I have been trying to decolonize my mind lately. Specifically, I have been participating in an online course, one where participants attempt to decolonize the mind in order be able to go about our life’s work in a meaningful and conscious way, to heal ourselves from the inside out so that our minds and bodies are prepared to help heal others. Our teacher, Heather Jo Flores, defines colonization as “having something that was your birthright taken without your consent, for the ongoing use and profit of others”. We have been encouraged in this course to dig deep and unravel those stories of colonization that have wrapped themselves around our minds, bodies and daily practices.
Through the exercises and reflections we have taken part in during the course, I have been able to identify my romantic life as one of the areas that for me has been affected most prominently by colonization and its associated suitcase of systemic sexism. During this course, I have asked myself to remember the most salient moments, those moments that for me were defining and had the most long-lasting implications. I have found that these memories for me were formed during my mid to late teenage years with some of my first romantic partners.
I consider it my birthright to feel desirable, confident and comfortable in my body, however it may look at a given moment in my life. I, like so many women, had this right taken away from me in large part by previous romantic partners, and it has taken me almost a decade to try and get it back. At 31 years old, I had pushed these formative memories to those dusty corners of my mind where I often forget to clean…
I was bullied by my boyfriend when I was 16. It was true that I already felt insecure when I met him, being an especially awkward and nerdy teenager, but somehow I still felt pretty desirable. We only dated for a short time but it was enough. It was too long. This person stormed out on our first date because I would not let him read my diary. This person said that I was “disgusting” and should see a doctor because the palms of my hands got sweaty whenever I was nervous. He also invented a song about how big my nose was and jokingly referred to my forehead as a keyboard when I was suffering a mild acne outbreak. I told him that this was hurtful and he said I need to learn to laugh at my imperfections.
He pressured me to do things sexually that I was not ready to do and made me feel inferior by recounting the adventurousness of his ex girlfriend who apparently liked to do really freaky stuff. I will spare you the details. When I started considering doing some of these things with him he added that of course I would need to shave down there beforehand. I didn’t, so we didn’t. Oh man, I am SO happy that we didn’t.
The night we first kissed he told me that our mutual male friends informed him I was one of those girls that’s “only good for one night”. I remember laughing it off because I had never even done anything with any of them. I didn’t know then that he was trying to manipulate me as he would time and time again, pretty much every day that I saw him. I stayed with him because he was a really good kisser and also because at 16 the power of hormones is pretty astounding. The next month was filled with him lashing out at me for no reason and making me feel like there was something legitimately wrong with most of my body parts.
This guy was definitely the worst of the lot, but somehow I feel like it became a trend in my early dating life to chose partners who were highly manipulative and psychologically controlling. I remember being told by one partner with whom I was in a casual relationship, something along the lines of, “you know wouldn't be here with me if you weren't hot… I mean you are - from the right angle”. When we hung out with a friend of mine, he asked me later if he could get her number from me, then he looked thoughtful for a while and decided out loud, “nah she’s totally out of my league”. Then we went back to his place.
I remember this person kissing me in the most disgusting way possible and I tried to communicate to him that this was not cool by saying “dude, it feels like you’re trying to eat my face”, to which he replied “yeah, but do you like it?”. I also remember how angry I was at myself when all I managed to answer was a hesitant “ummmm, yeah”. I felt anger and shame.
In our module on the topic of shame, Heather pointed us to a quote by Peter Michaelson who said that, “we can be entirely innocent of wrong doing, yet still feel shame. Examples include feeling shame in association with sexual functions or deficiencies, elimination processes, social ineptness, impressions of being looked down on by others and allegedly being ugly or clumsy. Hence, we often feel shame for emotional, irrational reasons.” So wise, so true.
Not only did I feel less than through the many underhanded comments which communicated to me that I was physically not attractive and that there was something wrong with me if I didn’t want to do freaky sex stuff, but on top of that I couldn’t even communicate my true feelings about something as trivial as a bad kiss for fear of being rejected. Shame is such a nasty shrivelled cherry on top of the cake that is the emotional wear and tear caused by systemic sexism.
As a young person, you don’t really know that these moments will go on to shape you and your relationships for the long haul. In a later, long-term relationship with a kind a decent person I found myself turning into a toxic, volatile, and mean creature. I screamed, ripped pages out of books, hit and insulted my partner whenever I felt vulnerable. I tried to get him to convince me that I was the only desirable and beautiful woman that had ever or would ever enter his life. Of course I knew that I wasn’t and that it was an absurd thing to aspire to but I clung to the notion with ferocity. I’m pretty sure I turned into the evil queen from Snow White for a while.
I am better now, way better. My current relationship is 6 years in with the most amazing person, but a good chunk of those first years was spent doing some very messy, often explosive groundwork for the years to come. What is inspiring is knowing that the way we view ourselves as romantic or sexual beings and the way that we believe others view us is very much flexible and can change if the intention and the willingness to do the work is there. It’s about being honest about the ugly things that have been done to us and the ugly things we have done to others. It’s also about forgiving ourselves for not having the guts to say no or leave someone who is no good. I have found that forgiveness is also needed on a daily basis, for those little slip ups and when old bad habits bubble up.
Something that has been a result of partaking in the Decolonize Yourself Creative Immersion for me is also a feeling of pride. The good kind! Pride because I am beginning to recognize myself as an agent of change in my own life. So many people that I know, including myself, often default to the passenger role with the view that life is happening around them and to them. One of most radical ways that we can stand up to sexism and patriarchy is to recognize ourselves as powerful beasts.
The concept of “the beast” is also one we have been exploring quite in depth in this immersion. We have found that sometimes our beasts take a long time to emerge, sometimes they cannot do it on their own, sometimes they are untameable and downright nasty. But if we can make them our allies, they become the kinds of beasts that transform ugly into art, that can roar at the injustice done to minds and bodies, but can also soften when needed.
Decolonizing the mind is about recognizing and rewiring stale patterns. It is so refreshing just knowing that this work can be done, because it opens up many possibilities for change. I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to reflect on myself over the past 2 months and to share some of my experiences with you. Thank you for reading!
If you would like additional information or have questions about my experience participating in the Decolonize Yourself Creative Immersion, do not hesitate to get in touch with me. I have an affiliate link you can sign up through which allows me to earn a commission in exchange for helping spread the word about this transformative course. Those of you who know me know that I am not much for marketing or selling things, but I can personally vouch for the quality of this program and the ethical and very personal way that it has been developed and presented by its creator.
For more great resources on decolonizing the mind and feminist perspectives, check out my friend Anni’s fantastic blog:
And also this wonderful article by Indigenous journalist Mary Annette Pember: This November, Try Something New: Decolonize Your Mind
Also this: The Pain We Lock Away by Peter Michaelson