A heroine is defined as “a woman admired for her courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. But what comes to your mind as you read “courage and outstanding achievements?” Is it a woman sitting at the table in a boardroom? Or is a woman who is sitting at the dinner table with her children and her family?
If we are all honest with ourselves, our first thoughts when we hear ‘outstanding achievements’ are college degrees, climbing the corporate ladder, sitting in the decision-making seats or leading a business to success. No one thinks of a woman who is comfortable in her power. No one thinks of ‘outstanding achievements’ as someone who is living a content life, tending to herself with full attention and care. No one thinks of someone who is a good and kind human being to herself and others. No woman or man is named or awarded for those achievements.
Every March the world celebrates International Women’s Day. I realize that typically, the conversations around women’s day are around a particular set of issues like what are the workplace policies, what biases exist in the workplace culture, how to attain gender parity and gender balance, and what helps and what hurts women in the workplace. And that is an important conversation that we need to keep having until women are not seen as ‘less than’.
But I believe that there is another, if not more important, conversation. Not about gender balance in the workplace, but about how if we unconsciously solve for “gender balance” in a world where success is defined by patriarchal values and toxic masculinity — it will never yield a balanced woman (or man).
What does it mean to be a ‘balanced’ woman?
I believe all men and women have opposite energies or forces inside of us. Some cultures call it masculine and feminine, others might refer to it as ying and yang, rationality and emotionality, testosterone and estrogen, animus and anima, extraversion and extroversion. For the sake of simplicity I will call it masculine and feminine energy.
The masculine energy in all of us is directive, focused, achieving, planning, confident, goal-oriented and driven, whereas the feminine energy in all of us is receptive, fluid, allowing, feeling, empathetic, vulnerable and creative. The masculine energy is identified as the doing mode, and the feminine energy as the being mode. The masculine energy is concerned with the logical mind and the external world, whereas the feminine is the intuitive mind and internal world. When these two sets of energies are balanced in men and women, we experience a greater sense of harmony and fulfillment. When they’re misaligned, we feel more friction and stress in everyday life. We feel dis-ease.
Every man and woman has these two energies, and two sets of inherent gifts, but what patriarchal society has done and continues to do is compartmentalize the woman and man within the narrowly defined, socially prescribed gender roles that highlight their strengths fitting within the patriarchal system. The result is one-dimensional and toxic masculinity and a shallow definition of femininity.
How an alpha-female making it in a man’s world
Growing up in a world that not only had patriarchal values but values of machismo, I quickly realized that if I wanted position or prestige or independence, I would need to be a man. So I set on my path. Being a sensitive child, I learned to deny my emotions starting early on, because boys don’t cry. When my body started to show outward signs of change and womanhood, I unconsciously and violently rejected it and eliminated any sign of my femininity by developing an eating disorder which starved the girl in me. This eating disorder would be my companion into young adulthood.
I separated from most activities that were socially prescribed as feminine like cooking, domestic tasks or wearing dresses even though they were appealing to me. I rejected my mother’s methods and her wishes for me as I measured my worth and my success by patriarchal values. I abandoned my feminine, playful nature, and I dismissed and disconnected from my body, my feelings, my creativity, as I identified with my logical mind, my goals, my achievements. I became an alpha-female, and someone who could run with the boys (I literally ran with the boys track team in high school). Every now and then my cousins would remind me that I am a girl and I should not act stronger than men because ‘no man likes that’.
The people watching my success said “wait till she becomes a mother — it isn’t easy studying/working and being a mother” — so I showed them. I got married and had children but to acknowledge the limitations of my physical body during pregnancy or childbirth would be a weakness. So I worked up to the day of my baby’s delivery, drove myself to the hospital, gave a scheduled birth, took the weekend to recover and be back to work/or university the following week. I did this for all four children. People referred to me as ‘bionic woman’ because the normal human needs just did not seem to apply to me. Little did they know that I was burning the candle at both ends, which resulted in me wearing out my mind and body to the point of burn-out three times over the course of a decade. Now, as I think back at this time, I am full of grief for the time lost, memories not made, for not being more engaged or playful in my youth and in the early years of my children’s lives.
Fast forward to a few years ago, while sitting among my family, one of my uncles said “Saliha is more manly than any man I know”. I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly I felt a huge sense of relief …I did it… I showed them I was as good as a man…I showed them I can do what men can do…but as soon as I exhaled, a voice inside me said “but wait…you’re not a man. You are a woman.” And it hit me like a bolt of lightning, with the thunder of realizations that rumbled inside for weeks after. I had done it. I had achieved “success” from an external, male-dominated perspective. I had many “outstanding achievements”. I had the home, the established business, financial independence, and I did it while studying and having kids and caring for the home — but at what cost? My success suddenly felt shallow.
I realized I had fallen for the biggest conspiracy against women. Here I thought I was being a feminist and showing the patriarchal world women were ‘just as strong as men’, but I did it while I was denying the feminine parts of me, silencing those parts of me, even betraying those parts of me just so I could be to be taken seriously in a world where the metrics for success were defined by patriarchy.
The truth is that the ambition of a woman to be like a man is a waste of her potential. No, a woman is not as good as a man. If she stands in her full power as a whole and balanced woman she would be a force like the world has not seen before.
Saving myself and becoming my own heroine
More recently I made a commitment to myself. I decided to embrace the masculine parts of me that I had developed throughout my life, and give voice to the feminine parts of me that I had dismissed my whole life. I have spent the last few years honoring and reclaiming those parts of myself.
Here are a few ways to start moving towards a balanced self, a whole woman:
Ask yourself what you want – Most of us don’t know what we want and no one really asked us. There are so many messages we get from our culture and our family about what we should be and behave that to connect to our true self is like finding the Holy Grail. So I ask you to ask yourself, who would I be if my family didn’t tell me what I should do or how to be or if I weren’t polluted by the noise of social media putting constant pressure on me to change myself or improve myself? What would I do if no one would judge me and I was not afraid to fail? What would my best life look like? Does it have a romantic relationship? Does it have kids? Does it have me traveling the world freely? Does it have me working and raising a family alongside? What do I want?
Connect to your body – Most, if not every woman, struggles with having a skewed relationship with their body. This should come as no surprise given that from the time we are born we are inundated with messages about our bodies and so we learn to deny, starve, dissociate, abuse, hate our bodies. We are also told ‘mind over matter’ or ‘no pain no gain’ and so we learn to dismiss our bodies which are our home and the keepers of our intuition and wisdom. It’s time to make a commitment to start rebuilding a relationship with your body again. Activities like breathwork, body scans, yoga, stretching, dancing, horse riding, can all start to reconnect you to your body again.
Build your tribe and include men in your tribe – No woman can do it alone. There is no such thing as a fiercely independent leader, so it is important for you to consider who is on your ‘Board of Advisors’ as well as who is in your personal tribe. And as you are considering these individuals, make sure to include some men in these groups. The path for reaching our full potential need not be through radical sisterhood or girl power, but rather an interdependence between men and women. We have a lot to teach each other.
Manage your time and energy – You will need time, energy, space and stillness to reconnect with the parts of you that have been denied. Start with doing a self-assessment of what ‘balance’ looks like for you (not your friend, sister, or colleague or partner) and then start to make hard choices that are consistent with your definition. If you say yes to something, what are you saying no to? You will find that as you get closer to your authentic self you will need to make tough decisions and decide between doing what you love and doing what you love more. It is the only way to achieve balance and give voice to all parts of yourself. Also, as you consider your energy, make a commitment to not rush through your days. Find ways to calm yourself throughout the day and refuel often and everyday so you do not burnout from caregiving or work. Leave a few minutes of stillness between activities, breathe for five minutes every few hours, or go for a 10 minute walk in nature during your lunch break.
Cultivate ‘tender and fierce’ self-compassion – The way back towards wholeness is through compassion. Compassion means to feel the pain of someone and be activated to alleviate their suffering. Self-compassion is asking yourself “what do I need to alleviate my suffering or comfort my pain right now?” And in the words of Dr. Kristin Neff, we need to cultivate ‘tender and fierce’ self-compassion, which means we soothe and comfort ourselves as well as protect ourselves fiercely. This can look different on different days and at different times in our lives, but one thing remains the same, choosing to be with yourself in an accepting and gentle way.
Dr Saliha Afridi
As a clinical psychologist for the past 13 years, Dr Saliha Afridi has spent 12 years working in the UAE and founded The Lighthouse Arabia in 2011, a community mental health and wellness clinic providing quality psychological and psychiatric care to children, adults, couples and families.