building the case for self-love and self acceptance

When I was two years old I had no idea what marriage was. I was loved and happy, no siblings to share my parents with and all was right with the world.

When I was four, my mother said to me, out of the blue “you can marry whoever you want.” I started to wonder what marrying meant, but never forgot the look on her face.

When I was six, she told me “you can marry whoever you want as long as he’s Indian.” ‘Curious’, I thought. And a feeling of uncertainty began to lurk just beyond my peripheral vision..

Eight years old, “You can marry whoever you want but he must be Indian and Hindu.”

And by ten: “You can marry whoever you want but he must be Indian, Hindu and Bengali.” (note, not high caste)

Finally by twelve: “I’ll find you the perfect husband.”

By fourteen I was terrified. I knew my parents loved me, but I felt the weight of cultural expectation and it crushed my heart, my soul, my hope. My eating disorder and self-harm began to peak around then too….

In 1990 I was a fresh-faced first year, a seventeen year old scared of the world. One autumn day I was shopping in the centre of Bristol, and a man in a leather jacket, tattoos and dark greasy hair walked up to me. He said “YOU are the ugliest girl I have EVER seen.” I looked at him right in his eyes and said, simply “I know.”

The man looked at me as if I’d slapped him, and walked away. Perhaps it was because I didn’t take offense. Perhaps he realised that there was no more damage to be done to this particular human being without getting physical, (and arrested :-)). Or perhaps he had finally met someone who hated themselves more than he hated himself. I don’t know. But I’ve never, ever forgotten the look on his face….

Over the years I’ve observed that we all wrap ourselves in layers of self-loathing. Some fight their way out and others remain cocooned inside. I’m still struggling to emerge, but with the cracks of light visible I am now able to ask the question:

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I’ve had a glimpse of enlightenment. A conversation with my higher self where I asked how I could learn to love myself, and back came a series of questions.

Did I hate myself as a baby? No. How could I? I was an innocent. A bundle of love and hope and potential. I felt no hate for that tiny thing.

Three then. Was I unlovable when I was three? No. Imaginative, loving, sharing, growing, learning wee girl that I was, I could not hate her either, nor find a reason to dislike her.

Four. Let’s try four. The rejection is starting to show. My brother has unintentionally, innocently destroyed my world, taken what was mine. And boys, well they were valued more highly than girls. Boys were on a pedestal, girls a mere afterthought. My parents did love me, but my culture did not. The anger started then perhaps. The childish outrage was there, but not the hate. Not then.

But as school became more combative, as I was forced to admit that I was a heathen (Hindu) in the face of their flavour of Christianity (Seventh Day Adventism) I found myself isolated. I had friends, but never close friends beyond my Reception year. I tried hard to please, to conform, to be one of them. All kids do that. All fear being different, and by the time I was ten, I’d read every single version of the bible I could get my hands on, to try and see the world the way they saw it. But in the end I finally learned that I could not. At ten, I had decided that Hindu philosophy fitted my understanding of the universe far better than what was being taught from those heavily adulterated words of a Good Man who simply wanted to teach the world to show love. The class heathen did come top in Scriptures though…

So where were we? Ah yes. Secondary school at 10 years old. This is where the hate and the bullying really kicked in. By 13 I was starving myself, at school and at home.. and at 14 my hair had started to fall out. My parents had enough to handle day by day to notice, but I still remember screaming at my mother that I hated myself and how ugly I was, and my mother’s uncomprehending face as she tried reasoning with this unrecognisable girl who used to be her daughter.

So I took every rejection, every racist comment, every stone hurled at me and I turned it inwards. It suited my self-image. They saw in me what I saw in me, someone to despise, this worthless, ugly girl. And looking back I know that so many kids went through different versions of what I went through, with the same end result. We then continue to walk the world, hemorrhaging self esteem, and continuing to hurt and hate ourselves long after the others have stopped and forgotten, and moved on.  It eats away at our core, our operating system:  and infects our confidence, our ability to succeed, to fight, to feel worthy of being loved. And these memes socially program us with destructive and conflicted beliefs calcify around our hearts, emotional cataracts that cloud our inner vision so we cannot see those who love us or accept the love they try to give.  And all the while so little importance is given to our mental health that it is no wonder we have so many societal cancers metastasizing around us. All because of one thing:

Because we do not know how to love ourselves. And so, we do not allow ourselves to truly love others.

When things started to change

Now, I’m an avid lifehacker, constantly on the search for ideas to do things better, more easily, more quickly. If I was going to deprogram myself I was going to have to do some research.

You can never completely hate yourself when you’re with someone who loves you. The eclipse is only partial, and if you’re lucky, it is not permanent. I did not make it easy for my husband to love me but amazingly he saw through the self-loathing and anger and stayed. Never lost faith. Pulled me out of holes that I had dug for myself more times than I want to remember (although I will).

I expressed a silent desire to stop this emotional self-harm and slowly but surely the universe responded, with small messages, crumbs on the trail back to what I had lost.

“and I said to my body, softly. “I want to be your friend.” it took a long breath and replied, “I have been waiting my whole life for this”.

Nayyirah Waheed.

I saw this and my eyes filled with tears. “I want this too!” I whispered to myself. To stop raging against my body, to take responsibility without dismissing it as self-blame, and to accept me. The trouble was, where could I start? I sent a message to the universe that night, and within a week I had an answer. An airbnb guest in my father’s annexe left a book on the bed: The Happiness Trap by Doctor Russ Harris. It would have been rude to not read it… and it started me thinking that it might be possible to initiate a soulhackers’ guide of sorts….







Kindfulness: from a concept to a movement?

Waking up on June 23rd 2016 in Bristol, I came down to a pensive husband who had let me sleep rather than wake me with the results of the EU referendum. I knew then something was wrong.

I had felt it slipping for the two weeks previous, and had even joined in the phone bank efforts for Remain on the day before, and stepped up to chair the  last minute Remain Rally with a woefully low turnout at St Georges with Lord Paddy Ashdown, MP Thangam Debbonaire and MEP Molly Scott Cato. Preaching to  a handful of the converted (there can’t have been more than 50 people in that room) and I knew then that I’d showed up to the wrong battleground. The business event at Colston Hall was better, with the charming and ever-defiant Don Cameron of Cameron Balloons, brexiting because of EU’s unsafe safety regulations on his products, and with UK Airbus CEO Paul Khan talking about the risk to jobs unless we Remained. But it wasn’t business that was the issue. Our failure to help our voiceless and disaffected millions was.

All that was done. And I woke up feeling like I’d lost something. Tears found me after the school run in the carpark at work, and I spent five minutes sat in our car weeping uncontrollably, when I realised what it was. The day before, I was a proud British Asian, a Member of the British Empire, someone who belonged and was invested. But now, I was a second generation immigrant, who, when told to “go back to where I come from”, could only get as far as Watford where I was born.

I feared for my family, our two boys who were the wrong shade of white to be able to fit in in what was now looking like a country heading into far-right territory.  Looking at them, you would not be able to say “at least they’re half English” to those who would seek to cleanse their neighbourhoods of human beings who originated from the Outside.

My identity shattered, I found myself adjusting my behaviour. Whilst normally, letting total strangers in front in traffic was never a big deal (repeat after me “the traffic must FLOW!”), I began to do so whilst simultaneously leaning forward so they could see my brown skin and black hair, knowing that  in that moment I represented all immigrants now and that we needed to show that we were GOOD immigrants. In my head I quipped; I called it mindful kindness. Kindfulness.

I left it simmering for a while, allowing it to surface when I was mindful of opportunities to show kindness and kept wondering if a simple concept could start to recreate community where our interconnectedness had decayed (or where it had never existed before). After all we have so many in our city alone who go above and beyond the call of duty for their neighbours and communities, we would not be starting from nothing. Isolated kindness seemed a bit hit-and-miss for me. I wanted and needed a way for it to add up to a whole lot more. A sustained connection between our different cultures based on respect and understanding.

Kalpna Woolf, a dear friend who has sought connection of Bristol’s 91 languages through sharing food with 91ways, is definitely onto something. Kindfulness cannot be just about kindness by immigrants to those who would misunderstand or fear them. It must also be about sustained connectedness. A relationship that remains after the immediate ember of the kind act has died.

It is tempting to think that this boils down to funded activity in order to be sustained. But we forget that things that last, last because of ongoing needs that must be met.

So we must look to our communities based on culture, religion, ward, and ask them to do one thing: identify all the needs of the community, and pick ONE thing they can do together to fulfill ONE need, and ONE thing they can do to fulfill that need for a community that is not theirs.

Have you read about circular economies? They fascinate me. The whole concept is defined by this:

“A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.”

Can we define circular communities as a network of diverse interconnected communities that provide each other with what they all collectively need to improve the quality of their lives? Could we redefine a sustainable city as one with a network of circular communities?

Thinking this through, all communities face similar challenges, but the ones that suffer the most are those that for some reason haven’t been able to integrate into a larger population. Language barriers, cultural restrictions, access to education, attitudes towards community members with disabilities all add into the common challenges (poverty, education, childcare, affordable housing and transport – or the lack of it)…

A great example of kindfulness is the Bristol Feed the Homeless Network, which has amongst its founders a Muslim leader in Easton, but is an effort that reaches across cultural divides with a multicultural team. They saw a societal need that was not being sufficiently addressed, and took responsibility for sorting it out.

When Eastern European families living on the same street in Knowle West had their homes attacked three times in six weeks, within three days of the final attack a Peace Picnic rallied and brought community members together to make a stand, and show that the attacks were not condoned by the community. So far, I’m told, there have been no further attacks.

Our business community are rallying around to combat modern slavery in all it’s forms (through our own, and could do so much more if other civic needs were defined more precisely (take a look at neighbourly).  Those happy people at the Happy City Initiative are also giving a lot of thought to this, in full knowledge that giving back to the community is one of the necessary pillars of happiness.

We have groups who focus on the most vulnerable members of our community, but we must also nurture the relationships between our culturally diverse communities in the same way.

I’m not done thinking about this, and I feel that with your thoughts added to mine, we will be able to come up with something far more practical.  For now, let’s create communities where we currently have none. A reason to communicate regularly, find and connect those who are literally dying of loneliness and isolation and show them that we need them too. Perhaps they are our way of connecting with other communities too?

As someone who doesn’t know anyone in my immediate neighbourhood beyond my next door neighbours I guess I ought to start by taking my own advice :).

Definition of Kindfulness 1.1: mindful and connected acts of kindness to forge unbreakable caring communities.




my midlife cartharsis

I have to admit to being more than unimpressed when I turned 40. Like many I felt that I should have “made it”. Achieved world peace, wealth, physical fitness, a size 10, my bucket list, the works.

I spent a year or two in denial, telling journalists not to print my year of birth (privacy concerns, naturally) and generally finding ways to simultaneously nurse my outrage whilst pretending that age didn’t matter to me.

Finally, at 42, I snapped out of it. Thanks in part to my husband, whose calm, very grown-up perspective was able to smother the flames of my fear, but also because we had committed to using our forties to reconnect with a more spiritual (NOT religious!) path to enlightenment. A voyage of soul discovery.

During it, it has occurred to me that I’ve learned many lessons in life, many, many times. I joke that I don’t want to make the same mistake more than three times but in honesty, I’ve found that a hard goal to achieve. The potential for mistakes sneak up on you long before you realise you’ve been down that road before. We, as humans, fill our heads with too many anxieties to be conscious or mindful of such things, and instead must be happy with 20:20 hindsight and wisdom for the most part. More so as parents, with a constant mirror to our flaws being played out by our children on a daily basis.

So. Midlife catharses (note the plural). I’ve had many catharses in my life, some voluntary/self inflicted, and others foisted upon me. Each time I have been driven to dropping the negative, building on the positive, auditing what I need to live with, and discarding what is holding me back.  In the beginning, these were career choices, but soon moved onto relationships – business, friendships, family relationships that needed reframing to make sense.

I’ve given talks on such matters because I’ve made so many mistakes that it would be madness to not enable others to learn to make different ones instead. Growing mistakes to bring Groundhog Day to an end more quickly… so we can all move on.

What’s so special about my midlife catharsis is that it is a continual process of learning and change that I would not have committed to while I was still fighting to achieve for the sake of achieving. In surrendering to who I am now, a transformation of sorts has been sparked and I’m hoping by blogging it, others will join me and share their learning too.  And if you want to join me, then it’s worth defining exactly how to do a midlife catharsis effectively.  I’m expecting my definition to change and be refined as I map out the cul-de-sacs and hopefully get back on track afterwards.

Before I do any defining, it’s important to note that I’m no guru and nor do I intend to be one. I’m a doggy-paddler in the river of life, hoping to find people to swim with who can teach me how to swim stronger, and people I can help keep their heads above water.

Ok. Definitions. Here’s version 0.1 (suggestions and edits welcome but you get my meaning I hope):

A midlife catharsis is the process by which an individual sheds pretensions associated with age and beauty, pressures of goals not achieved, and the expectations of others and themselves not met, and begins to reach a state of well-being ready for true personal growth. During this process, the act of doing (whatever they choose to focus on) becomes more effective, more rewarding. And the desire to do good is finally transformed into the empowerment to DO good, and doing it.

In short, life begins at 42, though I hope for you it starts/started earlier…