makes feminism the normal, and those of us outside of that now have to explain to you? Aren’t you fighting for domination, in a fight against domination?”
I could see where he was going with this. I had recently entered into one of those futile but heated Facebook debates about this with another friend, who had shared that godawful video mocking political correctness and “oppression olympics” that went viral recently (I refuse to share the link because, like, contributing to that demand (not happening!)). For those of you lucky to not have seen it, it shares the story of a “privileged man” in a classroom, who essentially gets ostracised for everything he says because it offends some group, and in the end, despite being deserving in his merit, he doesn’t win a certain prize in the math class because equity rules take away points from him and give them to others in the class. Now, if that video was more good-heartedly funny, I would have probably loved to use it engage in a discussion about the the balance between assuming good intentions and pointing out inherent deeply coded systems of injustices, something that I would love to be able to get perspectives on. But, this video made me acutely uncomfortable instead, not because of its exaggerated tone, but the crude way in which it tries to justify its message through a lens of meritocracy.
In the discussion that followed, the much-too-common debate trick of exaggerated exceptions was used neatly, wrapped in reason-appealing notions. So there was the classic “but what about the women who take advantage of these moments and cry wolf in cases of rape”, to discuss the undue misuse of feminism by women to get their way, or worse, to get attention – apparently that’s what happens when we create conditions for women to feel safe and be supported for things like rape. I would probably have agreed to the extent that men need to be given the benefit of doubt when making a decision in these cases, a narrative that sometimes gets skewed. However, the fact remains that the fight against victim shaming/blaming, the fight to give women right to complain against rape without feeling afraid is still too real. While there would definitely be cases of women misusing this power, it is still only the exception. The “self-defense murder” is used so frequently too, but one doesn’t question the need for that law. Several schools misuse the funds that they receive to improve education, but we don’t question the need to push in more funds into education. “Why then does this fight get questioned”, I asked, I must confess, rather aggressively/ defensively.
To which, another commentator said – “look at the context of the video; why does privilege need to feature in a discussion in a math class. It takes away from the learning math”. Conveniently forgotten here is the point that unfortunately that discussion hardly ever shows up in classes other than the social sciences and humanities, but I see his point. A fellow (male) feminist joined in and tried to reason with the barrage of men supporting that video. In a long back and forth that followed, on and off facebook feeds, one of the men said, “look, I am all for equity, but the competition is already intense, and then some populations get unfair advantage because they belong to populations that were once discriminated against”. A point that my friend on the dinner table was also perhaps alluding to; that sense of threat, very real and disconcerting to them.
On the dinner table, I tried to engage with the same thing a friend who fights for racial justice once said to me – “Ideally, we could take a blank slate and start off equally. You know, give everyone the same starting points, same rules, let the best runner win. The problem is, this is a long marathon, several people have already started running a long time ago, and now we are trying to give some people who weren’t allowed into the marathon at all, the chance to catch up by giving them shortcuts in the initial parts of the race. It does not sound fair, and I constantly wonder if it is, I mean everyone else did run the whole route, but it seems also just, once they make it to where the other runners are, who by the way, are still competing, they have a chance to become equal runners. Some of these runners we provide shortcuts to might be Bolt-like fast, and may zoom ahead in this marathon, and all those people who have been running this whole time might have every right to be p*ssed, but I do intend to fight for that Bolt-like person to at least have a chance to fight the race”. My friend didn’t seemed convinced, unfairness always seems too uncomfortable, but when put in the context of the justice issues, the latter feels way too important not to fight for. In my work in inclusion and belonging, I truly struggle with this balance. It is hard to always be able to clearly distinguish between fairness and justice – fairness cannot always be promised or even possible, but justice is ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to access situations where fairness is possible. The means to this are complex, often with much space for improvement, but the debate needs to be about the best way to seek justice, not about whether or not justice is required.
For anyone who has been following the news lately, this fight feels way too real. And to be honest, I am terrified of having that conversation. I am sure there are things I can learn in the conversation, things I hadn’t considered before, and there is value to me opening up my mind about it while also sharing what I have learnt, but the issue feels too sensitive to allow for that, perhaps even too personal lately. In my head it always looks like this: say there’s a destructive object that we are all trying to diffuse, a goal we all share in common, and one way to do that is to shoot it at the right spot. Now, if a person holds this object in their hands, wears a bullerproof jacket and asks me to shoot the object, I would still not do it, because I will still be worried about shooting the person. The best way would be to put the object on a more neutral table, and then try and diffuse it. A conversation about complex topics like these feels like this object – when we refuse to address the complexity of it as a given, oversimplifying it or avoiding it because it is complicated – we cannot diffuse it. We cannot diffuse it if we hold it on our bodies, where there is always a fear of getting shot, of it becoming personal. It needs to be put on a neutral table and diffused collectively, where the differences in our approaches to doing that might just bring us closer as a whole to doing that. But if we don’t diffuse it, it is going to blow in our faves. I don’t even know if we will ever diffuse it entirely, but isn’t that still a fight worth having?
The issue on the dinner table was never resolved fully, but it could have been much worse. For me though, that conversation feels like a reminder of hope – hope that it might be possible to somehow engage in these conversations more deeply and empathetically, learning through them, that some people in this debate might still be on the same side, and perhaps, by accepting the fears and feelings, all of which are very real, and acknowledging the complexity of everything that we are all fighting for, we might at least begin to start working together. Without this hope, I wouldn’t know how to proceed in the world that we see around us lately.
A shameless plug to end this: A hope that lays at the center of the “Library of Perspectives”. To get started on this, I am currently working on an experiment in feminism, and the sides to it. Get in touch if interested. More on this experiment, soon.