Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.
Today is an episode long in the making. I’m honored to introduce you to Mare Chapman.
Mare is a mindfulness-based psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher, consultant, and author building on 40 years of clinical experience and 30 years of studying and practicing mindfulness. She’s devoted to understanding how cultural conditioning trains women to disconnect from their authenticity, thereby by losing their voice and power and how mindfulness can be applied to transform these habits so women can live fully empowered, vibrant, and healthy lives. Her recently published book, Unshakable Confidence: The Freedom to Be Our Authentic Selves, Mindfulness for Women, is based on a class she’s been teaching to women here in Madison, Wisconsin for over 20 years.
Mare, would you mind sharing a little bit of your story and how you came to this work?
What’s always been true for me is that our mind creates our heaven and our hell. From early high school I wanted to learn about the mind and our thoughts. College psychology classes got me even more interested in picking this as a career path. When I was pregnant with my son, I woke up to the cultural conditioning that happens for every single woman in this country and in this world, which is so patriarchal.
My mother sent me Betty Friedan’s book, A Feminine Mystique. I read it while I was pregnant and thought, oh my gosh, I have bought the cultural conditioning hook, line and sinker. I knew from that moment on that I believe in women’s equality, that I was a feminist, and this was essential to my being.
Along with that, also knowing for a long time that power has been so abused and misused. When we’re talking about the patriarchy, it’s the male gender that has been in the dominant position for thousands of years. Domination requires subordination, so there’s automatically an unequal power base which is oppressive.
Moving forward, at one of my early jobs working in the public mental health system, I was the director of a program that’s now called the Yahara House, a unit of the mental health center of Dane County. I was in the middle management position, and I witnessed myself repeatedly giving my power away to my bosses, even though I disagreed with them; even though I had a clear vision of what we wanted to create. I could not stop myself. I would become angry at myself because I saw myself doing this, but I seemed to have no control over that habit. That sent me on a path of trying to find a method for working with our mind.
I studied with two other very prominent spiritual perspectives that had meditation practices in them. When I sat my first insight meditation retreat, that cultivates mindfulness, I really found the method that made the most sense to me. The whole intention of mindfulness, is to free our minds from the habits of our conditioning so that we can access our true nature, our wisdom and our open loving heart. Our authentic self. That brings us to today, talking about freeing women from internalized oppression, allowing them to be their authentic selves.
Before we move on, I would like to take a moment to recognize that we are speaking about this from a female perspective. Mare, you shared with me that your work orients towards people who identify as female, and works to acknowledge the historical intergenerational experiences of oppression against people who were assigned female at birth.
We work to be as inclusive as possible in the work we do, so I would like to take this moment to acknowledge that all of our minds have been unavoidably conditioned. We hope all persons listening will be able to identify with what you’re saying because gender conditioning and internalized oppression is so pervasive. Often, it’s so deep that we don’t recognize it.
A common comment that I get when I teach my 10-session class on applying mindfulness to our internalized misogyny, is that women will say, my mind does all the time, and no one has ever said this before. I thought it was just me. People are so grateful for an explanation of what’s been going on inside of them. It helps us realize that what we have been feeling is negative self-talk or self-hate, is, in some ways the conditioning of our culture oppressing us to believe this about ourselves.
When we talked about why we wanted to have this episode, you brought up the idea of naming that all of this work exists because women experience two to three times more anxiety and depression than men.
I check those statistics frequently to see if they’re changing. They have not changed at all.
Why do you think that those rates are so much higher?
It certainly is not because as a gender we’re weaker or there’s something the matter with us. I think it’s the conditioning. We internalize the misogynistic messages of patriarchy that teach us to believe on some very deep, mostly unconscious, level that there’s something the matter with us, we’re not enough, we’re flawed in some way.
Because of this, we cannot validate our own experiences as being normal and appropriate. Instead, we learn to put our awareness to the outside, to others, in the hopes that they will affirm that we’re lovable and worthwhile.
This teaches us to always be moving our attention away from ourselves to that other person, our boss, our teacher, our neighbor, or friend, parent or partner in the hopes that if we are just pleasing enough to them, if we do a good enough job of taking care of them and responding to them, they’ll validate us and then we’ll be safe and secure, and will be able to relax with ourselves.
This habit of othering creates a constant, uncomfortable, self-consciousness. Always wondering, am I doing okay with you? Are you all right with me right now? Did I just say something that wasn’t so good? Did I do something that wasn’t right? We’re always assessing how we’re doing with the other. That creates a constant state of anxiety.
Along with the belief that there’s something the matter with me, there’s a lot of negative self-talk, comparisons, and judgements that add up to making us feel not good about ourselves. We don’t feel safe. If our brains and bodies don’t feel safe, we can continually be in a sympathetic state, which can feel like anxiety, or dorsal vagal, which can feel like depression, and our resources are continually going towards finding that safety. When we don’t know that we’ve been conditioned to look for that safety outside of ourselves, we think that’s the path.
In regular psychotherapy, we go back to our childhood. I’m a big proponent and the inner child, so I’m not displacing that, but we’re still othering. We’re still going towards what person changed me at some point which shaped who I was in order to have safety. That is othering going far back into early developmental stages.
All genders learn as tiny beings coming into the world, that we are vulnerable and dependent on our caregivers. It’s smart of us to learn to pay attention to them and to figure out how to be in order to get their love, support, approval, kindness and care.
Then, research shows that around the age of puberty, there begins to be quite a shift between genders. At that point, boys begin to develop their confidence and build up their esteem. It goes the other way for girls. Unfortunately, for girls, this habit of othering becomes more solidly in place and our connection with our authentic experience goes even deeper, underground.
I was watching a video where someone was filming a group of teenagers. The person with her camera was commenting on how she walked into a room with her children and their friends and asked who wants me to order pizza? The people who identify as men shot their hands up immediately. They know if they’re hungry or not. The young women look around to each other and to the men to defer and decide if it’s appropriate to be hungry right now. You know, what a turning away from our innate wisdom and trust in ourselves. It happened in milliseconds, and they didn’t know they were doing it. One of the effects of always attending to the other person first, always thinking about them, always wondering about them, worrying about them, fantasizing about them, means that you’re not aware of your own body or what’s going on with you.
You write that over time we lose connection with what’s happening in our bodies or, if we do know and what our bodies need is inconvenient to the other, we tend to override it. We’re lost in others and not aware of our authentic experience. Consequently, we become unknown to ourselves, often unclear about what we really want, feel, or think. We get cut off from our intuition, innate wisdom, and intelligence. We react according to ‘shoulds,’ the mind’s story of how we’re supposed to be. We may say yes, when we don’t want to, pretend we’re feeling things we aren’t feeling, or want things we don’t really want. We lose our center, the anchor to ourself, and we become lost in the other. We may feel an ache or emptiness and missing ourselves. Our striving for perfection is an ever-raising bar. We can never achieve it. This bondage to perfection, profoundly limits our relationships and keeps us stuck in the cycle of suffering.
Let’s talk a little bit more about internalized misogyny and the messages that we’re getting.
Internalized misogyny. How would you explain it?
Misogyny, up until the ‘Me Too’ movement, was not really used in our vocabulary. It’s a relief to have it named because we can’t change anything about how we are or about how our society is until we become aware of it.
The way I understand how internalized misogyny works is that patriotic men are dominant. Men call the shots. Men assume privilege. In turn, the other gender is viewed as dependent, weak, erratic, often too emotional. We get messages, from the dominant group, that were not acceptable except as an attractive object to have sexual relationships with. As a caregiver for the children that we bear. Those are really our primary functions and roles in the culture for thousands of years.
There are so many ways that messages that we don’t measure up, are not as important, not as worthwhile, not as valuable, not as significant, not as intense as men, get into our minds. They get into us in an unconscious way. We learn, subtly, to hold ourselves back, to keep ourselves quiet, to defer, all the time, to the other. Misogny can be outright, but also starts happening when the byproduct of this societal view starts causing shame and doubt within women that results in women beginning to undervalue themselves and others of their gender.
Many people’s preconceived notions about how women should exist, stem from societal expectations and gender norms. It’s difficult to identify. It’s important to be conscious of this and to be conscious of our own thoughts and ideas.
I find myself projecting internalized misogyny, onto myself more than I do to other women. I raise other women up and judge myself because maybe I’m being too assertive, which is considered aggressive, have too much ambition, maybe as a caretaker, I’m just supposed to quietly be in the background, sacrificing, with low pay and no benefits. I’m talking about how we treat women overall in our fields.
Even in groups of colleagues, I do that double checking after I meet with everyone. Did I talk too much? Did I seem to know what I was talking about? Did I make space for enough people? These are good things to think about in regard to balance, but I’ve spent a lot of brain time in my 40 some years, thinking about how much I’m impacting other people.
It is so common in our conditioning that we second guess ourselves or imagine what the other person might be thinking about us and, much of the time, what we imagine isn’t positive.
When we’re worrying and wondering about the other, we’re caught up in those patterns and habits. One thing that neuroscience has been teaching us is that our brains are super flexible and responsive to experience. The conclusion is that whatever we practice grows stronger in the brain. This is how neural grooves get created. It’s important to realize that we’re practicing every moment that we’re alive, not just in the moments when we’re meditating.
It’s important to wake up to these habits of our conditioning and see them as habits, not as who we are. To encourage ourselves to come back to our present moment, our authentic experience and practice respecting and accepting ourselves.
How do we take back our power through cultivating mindfulness and self-compassion?
It’s helpful to understand that all of our minds become conditioned. No one can grow up without a biased our view of reality. It’s also important to understand that beyond our conditioned mind is our unconditioned mind, sometimes called our true nature, our higher self, our Buddha nature. Our unconditioned mind is stable and wise and spacious and kind and loving and generous. It’s who we really are. Our unconditioned mind is likened to the blue sky. It’s vast and open. It is always here.
We could think about our conditioned mind as being the difficult weather that moves the storm in. When we’re experiencing difficult weather, our habit is to get absorbed into that difficult weather, that angry mood or feeling of shame or anxiety or self-doubt. When we’re in that difficulty, we forget that the blue sky is always there beyond the storm.
In a way, mindfulness is a practice that allows us to become more aware of the storms that are moving in, without taking it personally. To learn how to relate to that difficult experience in a stable and wise way. We gain access to our wisdom, to our blue sky nature, to our unconditioned mind.
Mindfulness is all about practice and about bringing our attention into the present moment. Learning to observe what we’re experiencing in the moment with tons of curiosity. What are we thinking in our mind, feeling in the body, seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing.
We’re also learning to accept whatever it is rather than resisting or judging it we relate to it in a kind, compassionate, friendly way. This is self-compassion. Not identifying with it or taking it personally. Just seeing it as what is happening right now.
We begin to get to know ourselves, to see more clearly when we’re pulled into the habit of othering, comparing, or shaming ourselves. We learn how to notice, there is shaming happening right now. What’s the story in my mind? Given what’s happening, what’s a wise and kind way to respond to myself? What do I really need in this moment?
In doing this, we become a friend to ourselves. We begin to trust our experience, to know that it is always valid. Even though it may be uncomfortable or difficult, we stay on our own side and don’t turn against or disconnect from ourselves. It’s so important to stay connected to who we are and what our authentic experience is.
Mindfulness is truly a tool to poke holes in those clouds, to remember our unconditioned self, who is worthy, who is good enough, who is capable of working with difficult experiences.
So many women I work with don’t believe they can withstand their own emotions, so they do everything they can to avoid being present with their authentic experience. Mindfulness is a tool to work with those emotions so that confidence rises, and they feel like they’re capable.
The view that emotions are unimportant, irrational, don’t matter, and that women in general are too emotional, is part of patriarchy. We’re discounted for our emotionality, but also expected to hold all the emotions for everyone else. So much of what we do is emotional labor for other people.
Myself and a lot of my clients find themselves being so responsible for everybody else’s experience and everyone else’s feelings and thoughts.
What’s an example of using mindfulness to work with over responsibility?
If you had someone come to you and say, it’s the holidays and I’m really worried that all these things aren’t getting done, but it’s not my job to do those things.
Before I answer that question, I find that habit of over-responsibility to be one of the biggest hallmarks of our conditioning as women. Feeling like if anyone’s in trouble, I’ve got to jump in and fix it. When we’re making ourselves responsible, we believe that it’s our job to make others happy, which is impossible. Happiness is an inside job. We’re actually interfering with others learning to be responsible for themselves. Plus, being overly responsible is exhausting.
I did a session this morning with a woman who is waking up to lifelong patterns of doing everything herself as the fixer. In some ways it’s served her well. She has an amazing job in the community. She’s highly respected. She’s loved. Internally, she has been putting up with abuse from her boss and the marriage she’s been in for a long time has not been good for her. She’s been putting up with everything, trying to make sure everyone’s okay, even though she’s not. She is recognizing that the habit of assuming it’s her job to make sure everyone else is okay has been coming at her own cost, to the point where her body is physically ill.
I think we have to recognize over-responsibility as a conditioned patterned. It’s not in everyone’s best interest to continue in that habit and encourage ourselves to refrain from jumping in. Then noticing what that’s like, ‘I’m not the one to fix this’. How is that for me?
The mind might start playing stories; you’re being lazy, you’re being selfish. Guilt comes up. Can we be with the distress of not doing anything? Often our sense of self, our value is tied into that. We’ve learned to identify that as part of who we think we are.
It’s an important habit to learn to change our relationship to so that we can have more freedom. If we can’t say no, we have a hard time setting boundaries. Right now, my plate is full. I don’t have any energy for that. Saying something like that can be terrifying. It takes a lot of courage to refrain from being pulled into these habits.
I’d like to bring in the idea of compassion versus empathy and that it may be more beneficial to be compassionate, which does not involve being overly responsible versus empathetic.
There was an amazing study done looking at the difference between empathy and compassion. What they found was that when people feel empathy, it lights up the pain centers in the brain. When someone’s telling you something that’s difficult, we recruit a memory of our own to match their experience. We join with that person in their pain.
Alternatively, when we’re experiencing compassion, we feel sorrow and sympathy for their pain and also understand that this is part of being alive, that we all experience pain and suffering as part of the human condition. We recognize that this is that person’s moment of being in a difficult situation. What this researcher discovered is that compassion lights up the pleasure centers in our brain. Connecting with them in this way gives us a sense of satisfaction.
If you’re on hike and your friend falls and breaks their leg, would you also break your legs so you can experience their pain or would you help them to the car and bring them to the hospital? Empathy is breaking your leg too. Compassion is understanding, witnessing, and seeing their pain, and then helping them do something about it. From that place, we are much more viable to the people we love.
Looking at this internalized oppression to challenge the patriarchy, doesn’t separate you from your loved ones. It connects you more to your authentic self, and also connects you more to those that you care about. It makes our relationships with our loved ones much more satisfying and real.
I know other people are going to want to learn more about you. Where can we find you? I have a website, www.marechapman.com. My website has my philosophy about how I work, in individual work and classes and also has some CDs that you can download. Then, I have another website from my book called marechapmanauthor.com, which has information about my book and my Dharma talks. My book is available online.
I want to just thank you so much. I could talk with you about this for hours and hours. Thank you.