Part 1 [continued from here] What does empowerment and self esteem mean in the context of healing?
آنا (ana) and عزت (izzat) are often closely intertwined in Urdu literature, understanding, and psyche.
The first one means pride. Ego. The latter means honor. Respect. Esteem. There is a lot to be written about correlations and about what the breadth of those words can convey when put into context. How understandings of this plays out into cultural contexts etc etc. But right now I am going to talk about my understandings of these things and about cultivating self esteem for women. Especially for victims of trauma, and in my case, sexual trauma.
The other day, my counselor and I were talking about empowerment. Or explicitly, about the decision to heal. I said that I don’t exactly know when I made that explicit decision to heal, and I don’t know if I can take credit for it. She said I remind her of the story of the Olympics medal winner who has had genes for generations of great athletic prowess. The question then comes, was it the DNA or was it the runner’s work?
I sighed then and said, yeah it’s the runner’s work because no matter how great the genes, you still have to train to get the medal, it’s not just going to come to you. She said “[it seems] that you don’t buy this whole thing”. I said “it’s not that, I just don’t want it.”
I talked about how I feel like I am buffeted by the wind. A lot. In a lot of instances, I feel like I am in the right place at the right time. I wouldn’t have walked into her office if my boyfriend hadn’t pointed out that I wasn’t doing well and needed to go back to professional help. That didn’t just happen once. I talked about how lucky I was to have incredibly supportive people around me during my journey. It didn’t feel like I was super smart or super strong or super anything. I was just. In the right place in the right time. That didn’t require any work from me necessarily.
She said she had watched me up close and could say that I was super smart and super strong and stuff.
I slumped my face into my arms on the table then. She asked me what it would take for me to take credit for myself then.
I thought about a minute about that. About empowerment and what that means for me. And I said, the way empowerment (taking credit for one’s work and being proud of it, etc) is portrayed in mainstream American cultural language as something of an exercise in narcissism. I can’t do that. I can’t relate to that.
And of course, I said, self esteem goes along with a lot of things related to pride. One’s ego. Except, آنا is a tricky thing. Imagery in [mythological/fictive] literature dictates that you hurting someone’s آنا , (kisse ki ana koh thees poh chana کسسی کی آنا کو ٹھیس پھ چھنا ) is understood to be doing physical damage to a person even though the damage is obviously invisible and understood to be psychological. But that damage is physical. When someone’s آنا is hurt, their reaction is slumped shoulders, pain in chest [in literature, you’ll also find characters who suffer from heart attacks or other serious physical illnesses following a severe hurt to their آنا ).
But having too much آنا isn’t a great thing either. A person who has too much آنا does not listen to the wisdom in a child’s play, will not be kind to their employees, will not be deferential to their old mother who has gone deranged as a result of old age. Consequently, they will suffer. In terms of business loss or something. The implication being, you will suffer the consequences if your آنا is hurt, or if your آنا is too big for you.
So then, what is the concept of a *healthy* آنا ? Again, this is drawing on the imagery that comes to my mind when I think of it. I do think that deference and humility are two values that are heavily valued by many Asian cultures, and the implication is there within Urdu language and literature. A person in emotional balance is modest, humble, and defers to others. That doesn’t mean they are a door mat. That doesn’t mean they think badly or lowly of themselves. Narcissism is just not part of the equation when it comes to self esteem. If you are able to listen with an open heart and an open mind, and help those lower than you, then you will automatically attract all the love you give out and you will attract love and praise in return. (The concept of “a wise person wouldn’t need/care for true/real praise whereas the stupid one would preen himself over false praise” also comes heavily in play here. )
Of course, there is also the flip side of trauma and abuse that comes into play when talking about perceived female strength. In a lot of Urdu fictive literature that I have read, the woman who is abused by her husband and in law but prevails over all quietly by extorting her children to study well who in turn grows up and make her proud are also pretty popular. She does not speak out against the abuse inflicted on her, rather, she takes it all quietly for the sake of her children. In this imagery, we have the example of a “strong” woman, one who is able to prevail over all kinds of hardships by being quietly determined but also quietly suffering, does not take into account her self esteem. It’s just not a question, it’s not part of the equation. [Disclaimer: these kinds of literature also makes sure to portray her abusers in a bad light and they are accordingly blamed]. Note also that in many fictive literature, the woman who walks out of her marital abuse (in law/husband abuse) on her own is often portrayed as someone who wasn’t being understanding enough. Eventually, in fictive literature, she goes back to her in law with renewed understanding and having learned humbleness etc. I have also come across examples of fictive literature in which, if the woman of a lower class walks out and stands up for her self, is often cast as an object of piety (poor woman whose luck wasn’t good, how is she going to survive ‘alone’ in this harsh world). If she is an upper class woman, she is derided (her “rich education and her rich career” couldn’t help her be a good woman so she pushed her husband/in laws away). [Of course, a lot of holistic research needs to be done on this topic, but some of the most recent examples of this entire thing that comes to mind is the recent Hum TV drama serial Zindagi Gulzar Hai. It is available on youtube with translation if interested].
My mother and my grandmother, two women who heavily influence my life, get caught up in this. They follow the script of self esteem where narcissism is rejected. So even though there are rare moments when I see my mother accept praise by saying “thank you” (always, for her art work, sometimes cooking), praise is usually rejected “come, come, you are just saying this”. (جاہ جاہ تم تو بس ایسے ہی کہ رہی ہو jah jah tum to bas aisi hi keh rohi ho). My grandmother usually rejects it much more violently (I use violently in relative terms here). She will often laugh it away ( a subtle way of saying thank you but leave me alone simultaneously), will also often laughingly tell us to stop (the laugh is supposed cushion the strength of her rejection) or will sometimes outright reject any and all kinds of praise and appreciation. This is not to say she doesn’t accept any kind of appreciation. Love and appreciation of her husband and children are taken. But those are specific contexts that also still hold up humility and deference.
What do I get with this entire discussion? Issues of self - esteem and empowerment are tricky. I really don’t care for narcissism, it sits in my mouth like a bitter medicine that refuses to go down and I don’t know if I want any of it. I understand that self esteem is a complicated issue for many Pakistani women. The ways that they are held up (you are bad if you are not humble enough, but don’t whine either) are tricky. But at the same time, I like holding on to that part about deference and humility. I honestly do think that humility teaches empathy (and wasn’t there also a study about how you are happier if you actively appreciate and show gratitude to the people in your life ? I don’t understand how that comes with narcissism). I want a healthy equation about giving “myself credit”, but giving deference and credit where needed. In my healing process, a lot of it goes to my support network. I can’t take all of the credit and walk away.