Throughout the past year, a steady stream of public testimonials from celebrities, politicians, and everyday women laid bare what we already knew: Women are tired of letting archaic views define them. But while this movement has felt progressive at a societal level, the reality is we still live with the constant influx of other people’s opinions.
For example, a woman’s position on whether she wants children is deeply personal, yet inquiries of when she plans to conceive are considered casual conversation. And god forbid you tell someone you don’t want children. Expect a record scratch, followed by incredulous looks and profoundly inappropriate responses ranging from “How will you find fulfillment?” to “I’m sure you’ll change your mind.”
For all our hard work in the Women’s Liberation Movement, it seems we still can’t be trusted to make decisions about our own lives. And it’s not just limited to debates on motherhood, either. We often subconsciously subscribe to “basic truths” that define womanhood, like the idea that our value is defined by our physical appearance, that single women are lonely and unhappy, or that women are motivated by “safety and service.” For years, I also fell into this trap — believing, for instance, that I needed children to be fulfilled.
This belief was ingrained in me, and it took a long time to challenge it. Eventually, I learned that I had to isolate my own views before I could take action, and I’ve since stopped letting other people’s opinions rule my life. Instead, I focus on identifying my voice.
To empower myself, regardless of what others believed, I took the following steps:
1. Make Space for Your Inner Voice
You won’t discover your inner voice by talking to other people or even by reading books. (And this comes, remorsefully, from someone who’s dedicated herself to books.) Instead, you need to spend time alone to become aware of what you really want and believe. Don’t try to challenge too many beliefs head-on. Instead, focus on one at a time.
To work through my feelings, I often pose questions to myself. For example: “What kind of relationship do I want?” or “Should I buy a house?” Then, I devote time to contemplating that one question.
I also like to employ a strategy coined by Bertrand Russell, a brilliant Nobel laureate, philosopher, and mathematician. Schedule a long walk or take a bubble bath — whatever you need to do to find your headspace. It’s important to set the intention. Once you do that, your brain will start chipping away at this problem before you even work on it consciously.
Above all, don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. You may not experience your “aha” moment on your walk or in the bath, and that’s OK. The time you dedicated to listening to your inner voice will pay off sooner or later — simply because you’ve given it the space to be heard.
2. Uncover the Unseen
Often, we’re influenced by others because we don’t spend time understanding their thought process. We simply paint over their statements with our own assumptions and react accordingly.
It’s so easy to fall into that behavior because the way we usually communicate and share opinions is ambiguous. You need to ask clarifying questions, such as “Why do you think that?” or “What specifically is good or bad about this?” Keep asking specific questions until you uncover the underlying belief. Then, it’ll be easier to recognize whether you agree.
It took me until I bought my first house and did this exercise with my father to truly understand how our values differ. During his visit, he said, “I’m so proud of you.” I stood in the glow of the moment until I realized I didn’t understand the belief that was driving it. Even though deep down, I didn’t want to wreck the moment, I asked: “Why?”
It turned out he was proud of how well we were taking care of the house, even noting the improvements to our garden. He was so proud of something that hardly even registered on my radar! The realization was freeing. I shouldn’t aim to make my father proud based on my goals and beliefs. I’m chasing different things, and that’s OK.
3. Love and Forgive Yourself
As humans, we’re wired to follow the crowd because we don’t want to be publicly singled out. Even if the crowd is wrong, our thinking goes, at least we’ll be wrong with everybody else. What’s scary is when we stumble on our own. To combat this, you must drown out the fear of standing out by truly loving and forgiving yourself.
There are many ways to practice self-love. For instance, you can set an intention to validate yourself daily. Kamal Ravikant, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, recommends standing in front of the mirror and saying the words “I love you” out loud. If you make this a daily practice, it won’t take long for you to feel more loving toward yourself — and that self-love will show up in your interactions with others.
4. Greet Dissension Like an Old Friend
According to Robert Greene, author of “The 50th Law” and “The 48 Laws of Power,” to feel strong enough as an individual to go against the grain and maintain your beliefs, you should practice doing it.
“What you want instead is to feel secure and strong from within,” he writes in “The 50th Law.” “You are willing to occasionally displease people and you are comfortable in taking on those who stand against your interests. … This inner strength, however, does not come naturally. What is required is some experience. This means that in your daily life you must assert yourself more than usual.”
When you have the opportunity to disagree with people or to assert your beliefs among those who have an opposing view, take it. Each time you do, you’ll become a little more comfortable disagreeing. Nothing dissipates fear quite like taking action.
5. Become the Tallest Mountain
A fool believes the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he’s observed. Said more plainly: People often assume that their range of experience is the only range that’s possible.
This is what author and scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “the Lucretius problem,” and it’s rooted in the idea that, as humans, we’re myopic. We know what has happened; we don’t know what can happen.
Your life and actions may easily fall outside of other people’s ranges. It’s just that the people around you won’t recognize the likelihood of that happening. The next time that happens, remember the Lucretius problem: It’s not impossible — they just haven’t seen it yet. Once they witness you doing it, their tune will change.
You’ll become the tallest mountain they’ve observed.
For a long time, I subconsciously carried around the weight of other people’s opinions. It was so ingrained in me that I hardly even noticed. But once I finally empowered myself to shrug off that burden, I felt lighter than air. It’s time to find your own voice and take charge of your life. I promise you’ll be better for it.