Friday, 31 October 2014

12. Labels, brands... because we are not worth it

Salvador Dali
Naming is an important process of the construction of the conscious memory. What we don't name, we can't recall -even if it is stored unconsciously-. What's named, exists in our consciousness and can be remembered. If we imprint an emotion on top makes the memory even stronger, it gives it a meaning. That's why some experts advice that when you had any accident in the water that made you felt scared, the best thing to do is to go straight in again, so the emotion with which we store the memory will not be as strong and we don't build a "water is dangerous" belief.

In this process of naming, we build some sort of inner drawers that we classify with labels. Some of the labels (and beliefs) will be written by ourselves out of our own experience, some will be copied from our peers but many of them are just inherited from our parents, our culture or our religion. The ones that hold our strongest judgements are normally linked to a strong past emotional experience (ours or not). Even though, this process of naming is a natural organisation mechanism of the psyche, it is also very limiting when we fail to challenge these structures in our ever changing reality.

When being wrong is right
In the TED talk: "The best stats you've ever seen", Hans Rosling speaks about preconceptions regarding our view of the world. In his work as a professor of International Health in Sweden, he discovered his students had a preconception of the world that divided it into "we and them: the Western World and the Third World".
 However data shows that the views the university students had, were more aligned with the reality of 1960's: the one that describes the world their grandparents lived in.

Without realizing, we see the world only in accordance of the structure of our drawers. When we see it in a way that fits with them we think: "everything fits therefore I AM right". In judging and categorising, we feel reaffirmed. So we go out to the world, looking for evidence that proves "we are right". The stronger the belief, the more we pay attention to cues and hints, up to the point of deforming and forcing facts and stories to fit into our drawers. At the end, we will find what we are looking for, whether it exists or not. This week, newspapers shared a study showing how much of a difference there is between measured statistics and our beliefs. The Guardian title was "You are probably wrong about almost everything", showing how much unemployment, teenage pregnancy and immigration are being overestimated in people's minds. So if we feel quite negatively about these topics, probably whenever we hear of a case of a pregnant teenager, walk down the street and recognise a foreign language or hear of someone struggling to find a job, we'll pay more attention to the information that reinforces our belief and overestimate their actual incidence (it is called confirmation bias, if you need to label this concept). 

Making up an statistic will be in any case tricky as we don't go about counting (unless we have some sort of OCD), but this also happens in a more generic way. The Pope speaks about the poor and criticises the economical system, so the corresponding label is "communist", particularly in the US where this label comes attached with a very strong emotion. And Russell Brand? Rebel? Anarchist? Communist? Are you a politician? Do you want to run for mayor? Damn you. You don't fit. You must be confused.

When being right is wrong
Salvador Dali
Anthropomorphic drawers
Believing "we are right", however, does not mean that we love or approve of ourselves. We can believe we are "right" in hating and punishing ourselves and we can be quite nasty. In feeling guilty and worthy of long and harsh punishments, we don't limit ourselves to situations when we hurt someone or committed a crime. It can be triggered by anything that goes against a belief. If we hold a belief that being fat is wrong (or gay, or a woman, or short or whatever it is), we'll feel right if we exert a level of self punishment, for example paying special attention to the people that judge us. If we are a perfectionist, we'll have a very neat set of drawers and, of course, we'll overestimate our failures: proving ourselves right can be our own doom.

Labels, labels and more labels
Brands help us judge ourselves and others with regards to our choices. They make it so easy for us, that we all go about our lives literally wearing labels, putting people in the drawer of "good person" -when they are wearing a label we approve of- and trusting they will do the same with us. Therefore, in a world where "we are our choices", choice carries a high level of anxiety. This is brilliantly explored in Grayson Perry's documentary "All in the best possible taste", particularly when he explores the middle class in the UK. When we submerge in this anxiety we "identify" and adopt mother figures (brands, nations, even religions, etc) that can make the choices for us and tell us how to judge others. We follow their guidance because we think that we'll be "seen" and appreciated; we follow their guidance because we don't trust our own judgement and think that if we make a mistake we'll be judged as not worthy of love or recognition, probably because deep down this is part of our core belief, our shame.

We carry our drawers around and if we ever experience something that put this structure to doubt, we have a crisis. If we ever act (or felt like taking action) against them, too. Even if many beliefs are just adopted and are not of our own creation, somehow this structure can be perceived as "ourselves", but it's not. There is a deeper inner voice that sometimes disagrees (this inner voice can talk through unexpected explosions of emotion or through our body by not letting us sleep, having a breakdown or getting sick). This means that our beliefs are not us and that we should be able to reflect on them and disown them when we need to. We need to learn to hear these other inner voices before they take over our bodies to shout, to swear or to get us sick so we listen. We need to learn to redecorate our interior, rearrange our drawers, knock down some walls with the ultimate purpose of being coherent with ourselves. Our true self, without shame.


Other links:
Eleonor Robertson, "Why are baby boomers desperate to make us millenials hate ourselves", The Guardian

Thursday, 2 October 2014

11. The absent mother

A couple of months ago I read this article where the CEO of Pepsico, a woman, Indra K. Nooyi explains that women can't have it all. See full article in this link.
I've seen this article being shared in facebook and people commenting how true and how sad it was. They mostly empathised with the feeling of powerlessness that this woman was transmitting. But there was another reaction too. The one of disappointment in front of the message "I have a big job so I won't be a good mum". 

She draws this conclusion from a particular example: she was told she would be promoted to CEO and came home 10PM instead of midnight as she would've normally done. She was very happy and wanted to share the news with her family. But she found something else instead. As soon as she had arrived, her mother asked her to go and buy some milk.

"I got home about 10, got into the garage, and my mother was waiting at the top of the stairs. And I said, "Mom, I've got great news for you." She said, "let the news wait. Can you go out and get some milk?" I looked in the garage and it looked like my husband was home. I said, "what time did he get home?" She said "8 o'clock." I said, "Why didn't you ask him to buy the milk?" "He's tired." Okay. We have a couple of help at home, "why didn't you ask them to get the milk?" She said, "I forgot." She said just get the milk. We need it for the morning. So like a dutiful daughter, I went out and got the milk and came back. I banged it on the counter and I said, "I had great news for you. I've just been told that I'm going to be president on the Board of Directors. And all that you want me to do is go out and get the milk, what kind of a mom are you?" And she said to me, "let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you're the wife, you're the daughter, you're the daughter-in-law, you're the mother. You're all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don't bring it into the house. You know I've never seen that crown."

The mother 2
Jaco Van Der Vaart
Of course I understand the sadness that people feel. The sadness I feel however is not about her being powerless. I think she is not, not a bit. It's about these two women being absolutely blind, not able to see each other and both somehow resenting the absent mother. Mrs Nooki, resenting a mother that doesn't understand that she worked hard all day and that is tired. A mother that quite ruthlessly does not join in the excitement of her promotion while she was expecting a deserved little cheer. And the other that resents the daughter as an absent mother, the one that does not put limits to her company, that is not aware that there is no milk and expects her to fill the gap. Of course here, the lack of milk is highly symbolic to what goes on.

In this case, when I speak about presence or absence is not about physical presence. I am a working mother too. It's the psychic and emotional presence. It's this feeling, this overall awareness of what's going on in the family and within ourselves. It's a lot about being present when you are present, connected to the moment and perceiving what's going on now. Mothers that see and pay attention to others and to themselves.

But instead of resolving, of talking at least about this absence that both felt, they fall back to their masks. The dutiful daughter, the resentful mother. The dutiful daughter that burns herself working for a company until midnight instead of leading the company and changing the rules (probably projecting in the firm her own unsatisfied mother). The 'good girl' that goes to buy milk instead of confronting her own mother, talking to the family about her news, asking them about theirs and trying to resolve together this small issue that there is no milk. But we, the world, are left with powerful women choosing to be dutiful daughters, choosing to obey without even thinking of challenging unwritten rules, not even in their own house. We are left with women that see danger in this burn-out and escaping from leading roles. We are left with men (with the useful blind spot in systemic issues and always relying on individuality) justifying the absence of women to their lack of ambition. We are also left with the Queen Bees that quite enjoy being the only ones up there, with their crowns, and instead of pushing for change, have discouraging messages for the rest of the women.

The Pink Floyd's song Wish you were speaks about absence in a very universal way, but consider it in this context:

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell,
blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?

Do you think you can tell?
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? 

Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground. 
What have we found? The same old fears.
Wish you were here.
Copyright: Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

I do rescue that Indra "sees" herself as an imperfect mother. And says so without a taboo. It is not a small step when (imperfect) motherhood is still a taboo. But the whole anecdote lacks so much insight, so much self awareness that is worrying rather than sad.

Women need to see themselves, see their mothers, see their children to be able to connect with their own power: the power to drop the masks and to lead the needed change in whatever task or profession they chose to be an actor in. 
And their children need to see that they are being seen in order to awake their power in turn. It's not about children getting on with stuff preparing themselves for the future. It's about children that are living their lives now and feeling valued now. See Ken Robinson's Ted Talk How schools kill creativity.

In its most extreme, when absence is tinted with rejection, children are left full with self destructive tendenciesChunchi is a canton in Ecuador with the highest level of youth suicide in the world. It is also a canton where mothers left their children behind to go an make a living in the developed world after an economic crisis in 1999. 51% of school children live in a house without parents. They dutifully sent dollars and technology. But this is not what they needed. Children with dollars and an hole in their soul meant that drugs and alcohol became a epidemic, as much as suicide.  
"Not being able to receive the love of your mum is like being dead" Luis says. 
I like the expression paying attention because it (kind of) represents a monetary exchange. Attention has that sort of property. Those who receive a lot, feel rich. Those who receive little attention, feel poor. When I pay attention to you, I am valuing you. You are worth my time and my attention. But attention is a scarce resource and it is where the tension lies. 
Jobs and women's inner circles should be a source of "fuel". Professional and/or personal recognition should help mothers to have their tanks full (and their pockets) so they can feed their children with food, love and attention. If we feel 'poor', if our tank is empty, we cannot give others our attention for free, sometimes not even to our children and might even try to grab their attention instead, feeding from them, leaving them feeling empty, invisible.  So invisible-blind mothers give birth to invisible-blind daughters who become invisible-blind mothers. All 'poor' women that were never seen or recognised. 

In order to cut the trans-generational chain of blind-invisible women, a generation needs to wake up and see themselves first. So women in power are... women (not daughters), present and connected with themselves so they can see the game and the rules that have nothing to do with business and more to do with our old wounds.


Bonus: On absence: The making of Wish you were here Pink Floyd (must see documentary)