Gender stereotyping pushes people into a box that keeps them from living authentically. When we trace the wounding of gender in our lives, we can live out the fullest expression of who we are.
I did an impromptu pictorial for my Virtual Assistant business pages right when I returned home from a relaxing beach getaway with family. I did “power poses”–a self-confidence and anxiety reduction technique I learned at a Public Speaking course. Although I felt beautiful, I was uneasy. Feet apart, Hands on my hips and chin up, I felt ashamed.
I grew up with social anxiety most of my life. Until I was 15, I accepted it as a debilitating fact of my life:
“You hardly raise your hand in class.”
Because I have social anxiety.
“Why don’t you talk more often?”
Because I have social anxiety.
“You never wear your hair down.”
Because I have social anxiety.
I used social anxiety as my calling card for nearly everything: Why I couldn’t ever be a leader, pass assignments on time, deal with authority, or show up. It’s 5 years into the future and a I’ve become a life coach. I do take leadership positions. I do show up. However, there are times when I regress and become my 15 year old self again, spiteful, lonely, and needing.
Where am I truly coming from?
Accessing the Subconscious Mind through Sentence Stems
Sentence Stems are fill-in-the-blank type questions structured in a way that taps into the underlying subconscious beliefs a person has. It functions like our smart-phone’s ‘auto-correct’ except that your brain fills in the blanks with your most prominent beliefs. Because the process is spontaneous, it is a doorway to accessing our cognition, which holds what we truly believe to be true. This is what the exercise revealed to me about the core belief behind my social anxiety:
“I’m socially anxious because I truly believe that I’m _____________.”
As much as it hurt to admit it after all these years, it made me reflect on my submissiveness and passivity. It was a rotten habit of mine to settle just because I was already settled, even if it meant putting up with bullying, hanging out with my narcissistic ‘friends’, lending my time, money, and energy to those who wanted to ride for free. I couldn’t say no or more accurately, I stopped myself from saying no because I felt powerless; Powerless to the desire to be acceptable because submissiveness was ‘easy’ in the way that it was expected of me.
It was expected of me as a cisgender woman of this society.
In that moment, I realized something tremendous–how wounding from gender stereotypes fanned my social anxiety.
The Effect Gender Socialization has on Our Sense of Self
“Sex role socialization theory maintains that children are accordingly rewarded for displaying the gender-appropriate behaviors that they are encouraged to perform. The result of endemic socialization is what creates the illusion that gender is naturally occurring.” (Lever, 1994).
There are countless lenses in which the world order is maintained: the political lens, the economic lens, the religious lens, and so forth, but perhaps the widely misunderstood and underestimated is the gender lens. Acker (1990, 1992) claims that gender is present in the processes, practices, images, and ideologies, and distributions of power in the various sectors of human life. This distribution is done by society, and zooming-in closer, is dictated by those who hold the most power, who therefore get to make the facts (Foucault).
These become gender stereotypes for harm or benefit. Something created for understanding can be the same that imprisons. Outspokenness, rationality, and leadership of women are labeled as a ‘masculine’ and ‘intimidating’, while softspokenness, submission, and passivity, and are considered feminine. A man who possesses the latter qualities will be labeled as “effeminate” or “weak”, when neither any of these characteristics are gendered.
Why We Allow Stereotypes to Define Us
Violation of these unwritten laws is a formidable factor in the development of social anxiety because it can be social suicide: people who don’t fit the mold of gender expectations don’t readily get acceptance. They are met with resistance, ridicule, isolation, and even abuse. Belonging is human nature and this need to belong can be expressed through submissiveness–this is not the synonym of passivity, rather it is submission. Submission to unfair conditions and treatment in exchange of the promised joy, safety, and thriving of belonging.
My father taught me what a cisgender woman should be like, so did my church, the girls section in the magazines and so did the toy-shops. In my native language, mothers are the “ilaw ng tahanan”, the light of the home, while the fathers are the “haligi ng tahanan”, the pillar of the home. While these seem harmless and even romantic, because of the timeless quality of cultural expressions like it, the original intentions get distorted by the ones who hold power.
My father assumed the role of dominance and my mom, by being a woman, was set up to be the submissive. It was culture. She confessed to me that her degree, BS Business Management, was chosen by her father because most of the decisions were chosen by the father. While she regretted giving up work for good for motherhood, she didn’t know she had the choice until later in life when the rest of my siblings were born. It was simply culture. It was the way things ought to be, that a woman depended on the haligi for stability not knowing her life was hers.
How Gender Stereotypes Perpetuate a Culture of Hate
The danger of gender stereotypes is that it dumbs down a kaleidoscope of experience to a single story which can only result to a series of oppressions. Because belonging is part of human nature, and gender is a means to establish that belonging in a community, the single story can alienate those who are don’t fit the mold. This causes stress, anxiety (including social anxiety), depression, among other psychological disorders. Above all, it perpetuates hate derived from ignorance and fear–from both who conform and don’t.
While the societies differ from each other, nearly all fall into the pitfall of a single story:
“Men are dogs who can’t keep their pants to themselves.”
“Women are crazy. You just don’t know what they’d do next!”
“Women are from Venus, men are from Mars.”
“Boys don’t cry.”
“Women can’t be beautiful and smart.”
This causes a whirlpool of misunderstandings and oppressions tied by the common thread of blame. Blaming women’s sexuality, men’s right to their emotions, even bestowing privilege to genders by assigning what is “acceptable” and not. This is damaging because cultural programming becomes deeply embedded in our subconscious and can be difficult to heal and confront–especially because these are not readily detected.
But not impossible.
Exercise to find Gender Wound Triggers and Find Healing
Recognize your innate beliefs and experiences surrounding gender. Who are the major influencers in your life who taught you how things ought to be? What is your relationship with these influencers? Where they healthy and safe people to be with?
Realize that whatever experience you’ve had with these people, they are not spokespersons for their gender. If they were unkind, they were unkind–not the gender. There are people of that gender who are healthy and safe.
What qualities do you posses that are ‘negative’ to you? List these down and complete the sentence stem.
These are negative to me because these show that I’m ___________.
What is its link to gender? Did any influencers come out for you? Write down your insights.
By doing this reflective exercise, we are dismantling our beliefs and breaking them down to observable pieces. Being able to see what is going on without judgment is discernment.
Now that I see my feeling of powerlessness clearly, see the people and beliefs behind it, I can address it and create a new reality. I can change the discomfort I have around power poses by remembering that I am powerful. I can feel powerful in my dress, with my long hair coming down in cascades. I can feel powerful because I am an empowered woman, a human being. I don’t need to feel any cultural or inherited shame. I choose to create myself anew because I know that by doing so, I encourage others to be themselves. By being myself, I shine like a beacon.
I’ll be planning my next pictorial soon.