Shakti perspectves: Sherine
In many South Asian (or Asian) families, mental health is taboo. It is not anxiety, it is gastric. It is not depression; you are just lazy and lack motivation. Suicide? You were not suffering; how could you be so selfish? If you struggle with depression, anxiety or even attempt to talk about suicide, you are segregated, and everyone thinks there is something wrong with you. This instils shame and fear, driving disconnection between families. When faced with these feelings, the fear of being judged and ridiculed prevents help-seeking behaviour. In some cases, therapy is too expensive, and a luxury that is not afforded to many. In this circumstance, it is up to us to normalise conversations about trauma and mental health. We have grown up with so many harmful stereotypes that leave people ashamed of feeling; of being human. I would like to see our community share lows just as much as we celebrate highs. I would like to see us welcome the coexistence of sadness and happiness, to understand that one does not diminish the other. More importantly, I would also like to see us eliminate harmful stereotypes related to men’s mental health, normalising men crying and taking away the need to appear strong all the time. We laugh, cry, hurt, are sensitive and feel deeply, as all humans do. When situations get too overwhelming, there is no shame in being honest and open, and it is important we extend this to our male counterparts, too.
One thing that I believe 2020 gifted us with was time. Time to reflect and be introspective on my perceptions, my understanding, and my conscience. I started doing a lot of work surrounding my language and the way I treated myself. At the end of the day, the way you treat yourself and the relationship you have with yourself will transpire across your relationships with others and looking inward was the place to start for me to ensure that healthy and meaningful connections could blossom. Perception and perspective matters, therefore I often set apart time to check in with myself and my emotions. I am usually someone who needs to keep busy to feel productive, but I am starting to embrace that productivity could mean grounding yourself and creating a healthy space to embrace your emotions. I believe this is just as important as hitting the ground running.
In the chaos and unpredictability of life, it is so easy to forget about checking in with ourselves and our needs. To need is to be human, it is to be vulnerable, it is to listen to ourselves and our feelings. When was the last time you let your thoughts unravel? Pay attention to how you feel and notice what comes up. To be vulnerable is scary and confronting, but approach yourself with tenderness, beyond the fear and learn to love all your parts.
Why does mental health matter to you?
One of the most important factors in understanding yourself is being able to be comfortable with your emotions, creating space to sit with the discomfort and emerge with clarity. Mental health matters because it allows for a healthy expression of emotions. It encourages the understanding that lows and highs can coexist, and the existence of one does not take away from the other. It empowers us to not be ashamed of tears, rather embrace the strength that comes with vulnerability. It encourages us to pause, address our inner turbulence so that we may emerge resilient. Most importantly, addressing mental health encourages us to heal. However, to heal, we need to confront, embrace, understand, and accept to grow. This is where the power of opening dialogue surrounding mental health lies. In South Asian culture, we have been so conditioned to approach mental health as a silent struggle due to fear of embarrassment and judgement of these emotions that are so rarely expressed, yet so deeply experienced. When you come as you are, wholly and unapologetically, you create space for others to do so, transcending the stigma that has prevented us from accepting ourselves, from healing.
My experience with mental health is probably best described as an uphill battle, as mental health challenges have both waxed and waned periodically through my life. Being part of a South Asian community also came with a lot of pressure to uphold a certain version of myself or present myself in a particular manner that was acceptable to society, which led to me bottling up many of my emotions and not knowing how to deal with them. It also led to self-betrayal, which looked like pretending to be a version of myself that I could not resonate with, or no longer was. Self-betrayal happens out of fear of being judged for who you truly are. My parents did not really understand what was going on either and I cannot blame them. As immigrants, my parents were busy working hard in an entirely new country for the comfort of my brothers and I. Emotional needs or the concept of mental health was not one either one of them grew up with, so how were they to understand something they had never experienced themselves?
Moving to Australia provided me with an avenue to work on my mental health, as I was able to work part time to pay for therapy. I could not be more grateful to have experienced this. My therapist reminded me that all I needed to do was show up. Therapy allowed me to establish a space that was safe for me to confront, unravel, understand, and rectify patterns that had caused me a lot of pain, as well as compromised some relationships that I held close. I was determined to unlearn, and to do the work to do better and be better for myself and my loved ones. I realised how important it was, and still is, to break generational trauma and acknowledge that sometimes, strength is just showing up. Strength can also simply be laughing, or crying, or having a little check-in conversation with yourself. Through unlearning, I have started to understand how much pain I internalized, how many beautifully unique qualities of myself that I rejected or dimmed just to feel accepted, or wanted, and how badly this led to a compromise on my happiness and emotionally draining situations. Unlearning is not about forgetting, rather building an avenue for us to be our authentic selves, and come as we are, something I am so glad I finally understand. At times, therapy felt like a winding path with no end, and it did not always make sense; there were times where I took one step forward but so many steps back. Yet, I found peace in accepting that we do not have to be strong, or brave, all the time. Sometimes, it is simply okay to just be.
What support would you give to those who do not know how to deal with their mental health needs?
In many cases, we often leave things to the last minute, until we reach breaking point and realise that a part of ourselves needs to be salvaged. I would say that the second you start noticing that something is not right, speak to someone about it if you are comfortable with doing so, and seek help. Being South Asian, I grew up with collectivist ideals where self-preservation was not prioritised, and more altruistic behaviours are encouraged. Altruism is beautiful; however, the perpetuation of these ideals could be damaging to our mental health if we do not understand our needs and know how to establish healthy boundaries. Just as important as it is to be there for others, we need to be there for ourselves. As we observe our patterns, we understand our needs, we shift our perspective, we become conscious of our energy, and we grow.
A while back, I overheard a lecturer say “let things sit in the air for a bit. We get nervous about silence, but it’s okay”. I believe sitting with your feelings is a great way to try to grasp what is going on. Silence and uncertainty are often equated to emptiness and a loss of control; but what if this was life’s way of showing us to make room for something? I have always resorted to shutting down the anxiety that comes with navigating uncharted territory and have quickly tried to fill the spaces in my life with responsibilities instead I have barely slowed down.
When meditating one day, I was introduced to the notion of gaps not being blocks, but rather spaces to embrace. Gaps as spaces. Gaps as room for feeling, confronting things we did not anticipate. Gaps to suspend thoughts, sit in stillness and encourage growth. Gaps to close those 23 tabs open in my head, but more importantly, gaps to address my needs. When we have experienced trauma, a connection to who we truly are may have severed and trying to rebuild this connection could be both scary and intimidating. I believe opening this space to sit with our feelings and explore ourselves would help us establish the possibility of us feeling safe and in tune with our feelings and understand our mental health better.
Change does not happen overnight, and while doing the work, it is so important to be kind to ourselves and take our time. I would like to encourage us to be kinder to ourselves and each other. Celebrate the small wins, make your bed, do a silly dance in the shower, drink 8 glasses of water! Check in on your loved ones, especially the ones who turn to recluse. Share the things you love about them, express gratitude, cheer them on. You are not alone, nor a burden. Talking, whenever you are ready, is a sign of strength. As humans, we thrive in the beauty of human connection - now more than ever as it is challenged and strained by the past year’s circumstances.
You have power, control and are deserving of so much good. It took me so long to be grateful to my body and mind for carrying me through my darkest days, but if you have overcome once, please know that you have the strength to do so again.