Do you ever come across something that strikes you like a 2x4 across the temples? I had that happen this week. On a road trip to Denver, I started listening to Dr. Shefali Tsabary's A Radical Awakening. Dr. Shefali was speaking about how women become trapped in various roles and she said the words that left me reeling...
"Traditions are pressure from dead people." When I heard those words, had you been in the passenger seat beside me, I'm pretty sure you could have seen those cartoon stars and little blue birdies flying around my head. I considered pulling over. Traditions are pressure from dead people. And that's ALL they are.
I've been speaking this month to the massive and nearly universal experience of female overwhelm. I work in a world of women. All of my clients are women; all of my business partners are women; many of my personal practitioners (healers, doctors, etc) are also women. And nearly every one of them tells the same story:
I am so overwhelmed. I'm burned to a crisp. I feel like every moment is full; I can't keep up. There seems to be no end in sight, and I don't think I can keep going.
There is a very real trend of over-extension, under-recognition, and overall desperation among women. We are tired, the the very core of our beings. Our bodies are failing; women experience autoimmune disease, stroke, stress, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression at greater rates than men. Our minds are fractured. We carry the hulking "invisible load" of the cognitive labor that keeps our homes and families intact and running smoothly. No one sees this work, but we feel it, on every level. Our hearts are broken. We bear the same societal expectations borne by our mothers and grandmothers--keep a tidy house, raise polite children, cook meals, dress pretty, do your hair--along with traditional male roles--be fiercely independent, work hard and create professional success, be competitive and courageous at all times.
The pressure to do it all, have it all, and be it all is enormous. And we are cracking underneath it. On the outside we pretend that all that pressure is just creating diamonds, that we are hard enough to cut glass and shiny as fuck. But on the inside, we feel like coal dust, black and gritty and shattered.
The pressure comes from every direction, including from inside. But one source I never considered? Tradition. But the moment I heard Tsabary's words, I knew they were true. And I knew I had to bring them to as many women as possible. Because this is a major wheel in the machine that's crushing us.
There are ways that we can begin to reclaim ourselves, to start sweeping up the inky dust and finding our sparkle again. We can learn how to set healthy boundaries. We can take responsibility for what is ours to control and change, and let go of the responsibility that belongs to others. We can quit giving a damn about what other people think--of our hair, our homes, our lifestyles, our decisions. And we can took a good, hard look at tradition and how it's contributing to overwhelm.
Here are two great examples from my clients' lives: Jane* recognized her problem drinking in college. She stopped using alcohol, and while she isn't opposed to others drinking, she also recognizes that others in her family abuse alcohol. Their drinking makes her uncomfortable, and she tries to avoid situations where she and her two small daughters will be exposed to her family's over-consumption. But...tradition.
Every year for the 4th of July, Jane's family gathers at a local hot springs for the day. And they drink. A lot. Every year she has gone, and every year she has been miserable. After her daughters were born, they came, too, and Jane felt even more unhappy. She did not want to spend her holiday with people who were drunk, nor did she want her daughters to be exposed to substance abuse at such a young age. She thought about all of the other things she could have been doing--a camping trip with her daughters and husband, a BBQ for friends at her home, a visit with her sister several hours away. These activities would all have given her joy and created peaceful and happy holiday memories. But...tradition.
This year, for the first time, Jane did not join her family at the hot springs. Instead, she traveled to see her sister. Her relief when she made the decision not to attend the traditional holiday gathering was palpable. When she returned from the holiday weekend, she was full of joy for the time she'd had with her sister. She felt the tremendous reduction in stress around the holiday, and has vowed to continue celebrating in her own way.
Lisa* was expected to rise before 5:00 a.m. every Christmas to pack up her toddler and all of his gifts to drive hours to her mother's home, where the family traditionally gathered for Christmas dinner and then spent the evening watching television. Lisa had no interest in spending her holiday evening watching TV, but the family refused to move dinner to her home because she did not have cable. She found the early awakening and managing a fussy toddler who just wanted to open gifts draining. The time with family in front of the screen (no conversation allowed) was unfulfilling. Packing all of those boxes into the car just to pack up the unboxed toys a few hours later was exhausting. But...tradition.
A few times she tried insisting that the family come to her home. They would make plans with her, but then change them at the last minute, leaving her to once again pack up the car and drive her family and her frustrations over the miles. Her break with tradition was less peaceful than Jane's. One year she drove nearly all the way to her mother's house, fuming the entire time. As she neared her destination, she collapsed emotionally. Sobbing, she told her husband to turn around and take her home. That was the first Christmas she spent at home with her son, and it wasn't particularly merry. But later years were better--no TV, time for conversations, a gentle wake-up with no pressure or rushing, presents around her own tree.
Traditions are meant to carry forward our heritage, to be a part of the human storytelling experience. And sometimes they are. I have deeply treasured memories of decorating the Christmas tree every year with my father. I have no children at home and my husband would be just as happy without a tree, but I still decorate one every year (a real one, also part of the tradition). I don't do it because it's expected of me; I do it because the experience fills me with joy. It's literally a moving meditation, a physical prayer that touches every year of my life and every soul that's moved through it. I keep this tradition because it serves me.
But what happens when traditions that are meant to honor heritage fail to honor our own authentic selves? It's obvious that the traditions that Jane and Lisa were keeping did not serve them. They both stopped the mindless adherence to pressure from dead people (carried to them in the expectations of the living) and were better off for it. And there is a powerful lesson here, one all women can learn.
How is tradition functioning in your life right now? Are you like Claire*, who begins every day by reading with a cup of coffee in bed, both her Kindle and her coffee delivered by her husband? Or are you like Jane, dreading a certain date each year and perpetuating stress and overwhelm in your life in the name of tradition?
Chances are you're some of both. But if you'd like to start reclaiming yourself and reducing overwhelm, examining your traditions is a simple but powerful way to begin. Make a list of all of your traditions. Include annual traditions, like holidays, summer vacation plans, and birthday celebrations, as well as more frequent traditions, like weekly phone calls with friends and family or a monthly massage. Next, ask yourself WHY you do these things and HOW they benefit you. If you don't have a compelling reason (and "because Grandma expects me to" is not that reason) or you don't find any benefits, let it go.
Don't go to family gatherings that stress you out. Don't host events in your home that fill you with stress. Don't keep in touch with people who drain you. Don't say yes to things that make your soul scream NO.
Are you going to rock the boat? Probably. Will people be disappointed in you, mad at you? Possibly. But this is the double-word score of breaking tradition--you're not only letting go of things that drain you, you're also going to need to let go of being responsible for other people's emotions. It's not your problem if Mom is mad, Grandma is judgey, or your friends don't understand. The need to make everyone else happy is part of what's crushing women. It's not your job to make other people happy!
Let that one sink in for a minute...if other people have a problem with your choices, it's their problem. Don't make it yours. That's how we got into this mess to begin with. Don't choose the coal dust, Mama. You shine on. What others do in the face of your light is none of your business.
Giving up the traditions that don't work for you is twice the load lifted off of your shoulders, Sis. Let that shit go. It may be hard in the moment, but in the long run it's going to bring the luster back to your soul. It's choosing personal power over adherence to overwhelm. It's the best kind of boundary. It's Pascals off of your soul. It's your new tradition. Celebrate it.
*names have been changed