For those of us conditioned as women, one of the trickiest things to learn in adulthood is how to trust ourselves, to listen to our own still, small voice in the midst of the patriarchal cacophony we’re living in and working so hard to disrupt. The challenge isn’t that we don’t have an inner voice, but that we have to defy our gendered conditioning to find it.
Since infancy, many of us assigned female at birth are conditioned to smile on demand, to make sure those around us were comfortable at our own expense (and sometimes even personal safety), and to serve everyone before ourselves. We are taught that caregiving is an inherent expectation of our “womanhood”, and necessary if we want to earn the ever-evasive approval of the patriarchy — like finding ourselves a mate. We were taught that to speak up was “unladylike”, and most certainly to never, ever express anger, frustration, or resistance.
For most of us though, we begin to realize that we’re paying an extraordinary cost for all the things we don’t say and all the chances we’re afraid to take. We second-guess our judgment, default to our cultural conditioning, and keep ourselves small to make space for others. As we’ve stifled our intuition, denied our needs, wants, and feelings, as we’ve cared for others at our own expense and swallowed our rage in the face of injustice, it finally and suddenly hits us; I am so much more than the roles I play in the lives of other people. This is no longer a cost I’m willing to pay.
So where do we go from here, where do we start?
“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” ― Richard Rohr
In my experience, trusting myself enough to listen to my inner voice amidst all the noise is rarely honking and loud, but more often quiet and soft — blink (or stare too long at a social media feed) and I’ll miss it.
I start by simply setting an intention to pay closer attention and suddenly, in the smallest and most mundane everyday details, I begin to notice little insights and nudges everywhere, little clues to follow back to myself and my inner truth. And as I become more acquainted with myself and how I’m uniquely wired, it becomes more and more natural to create the life I’m longing for.
With as little judgment as I can muster, I notice and respond to my needs without being punitive and harsh, but instead make a practice of wrangling compassion and tenderness and gentleness towards myself. Because the more I’m able to notice and respond my body’s cues and needs in a meaningful way, the more confidence I gain in my ability to care for myself and the more I trust my own wisdom.
I pay attention to the language of my body, to all the ways it’s telling me I’m stressed out and on edge. I notice my tightened shoulders, my shallow breathing, and I pause long enough to take some slow, deep breaths all the way down to my belly, and I remind myself of what helps me feel grounded and calm. Slowly my nerves begin to settle as I play with my cat, walk through the woods, and listen to music while my partner and I cook dinner, and I trust myself to care for my stress.
I notice what my energy level is telling me on a Monday, and how that compares to Friday. Am I feeling irritable with the people I love, am I a snappy driver on my commute home? Am I out of patience with myself, is my inner critic becoming rather aggressive? I will respond by creating some quiet time away with a cozy blanket and a juicy novel, or trying a new herbal tea to help me relax, and allow myself a mid-afternoon nap, and I trust myself to care for my rest.
Am I able to discern the most visceral needs of my body, and how do I respond? Is tonight a good night to prepare some deliciously warm comfort food, or am I actually craving a big crunchy salad? Do I feel stiff from sitting behind a computer all day, or am I worn out from pulling weeds all weekend? Perhaps I will treat myself to a massage, or try out the new local acupuncturist, and I will trust myself to care for my health.
Do I feel withdrawn, lonely, or disconnected? When is the last time I had quality time with my best friends, my brother in New Jersey, my partner, my parents, my Aunt? I will prioritize my relationships by blocking time on my calendar and reaching out to people I love, because I know that in entrusting myself to others, I’ll learn to trust myself.
I keep a close loop of people in my life with whom I can be my most authentic, ebullient, bubbling self, folks who hold space for me when I’m sad and speak truth to me when I’m confused and being held hostage by old patterns and limiting beliefs. I affectionately call them “my type of people.” It’s in this sacred and trusted community of people willing to ride the tension of saying hard things that my inner voice is nourished and affirmed, and gets to see the light of day.
Learning to trust myself is, as they say, a journey, not a destination.
Learning to trust myself and the promptings of my inner voice is a journey of choices small and large to listen to the language of my body and to honor my needs. It is in cultivating an authentic community willing to do risk vulnerability and discomfort that I find my way back to myself.