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If Only We Were Taught To Question, To Trust Our Instincts

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My therapist once posited that I had instincts telling me that a particular situation, a particular person made me uncomfortable when they were first introduced to me before it went on to become more noticeably a shitshow.

I don’t know if I believe that. Hindsight is so much clearer than when you’re actually in the thick of things. I imagine it’s easier to take a mental trip through time and find signs that things were going to get worse and we sort of knew it. Something out of the blue is so much more intimidating than something which we prepare for, even if it is unconsciously.

Recently, I was discussing this with someone else in the mental health field and she agreed with my therapist, and I started thinking about it more. The more I thought about it, the more perturbed I would get, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Then finally I realised that it bothers me because I don’t even know what I want to believe, let alone what I actually believe. What is better, that I had instincts which I ignored, or that I didn’t have them at all? Which one is more palatable for me?

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If my therapist is wrong and my instincts weren’t telling me anything, then I was far more gullible. Then I could be taken completely by surprise by the situation and people involved. That I had a pretty terrible sense of character. But I also didn’t have any chance of taking control in that situation.

On the other hand, I hate the idea that I didn’t listen to myself. It makes me feel like I wilfully ignored my own wellbeing. Maybe I was self-sabotaging. Maybe I just didn’t find myself trustworthy enough, found others more reliable. All of those thoughts infuriate me. I consider myself a confident person now, someone who trusts herself implicitly, who relies on herself before anyone else, who’s just as worthy as anyone else, sometimes more so. I don’t like to remember that it wasn’t always the case.

As a counsellor-in-training, I know that none of these thoughts about why I may have “ignored my instincts” are accurate. I didn’t willfully ignore my needs. There were a host of reasons why listening to those instincts was near impossible at the time. I know that my own mental health wasn’t good, which really ups the self-doubt.

I know that I grew up socialised as a woman, in a world which not only doesn’t trust women itself, but also tries to drill into us that we can’t trust ourselves. How was a young me supposed to find herself worthy of safety, when the world told her that everyone else mattered more? When she was told that a good girl, a good woman, puts others before herself? When selflessness was lionized as the ultimate goal? Of course, I didn’t listen to whatever discomfort my mind was warning me about! The comfort, needs, desires, of the others involved, were supposed to matter more.

As a counsellor-in-training, that’s what I’d help my clients understand. That’s what I’d help my friends understand. That’s what, intellectually, I believe unequivocally.

Yet…it seems like the expectations I set for myself are a lot less reasonable. It’s ironic that while I’m talking about the socialisations which led me to ignore my instincts when I was younger, there are more which are preventing me from forgiving myself for it now.

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The ‘norms’ and roles society has placed upon women have led to a systematic self-distrust in people socialised as women. “He’s bullying you because he has a crush on you. You’re upset by it because you have a crush on him.” This was something which was basically drilled into me when I first moved to Delhi from Kanpur at the age of 12, blissfully disconnected from the supposed realities of dating and crushes, and all entirely heterosexual, of course. He was someone who I remember being deeply uncomfortable by. But all these people told me that my discomfort was wrong, or a ‘small-town-mentality’, and lo and behold, eventually I believed myself to have a crush on the said bully. I trusted others over myself.

At home, parents lay down a rule – “______ is unacceptable, you can’t do it, you will not do it.” Growing up, not all of these rules made sense, not all of them felt comfortable. Hearing “because I said so” as the reasoning would not be uncommon for many of us. These kinds of responses unconsciously started teaching us we shouldn’t be questioning things, especially things said by people in authority positions.

How many people had parents made their offsprings spend time with relatives they didn’t like, or scold them for ‘inappropriate’ questions? I don’t think that a lot of these experiences, and the litany of similar ones, are limited to girls/women. But as an unfortunate general norm of society, reflected in a lot of households, is that there are more rules and restrictions for girls/women and less freedom for questioning (and everything else). Add in the rest of the world also feeding us implicit lessons about distrusting ourselves and we have a pretty strong recipe for self-doubt, forced selflessness, and lack of self-respect.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pointing the finger at parents. That blame lies squarely on the shoulder of systemic and societal norms. Parents are also a product of socialisation, in many cases, even more, restrictive and strict. Most parents parent from what they’ve learnt.

I imagine that sometimes they say “because I said so” is because that’s what their parents said, and their parents before that. I’d like to believe that we heard less of that answer than they did, had more freedom for questioning, allowing for the slow change of social norms. I do wonder whether any of these generations actually have a concrete answer for why the thing they’re saying is unacceptable is so. I wonder if they ever had the freedom to critically think about it at all.

Instincts and curiosity go hand-in-hand in helping us understand what makes us feel safe, what we’re comfortable with, what we actually think and feel. And both of those are not particularly welcome in our world, especially for women.

If we were curious and free to explore it, we may question people in positions of power. I remember being asked to leave my 10th-grade geography class because I asked too many questions, which went outside the purview of the textbook. Questioning people in positions of power may start the process of dismantling the power that position holds, bringing us closer to egalitarianism, which inevitably does mean, that some people lose some of their power.  Curiosity can lead to critical thinking leading to questioning norms, leading to demanding change and action. Lack of freedom for curiosity can lead to silencing and unquestioned conformity.

We’re seeing both in our society today. Hordes of people are curious about what India could be without the communal hatred spread by BJP, about the actions and intentions of governments as a whole. The protests, the activists, and the people who may not have the mental space to be actively involved but are still questioning reflect that. Questioning a colonial-era norm and law led to the repeal of section 377, hopefully pushing Indian society towards becoming more welcoming of queerness and non-normative gender identities.

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On the flip side, we have hordes of people who blindly accept what the people say, especially those in positions of power. People who aren’t able to critically think of these issues, accepting the government’s version of “because I said so”, completely ignoring facts, and desperately holding on to the status quo because it doesn’t push them to question the reality they have been led to believe.

Instincts come in there as well. Instincts help us know what we need/want to question, what doesn’t feel right, what feels good, comfortable, fair. Imagine if listening to instinct was normative. How many situations where we stayed uncomfortably at a party/someone’s house, because it isn’t polite to leave, to question that etiquette, wouldn’t have happened? How many bad arranged marriages may not have happened? I would imagine that the amount of gaslighting and emotional abuse in relationships would lessen.

If we nourished listening to, trusting, and respecting ourselves, it would begin to extend to others as well, because we wouldn’t be coming from a defensive place, a place of feeling powerless, and needing to change that. We would have better communication in all sorts of relationships, familial included because everyone’s curiosity and instinct are respected. So that every person is given respect, and we’re all encouraged to respect ourselves, express ourselves when that respect feels attacked.

There are so many bad experiences I know I wouldn’t have had if I felt empowered to question what was going on, to listen to my instincts and get out if I could. I don’t think that if curiosity and listening to ones’ instincts were encouraged, I would have had a utopic life, or that the world would become completely egalitarian, fixing every issue we face. Some situations may still be unavoidable, some communication still impossible, some issues still hard to resolve. Yet, it would make a significant difference in our lives, especially those of women.

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