“I can see it’s difficult for you to take a deep breath,” said my massage therapist as I attune to the calming scent of the lavender essential oil diffusing from her office.
I notice my shallow breathing and the tenuous task of attempting to breathe through my diaphragm. My nervous system stays on guard, scanning my environment for threats, even in a place where my mind knows that I am safe.
A knot forms in my chest, rooted in shame, as I hear the accusation: After well over a decade of trauma work, you still can’t breathe correctly. I have struggled to be patient with my body learning new skills like diaphragmatic breathing.
The massage therapist begins to meticulously loosen tiny fascia in my chest, gently attuning to each spot that needs care. Breath by breath, I feel loosening and my belly begins to rise and fall more naturally. Compassion emerges as I consider my own story and the structures of patriarchy experienced by my great grandmother, grandmother and my mom hidden in these fascia. My eyes feel heavy as I doze off to sleep. As I rouse back to consciousness, I hear my massage therapist say in an upbeat, almost giddy tone, “Your body was so responsive today!”
I begin to weep. These are words that I have longed to hear. In my soul, I know them to be true.
I believe my body longs to respond to good, trustful and attuned care.
However, I am often left believing that my body should be more easily aroused, or that it should be able to relax and find safety with less effort. Sometimes I even buy into the narrative that my body is too fortified or walled off to receive care. As a woman, I often feel like I can’t be “too strong.” At the same time, I feel that I can’t be “too weak.”
My mind pulls up America Ferrara’s monologue in Barbie about the contradictory expectations of being a woman in our culture: “You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people…You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard!”
Ferrara’s character Gloria, the only female employee at Mattel, rallies the other Barbies in “Barbie Land” to wake and rise up out of the brainwashing of “Kendom.” As the story evolves, Gloria embraces her own process of welcoming the little girl inside of her who loved Barbie, while reckoning her younger self with an authentic, complex woman who lives in a male-dominated world.
My friend, Dr. Christy Bauman, introduced me to the concept of Patriarchal Stress Disorder (PSD). Dr. Valerie Rein coined this phrase while researching both the personal, ancestral and collective traumas of living in a patriarchal system. To survive as women in a patriarchal world, we have developed trauma adaptations that keep our power imprisoned. Our bodies instinctively know from the generations before that there is a threat associated with exerting our power.
One of my adaptations through the years has been to present as soft and nurturing while keeping my more provocative or confrontational parts contained. While the vulnerable and tender parts of me are real, I also have parts of me that are meant to lead and disrupt. Perhaps we can all embody a combination of traditionally feminine and masculine parts inside of us, instead of being limited to one or the other.
I am grateful for the sisterhood of women who have advocated for my stepping into places of power. As we begin to mend the wings that have been clipped by patriarchal structures, may we be kind to our bodies, embracing all the parts of us. As I champion the parts of me that I have kept constricted, I can breathe more easily, living more fully into my calling.
Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her three little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks. She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon-running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael co-founded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty, and redemption.