My head is bald…I am a woman…in mid-life…I have not received chemotherapy. What unspoken or spoken rules came up as you read those words? What emotions are you feeling, if any?
I broke unspoken rules by shaving my head several months ago and feel better for it. I have more energy, feel better about myself, and surprisingly, most people who have commented to me have been supportive and complimentary.
Anyone who has ever hidden themselves, tried to pass for someone else, felt ashamed of or embarrassed of some truth of theirs that does not fit into the mainstream culture or “the norm” or their family’s culture knows how much energy it costs to not be themselves. Hiding and shame come in many forms. A gay man may hide his sexual orientation by dating a woman. Someone with facial blemishes or wrinkles may use makeup to hide them. Another person whose Body Mass Index (BMI) is “too high” may wear “tummy control” jeans.
Many have very good reasons for trying to not be or not reveal themselves, like safety, needing to keep a job/income, or not wanting to lose the only people they have. I believe this is tied to the observation I have made that we humans prefer it when those in our circle follow our group norms. We can have a difficult time when they begin to break the norms. Though I cannot cite any research, I believe we have a primitive and visceral fear of what is different to the point that we work hard to make those in our circle conform, be similar, and fall in with the crowd even when that costs them emotionally. Going back to when you read that I am a bald, middle-aged woman — what did you think?
I write this article because I hope to help you readers think through any ways in which you may be hiding, passing, feeling shame, etc. and I ask you to ask yourself, “who gets to decide this for me?” You may also ask yourself, “Who benefits from me hiding or conforming?”
In life, we experience various sources of stress, distress, and pressure — my graduate school mentors defined them as intrapersonal (within oneself), interpersonal (between two or more people), and institutional/societal/political. All three categories come with unspoken rules. An example of intrapersonal stress is you may have grown up valuing honesty and feel ashamed when you tell a lie to someone. You may not think consciously about valuing honesty on a daily basis, but when you violate your own values, you notice feeling guilty or ashamed. An example of interpersonal stress is having a friend who consistently criticizes gay couples as being “disgusting” and you are faced with deciding whether or not to tell them you are gay. Finally, an example of institutional/societal/political stress is when you cannot escape the blatant and subtle messages that thin is beautiful and that in order to live a happy life, you must get thin by joining this gym, buying these food or supplement products, etc. You feel healthy, your medical tests reveal you are healthy, but societal pressures to be smaller than you are add stress to your days, self doubt and shame about your body.
Returning to the idea of “who gets to decide this for me?” I encourage you to think about the rules you follow, especially the ones that cause you stress, and start to answer that question. Does the diet industry get to tell you how many pounds you should weigh? Does your friend get to determine which sexual orientations are ok and which are not? It is helpful to also examine our values. Though, like valuing honesty, most people can’t argue against them, it can be helpful to identify where you learned those values and are they truly ones you want to embrace because they are organic to you?
I invite you to start noticing when you feel loaded down, sigh at having to put extra energy, money, time, etc. into changing something so someone else doesn’t know the truth about you or so you can conform to the group’s norm, even if it feels “not-quite-right” or incongruent to you. Then try to identify where that feeling came from. Is it attached to an unspoken rule? (i.e., your own messages to yourself, someone else’s values, or societal pressure). Finally, start to identify your true and authentic values, needs and goals.
This can be a challenging process. It takes courage to open ourselves to the possibility that our values, needs, and/or goals may differ from those of our circle of friends, colleagues, family, etc. It also takes courage to admit to ourselves and others that our true and authentic values, needs and goals may need to take precedence over conforming to group norms and rules. When there is enough incongruence between our true selves and our group’s norms, there can be such high levels of stress, it becomes worth it to stop conforming.
In order to stop conforming, one must begin to accept and love one’s true and authentic self. Accepting yourself as you are can bring relief from the pressures/stresses listed above. It feels so much better to love oneself than to be ashamed of or hate oneself (intrapersonal). Accepting oneself also helps a lot with breaking unspoken rules because it gives you confidence to withstand pressure to return to the rules or to withstand criticism from others who are not supportive (interpersonal or societal/institutional/political). Your self acceptance may also have the pleasant effect of changing someone’s mind and encouraging them to reconsider unspoken rules.
In addition to loving yourself, I encourage you to spend more time with supportive, like-minded others who want you to be your authentic self and who will support you through challenging transitions. Hopefully you already have at least one person like this in your life. If not, or if you simply want more people in your support network, you might meet new people in an online or in-person support group. Often when we engage in activities that represent our true selves, we encounter others who share those same characteristics and interests.
Before I shaved my head, I spent years trying to hide my thinning hair and bald spots. I spent money, time, energy, and lots of emotion fighting them. One’s hair is a part of the first impression people have of you, so I worked hard to conform to the norm of having a full head of hair in order to make a good impression. When I realized I was losing the battle, I considered my options. I could have chosen to wear a wig, get extensions, implants, or just continue covering up my head. After a lot of soul searching, conversation with trusted others, and visualization, I realized it is not my true and authentic self to wear a wig or extensions, etc. It’s just not me. So I chose to shave my head. I am not sure what first impression I make now, but I did not lose any friends or family. Nor did I lose my job. In fact some have complimented my bravery or celebrated my choice to do what is right for me. I do know that I spend less time, money, emotion, and energy on my head and hair. I use that money, energy and time for other things that are important to me. And most importantly, I feel more confident and empowered now, than I did when I was fighting myself.
Letting Go of Unspoken Rules
If you can do these things for yourself, over time, I fully believe you will feel more energetic, proud, empowered, and content. Again, notice what makes you feel burdened, stressed, anxious, etc. Figure out why you are feeling this way. If you discover an unspoken rule is behind the feelings, then begin to examine where that rule came from. Then engage in the process of identifying your true and authentic values, goals, and needs that seem to be incongruent with the unspoken rules. Finally, visualize making a change that will be more congruent with your authentic self, talk to trusted and supportive others, and perhaps experiment in small ways to see how you feel. It may be helpful to talk with a mental health therapist to sort through all of these thoughts and feelings. A therapist can be a more neutral sounding board, guide, and can offer support for this difficult process.
Whatever path you choose to take, I wish you greater peace, confidence, energy, money, time, and empowerment.
Morrow, S. L., & Hawxhurst, D. M. (1998). Feminist therapy: Integrating political analysis in counseling and psychotherapy. Women & Therapy, 21(2), 37-50.
Dr. Abousleman is a psychologist. Though she considers herself a generalist, she offers Career Counseling as a specialty service. Dr. Abousleman’s overarching goal is to help her clients improve their sense of empowerment and quality of life through their work together.