By Jo Murphy 06 Jan, 2018
“When we women offer our experiences as truth, as human truth, all the maps change.”

Ursula K Le Guin has a point that’s pertinent as January bears down on us, demanding that we resolve to do life better, amplifying the toxicity of our overculture. But life doesn’t need to be improved; it needs to be shared.

We don’t need resolutions or betterment. We need truth.

Women have been calling for it, for sure. We want our suffering at the hands of others to be outed, but what about the suffering we impose on ourselves? While our culture of comparison and competition puts our public lives under constant scrutiny, cultivating an image of perfection (or being seen to strive for it) becomes our first line of defence.

Meanwhile our private lives remain stoically and safely hidden away.

If a woman’s work is to create harmony for others, we pay no mind to our own disharmony. Often the people around us define us (wife, mother) as we tend to their comfort and happiness, leaving little room for our un happiness. All because female feelings threaten the social order, earn us the crazy label.

A simple heartfelt declaration that we no longer accept this social order could undermine it more swiftly than any grand-scale revolution. That’s why we’re shamed for sharing the truth of our experience. Over Christmas, for example, I noticed my embarrassment whenever I let down my guard around the male members of my family.

The festive period demands more of the female caregiver and caretaker. But, as our emotional labour ramps up, we can use it to see more clearly the ways we’ve internalised this need for perfection – to keep ourselves under wraps in order to keep the peace.

So, by way of recovery, I indulged in another pilgrimage to Rome where I took in an exhibition documenting 100 years of photography with the Leica. The poster outside the gallery offered up a monochrome glamourpuss sipping espresso. Perfect, I thought; how wrong I was.

It was all wars and whores, dead bodies and naked ladies, glossed over by that glamourpuss doing her woman’s work.

I took in about two thirds of the exhibit before making a break for the exit, blinking into the sun. I wanted to shake it off, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this central truth of our lives. Sex and war serve as mechanisms of control, just like the expectation that women cultivate harmony for all, while remaining resolutely harmonious themselves.

It’s simply too shameful to be seen as anything else.

But if we throw out our neuroses, we also throw out our wisdom. Systematic denial that something is wrong perpetrates the problem. Believe me, I’ve tried just about everything over the years to avoid facing the truth of my life, indulging all the self-help fads , always bettering, burying. I even ran away to India, the promise land of ashrams and enlightenment, where I thought I could transcend all the shit.

But enlightenment, says Marianne Williamson, is the unlearning of the thought system that dominates the planet. And you can’t unlearn something you’re not willing to face up to. Sidestepping it screws with our frame of self-reference since we’ve no way of knowing the women we are beyond this overculture.

We’ve no way of knowing how much we’ve internalised it.

Luckily, however, while trying to check out of myself, I checked into an eastern philosophy that helped me with the unlearning. It said we have two selves, an individual and a shared, which I’ll reframe here as the personal and the cultural. One is who we really are and the other is who we’ve been told we should be.

They each provide a point of comparison, helping us to separate what’s true from what’s learnt, helping us to wrench the personal free from the cultural. And this is where the sharing comes in, you see, since it helps us understand how tangled the two have become.

Let me explain.

I’m prone to deep self-analysis – call it a hangover from my self-helping days, call it internalised misogyny – and I can get stuck in a story about a situation that has no foundation in truth (my embarrassment at Christmas, say). But if I share that story with someone who responds with empathy, it dies.

It’s far harder to kill a phantom than a reality, so said Virginia Woolf, and if we keep things to ourselves they become phantoms. That’s why, while feeling tender after fleeing the exhibition, I phoned a friend. We’d not spoken in two months since she, like me, leans towards analysis. Things can get pretty heavy going when we’re together with all that loaded silence.

But I needed to reach out and tell her how I was feeling about our friendship, and life, and I wanted her to reciprocate, which she did. We outed all those misconstrued inferences, imagined judgements, unfounded fears and phantoms.

It felt vulnerable, yes, but all kinds of courageous too. 

We’ve never before had a conversation like this despite nearly two decades of friendship. And it will now serve as a control. We can keep coming back to it to measure how far we’ve strayed from the truth. 

Truth can make life more visceral, but this enhances rather than diminishes it.

Whatever your story, it’s not for any of us to judge since it’s judgement that got us here in the first place. Instead we discover, through honest sharing, how our individual experiences of the overall map merge (a #metoo reprise). More than that, we see how we’ve been complicit in the mapmaking all along.

So if you really need a resolution, resolve to speak your truth this year. Don’t shoulder the shit for everyone else. Kill your phantoms so we can change this reality. And share your feelings without shame, since a world without women’s shame is a dangerous place for patriarchy.

Happy New Mapping, my loves.

By Jo Murphy 29 Nov, 2017
I’ve been almost losing my shit a lot recently, but I never go all the way. I’m like an engine revving at the traffic lights, waiting for them to turn green before I accelerate. This is progress. Like a baby exercises their vocal chords by making random noises, I’m exercising mine with not-so-random outbursts. I’m saying no, I do not like your attitude, or no, I do not accept the terms and conditions.

And then I find myself apologising for going too far. It’s like a tick that I keep trying and failing to kick.

A couple of weeks ago I was sat in the pub with a group of women after a workshop. We’d spent all day ‘finding our voices’ and now they were lubricated with wine. While the others merrily talked across each other, growing louder, I kept pre-empting my contributions with “I’m sorry to interrupt…”

But this timidity belied the war that had been raging inside me all day. Earlier, when my turn had come to stand up front, hot tears had spilled forth, drowning my words. My voice was all but swallowed by waves of fear and frustration.

Sadly I’m all too familiar with this internal conflict. What have I got to say that’s valuable? Who am I to say such things anyway? And who would listen? If I open my mouth the lions will savage me. But there are no lions, only the roar of internal interference.

So what’s the deal? Do I really hate the attention so much? Even in a room full of friends I panic a little when they all turn to me. Shit, I think, they’re waiting for me to deliver something worth listening to; I’d better find those pearls of wisdom fast .

Maybe this has something to do with the myth of perfection we’re force-fed by the media. We often feel shame if we reveal ourselves to be anything less than perfect, which is why the spotlight can inspire panic and confusion. Which is why this workshop touched on the traumatic. I wanted every word that passed my lips to be impactful, inspirational and fabulous. I’d told them I was a writer so I didn’t dare disappoint with inarticulacy. And this here is the ongoing conflict.

I could happily write you a thesis at whim, but deliver a speech on the same? Pfft.

I know I’ve been quick to jump on the fear-of-public-speaking bandwagon in the past, but I’m fast realising this has become an excuse, a reason to rev but rarely accelerate. Back in January 2016 I attended an event hosted by Gabby Bernstein. She was helping us face down our fears, which is why I found myself standing up front with her, looking out at a packed auditorium. As soon as she placed the microphone in my sweaty hand, my foot hit the pedal and I was off.

But here’s the rub. I remember feigning shyness as I climbed the stairs to the stage. I’d coyly adjusted my dress, knowing all eyes were on me, but the action once again belied the truth of how I felt. I was alight with anticipation, revving like fury. All I’d needed was for Gabby to give me the green light.

Is there something at my very core that tells me I can’t take centre stage until someone gives me permission to do so? Of course the coach in me has a field day with this. Perhaps something happened to me as a little girl, I wonder, imagining an over zealous teacher crushing my seven-year-old self in front of the whole class.

A lifetime pattern seeded in a moment.

But I can’t find the corroborating memory as I sort through the archives. I cannot locate one defining moment. Instead I stumble upon phrases, half sentences, disembodied, repeated time and again: “don’t have what it takes”, “rein it in”, “calm down”. It’s a cacophony of “not enough” and “too much” that I’ve made the instruction manual for my life. Easy slurs etched on my psyche that have nothing to do with the little girl I was and everything to do with the woman I am now.

But whose fault is this exactly? Patriarchy? Perhaps, but I’m sorely aware that the blame game has its limitations. We can create stories about our past that are self-serving. We look for evidence of what we believe to be true – too much or not enough – and cling to it. This becomes a reason, an excuse, not to change.

Too often I’ve seen women wilt beneath the spotlight. Too often we’re told we should have more confidence, as if we could just flip a switch. This gets me revving. Take a male who’s lived his whole life knowing he belongs in every room he walks into. Of course confidence comes more easily to him. Then take a female who’s lived her life confined to the women’s room. It’s only natural that she feels the need to attend all-day workshops in order to find her way out.

We’re entrenched in a culture of shaming those who lack the qualities we deem desirable (like confidence) and blaming someone else for causing that lack. So, yes, we can call out patriarchy for holding us back, for the way women are spoken over, dismissed or mansplained to.

But there was no man holding his hand over my mouth during that workshop. It was all me.

I’ve internalised this story just like the other women I saw crumble that day. We hadn’t the audacity to stick it to the man in our heads because we didn’t think we could. Nobody had given us permission to do so.

And this is the inner conflict that thwarts all efforts towards equality.

When we make someone else entirely responsible for our internal experience, we give up the power to change it. Waiting for an apology means waiting for someone else to change means placing our agency in the hands of patriarchy, which is what gets us so damn mad in the first place. We end up fighting on the inside as well as outside. But fighting is a form of clinging and blaming only prolongs the battle.

So, yes, I could ask those who told me I was too much or not enough to take it back, I could demand it adamantly, but expecting them to change the story on my behalf means I no longer own it. And I let it own me instead. This is what keeps me stuck at the lights, when it ought to be my reason to accelerate. If someone has slighted you, use that slight to fuel your search for evidence to the contrary. And remind yourself of this over and over again until it sticks. Create a new confirmation bias.

Give yourself permission to reject the old story and write a new one that’s all yours.

But pushing it out of you means pushing through the anger, which means going all the way, no regrets. Is that such a tall order? When I (almost) lose it there’s rarely sweet release, only self-recrimination over loss of self-control – as if I’ve confirmed all those theories about wandering wombs and female hysteria.

After the workshop a fellow feminist told me she dared not let out all of the emotion she was feeling. How far would it reach, she mused, how loud, what of the damage, would it ever end? I’ve often wondered the same, imagining the unending, unwavering white-hot howl scorching all in its path.

I know how big it feels on the inside. And it gets bigger the longer I hold it there where it festers and takes root. The longer I wrangle with stories of sexist slurs and being held back, the longer I let them consume me. But if I truly let rip, I could rip up those roots, creating space for something better to grow in their place.

If this anger is a refusal of what is, it’s also an acceptance of myself. I may be mad at the parts of patriarchy I cannot change, resentful of those in power who refuse to change, but I no longer want to fight what I can change . And that means admitting to the reasons I may be mad at myself too.

The further I travel down this path of self-inquiry I’m surprised by how often I’ve asked for permission to live my life the way I want to live it. How often I’ve ‘told’ someone of my plans when really I’m asking for their seal of approval before I proceed.

It angers me to recall how many times they’ve denied me what I could have given myself.

All the while I’m revving without accelerating my life becomes a series of reactions rather than actions. If I let others limit my life choices, that’s on me, not them. And I’m bored of this now. Whatever the psychology is behind my archetypal good girl behaviour I choose to no longer analyse it. Instead I’m going to get mad about it, really mad, and then I’m going to change it. When we face up to the truth of how we feel, and take responsibility for the part we have played in the creation of those feelings, we’re finally free.

Our emotion is the fuel that moves us from first to fifth gear.

So now I’m revving, really revving, which takes me back to our workshop grand finale… six hours in and I finally accelerated. There was no white-hot howl, but a vicelike grip on my vehicle of articulacy. I just needed to own it, all of it .

Waking up to the fact of patriarchy and the desire to punch some balls is rousing, for sure, but waking up to its presence on the inside is a whole new ballgame. Nobody gets to control that, to change that, but you. Now that is power. And the light’s just turned green.

Vroom vroom.

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