The Book That Helped Me Look Within by Shilpa Gupte

“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’

The words jumped out at me from the page of the book, Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown. A friend visiting India had gifted it to me three years ago, but I couldn’t proceed beyond the first chapter and so put it away. Non-fiction not being my cup of tea, I let the book lie in a cozy corner of my bookcase. I thought I would wait for the book to prompt me to read it.

And, prompt me, it did, for a thorough read during the pandemic, precisely when I needed it the most!

I guess the universe knew that I would need to take a closer look at myself, to get into my psyche and uncover the reasons behind the anguish and the agony that kept me from living life with confidence and self-respect.

As a 47-year-old housewife who quit her job to care for her family, I haven’t been “working” for almost fifteen years. Caring for my mother-in-law who was a patient of schizophrenia,  my husband, who is a patient of Bipolar Disorder, and my pet dog, I had forgotten all about my career as a teacher.

I did very well looking after my family. But, over the years, I came to realise that homemaking and caregiving are thankless jobs and one never gets any credit for all that one does for their family. Yes, it is our duty, but we do get taken for granted, and, at times, made to feel insignificant because we fail to bring anything of significance to the table.

My self-confidence as well as my self-respect began to plummet and I was left with a broken heart and a wounded self-esteem.

 I started blogging and making art in search of the identity I craved. I discovered that these activities stimulated me and healed me, emotionally.  I received a lot of appreciation for my writing and my artwork, but was I earning from it? No. Being a novice with hardly any experience found me no paid opportunities in either of the fields.

Time went by. I gained some confidence from the applause I received for my blog and artworks. But, the desperation to make money prevented me from enjoying my twin passions to the fullest, and I found myself where I was when I started.

Money matters more than caring for sick patients or running the household, I thought to myself.  A career woman gains the respect of her family, especially during a financial crisis, when her career helps sustain the household. And, I yearned for a career that could give me what I wanted–confidence in myself and some respect for “being of use” to the family.

The feeling of being less than those who “work”, of being useless because I did not earn, of having wasted my time cooking, cleaning, picking up after the family, who cared a damn for all the services they get for free, troubled me. It was a crushing realisation which sent me deeper into the abyss of shame.

I quit my job and chose to stay at home not because I was too lazy to work, but because my family needed me to care for them, to ensure they stayed safe. In hindsight, I realised I had made a good decision quitting when I did because my mother-in-law suffered the worst episodes of paranoia during those days. Who would have looked after her had I not been home?

But, these past ten months of the pandemic, when the world reeled from an economic recession, I started to question my decisions from all those years ago. Should I have quit, or should I have kept working? If I had been working, then I wouldn’t have waged this continuous battle with shame and vulnerability. I would still be a career woman, earning a respectable amount of money and helping my partner in this time of crisis.

My wounded morale took a few more beatings when the husband’s company shut down and we were left without a monthly income. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to secure a job. The entire world was suffering, so what chance did I stand of finding work after being unemployed for more than a decade?

That feeling of being “no good” haunted me night and day. Peering into my husband’s stricken face only worsened the guilt and the shame. “How he must wish he had had a career woman for a wife,” my inner voice taunted me.

It was really not a great way to think about myself, but vulnerability and shame were my constant companions, making sure I writhed in agony and guilt. I felt like I was walking under a cloud of self-inflicted torment and I couldn’t protect myself from it.

At times, when in the company of working women, who exuded the confidence and the brightness that I felt I lacked, I would yearn to curl up in a ball and hide myself in some dark corner. What would I talk about? What would I share with them, if they enquired about me? I feared.

Finally, one day, when I couldn’t bear it any longer, I decided I needed to help myself get out of that abyss. And, as if an energy was guiding me, I reached for this long-forgotten book that lay in the corner of my bookcase for three years. Studying the blurb, I realised it was the perfect book to busy my mind with.  Busy myself with better thoughts than those full of self-accusations.

It was, indeed, a book written just for me. Almost every page seemed to nudge me gently to accept myself, love myself despite everything that I felt was flawed about me.

It taught me how to talk to myself when faced with shame and guilt. How to love and accept myself, to let go of perfectionism and embrace my imperfections.

How to be self-compassionate so that I could reach out to others and share with them the feelings that torture me. It taught me how to be kind to myself and be mindful of the negative thoughts.

Most of all, it taught me to believe in hope, and in myself; to cultivate authenticity,  creativity, compassion, gratitude, and calmness to be able to deal with shame. It also taught me how vulnerability is at the centre of all human experiences so I need not be ashamed of it.

I am still a work in progress. I still get hounded by shame and guilt. But now, I check my self-talk. It’s a conscious effort I put in learning to talk to myself like I would talk to a best friend. With love and compassion.

Each time I am haunted by those feelings of worthlessness and shame, I give myself a tight hug and speak gently to myself. It takes time, but I calm down. I realise how futile it is to compare myself with others. I have, in fact, stopped comparing myself with others. I now compare my present self with my past self; with where I was at this time last year, to how far I have come. And, it fills me with a sense of pride when I notice the difference.

I still have a long way to go before I can rid myself of the burden of shame and guilt, but I am sure that day will come when I will be free from it all. And, a whole lot happier with myself and my life.

Last month, as I wondered about setting resolutions for the new year, I decided I would set intentions, not resolutions. An intention to love myself, unconditionally. To accept myself the way I am; to embrace myself, flaws and all, for those make me unique. To live wholeheartedly, for myself. And, to treat myself with love, the way I would treat a best friend. That’s what self-love is all about, isn’t it?

This quote from the book resonates with me today as I look ahead to an year of self-acceptance and self-love:

 “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Shilpa Gupte is a writer and an artist. A wellness blogger, she also dabbles in fiction and nonfiction, and considers art her favourite therapy. She lives in Mumbai, India, with her husband and their three pet parrots.

Twitter: @ShilpaGupte1

Instagram: shilpsart