I came close to sending this article to the archives.
It started to become more laborious than I intended and somewhere between the first draft and the third draft I lost confidence that what I was saying was true or important. Which is exactly why, in the end, I decided to share it.
My intent is not to disempower women by making generalizations but rather to share what I’ve noticed on a broader scale in hopes that it will resonate with some, inspire others, and open up conversation.
When I returned to the United States after living in South Africa for eight years, many people asked me, “What it was like.” To this day, I have not formulated a succinct answer. Trying to describe South Africa is much like trying to describe the United States—complicated and nuanced.
What I did find myself doing a lot was comparing South Africa and the United States in my day-to-day life. I noticed where certain tasks were much easier or more difficult. I noticed how communication and language functioned differently. I stood mouth agape at the difference in the cost of living. I’ve since tried to curb the habit of comparison, realizing that it’s more helpful to accept and appreciate the uniqueness of each place.
However, there was one topic amongst my comparisons that caught my attention—freedom.
In South Africa, freedom is impacted in very tangible and obvious ways. Houses have gates, security codes, and guard dogs, windows have bars, everything has multiple locks. Heightened awareness of surroundings is second nature, especially for solo females. It sounds oppressive—and it is—but once you adapt, it takes on a more subtle tone.
Countering these restrictions is what I’ll call a “wild” freedom. South Africa is developed but it doesn’t yet have the myriad of rules and micro rules increasingly present in the United States. A slower pace allows for more simple pleasures. The stunning geography remains vast and open for discovery. The people are genuine. It is a country that restricts, but also opens the heart and mind in an extraordinarily freeing way.
When I returned to the United States, I regained my physical freedom. I relished walking on the beach in the evening by myself. I laughed at my own paranoia when my mother would leave the car windows down. I appreciated being able to have a door wide open on a summer’s night.
As a female, it felt great to have my full freedom of movement and have my independence back. In light of these changed circumstances, it took me some time to notice that while I felt free, I also felt uneasy, and in a way that was very different than the discomfort I experienced in South Africa with my physical freedoms limited.
As an American woman, I have more rights than many other women around the world. I have access to education, I can own property, I can vote, I have traveled the world solo, and I am able to choose my reproductive path (for now). American women are independent, spirited, and strong. Yet, what I’ve noticed recently, is that underneath our perceived freedom there lies a deep-seated and pervasive thread of debilitating self-doubt.
Our freedom is subjective.
Many women I know limit their own success and happiness by undermining their self-worth, myself included. We restrict our freedom with self-imposed fearfulness that is quietly and unconsciously being passed down through the generations. American women have certain rights, but we are largely still functioning within the confines of our own boundaries.
Over the last year and a half, I have met and maintained friendships with a 63-year-old counsellor, yoga teacher, entrepreneur, and artist; a 61-year-old business owner and farmer; a 58-year-old restaurant owner and interior designer; a 53-year-old business owner and seamstress; a 45-year-old yoga teacher and degreed artist; a 38-year-old nurse and crafter; and a 28-year-old business owner and female small business advocate.
Then there is my mother, a 56-year-old baker, entrepreneur, artist, and teacher. And myself, a freelance graphic designer, leathersmith, and entrepreneur.
All of these women are multifaceted. They’re brilliant at what they do and regarded highly in their fields. They also happen to be struggling financially and at a loss as to how to thrive in a capitalist society that is still largely underpinned by masculine values.
These women are trying to give back to our community yet struggling to pay bills. Generally speaking, our high-speed, consumer culture is not rewarding the makers, the healers, or the small business owners for what they have to contribute. Compound this marginalization with preexisting and evasive self-doubt, and the result is a collection of gifted yet displaced women.
At the same time, “shame” is taking a front seat in conversation. From yoga class to women’s magazines—shame is a topic no longer reserved for those who were sexually abused early in life. Largely due to women like Tara Brach and Brené Brown, shame is now being understood differently.
This sense that there is “something wrong with me” doesn’t necessarily derive from one specific trauma anymore but rather from a series of nuanced events in one’s life and from genetic memory.
Now that the lid is off, the resounding “me too” is reverberating throughout many arenas. From spirituality, to financial advice, to entrepreneurialism, shame is being identified as a major factor in how much space women are able to take up, how loud our voices are, and how comfortable we are with creating and experiencing success.
I do not believe that shame is exclusive to women, but as a collective, women subconsciously carry centuries of oppression, subjugation, and sexism. The result is an internalized sense of “not good enough” that impacts self-worth and the capability to progress both individually and collectively.
With the spotlight now on issues like unworthiness, fear, and judgement, it is an opportune time for women of all generations to start clearing out the damaging beliefs, and change the way we relate to ourselves and the freedom available to us when we finally realize we are “good enough.”
What women can do to create real freedom.
1. Progress is better than perfection. A recent article stated that if a male is 37 percent confident in his skills, he will proceed with starting a business. If a woman is 98 percent confident in her skills, she will not open her business because she wants everything (including herself) to be 100 percent perfect before undertaking a venture.
Of course, statistics are manipulable, but you get the idea. Women often sabotage themselves with an internalized desire to be perfect. The idea of perfection is one that I struggled with for a long time, and still do. It locks nicely into my not-good-enough stories, my fear of failure, and my fear of success.
However, I am learning over time that progress is more satisfying than perfection and also a lot less pressure. If I view my failures as opportunities to grow, they no longer act as a barometer of my worth. I can enjoy my creativity and revel in my capacity to evolve. It is an ongoing practice to make sure I’m not getting myself stuck in perfectionism.
2. Clear out the beliefs that no longer serve you. At some time or another, it seems inevitable that life positions us for a wake-up call.
As Gay Hendricks puts it, “If you’re open to learning, you get your life lessons delivered as gently as the tickle of a feather. But if you’re defensive, if you stubbornly persist in being right instead of learning the lesson at hand, if you stop paying attention to the tickles, the nudges, the clues—boom! Sledgehammer.”
My sledgehammer blow arrived when a long-term relationship ended abruptly, catapulting me back to the United States. Of course I had inklings of the impending disaster, but I chose to ignore the tickles and thus faced a harsh awakening. The degree of loss rooted me in a suffering so deep that I had no choice but to start to examining the parts of myself that were long overdue for some attention.
By owning my gifts, both natural and earned, I am able to celebrate the amazing fortune of being a woman. In addressing my core beliefs, I’ve empowered myself. By being able to change the way I live and relate to myself and others, I’ve taken control of my life. For me, self-work has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding adventures I’ve embarked upon.
3. Connect and share resources. Women are naturally resourceful and born connectors. It is to our advantage to utilize these strengths and ask for help when we need it. Within community lies the potential to trade skills, supplement knowledge, and inspire creativity—and it’s usually closer and more available than we think.
For me, self-imposed isolation and lack of a support network while overseas was a significant lesson in the importance of connection and self-care. It took me a long time to realize the disservice I was doing myself by detaching whenever I was struggling. Once I decided to put myself out there, some very supportive and special people entered my life.
4. Empower yourself. Technology is a double-edged sword. It is loathsome for its pervasiveness, invasiveness, and pace. Its potential to disconnect people and connect people is perplexing. However, technology isn’t going anywhere and it offers free access to a wealth of information that we never had before.
If we want to explore with other female or solo travelers, there are a multitude of groups and forums. If we want to pursue higher or continued education amidst a busy schedule, we can take online courses. Instead of fearing technology—as many women over the age of 40 do, it would be wise to embrace it as an opportunity to bolster yourself with knowledge. Many community centers or libraries even offer free classes.
5. Using our freedom to create more freedom. If you are lucky enough to have fundamental freedoms, then there is an even larger responsibility to start creating internal freedom. Right now, there is an opening to start clearing out the self-doubt and judgment that we as women, have carried for too long. It is time to replace subjective freedom with true freedom.
One of my favourite quotes is by Thai Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah:
“If you let go a little,
You will have a little happiness
If you let go a lot,
You will have a lot of happiness
If you let go completely,
You will be free.”
I invite you to commit to loving, honoring and forgiving yourself, as a part of a larger movement towards fully embracing our female beauty and strength—so that we may be genuinely free.