Bigger Isn’t Always Better (and Other Cultural Myths)

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Bigger Isn't Always BetterSome of our beliefs aren’t even ours. Like old wives’ tales passed down through generations or reflected back to us through society, we inherited certain cultural and familial narratives, adopted them, and left them unquestioned as “Truth.” Sometimes these inherited narratives and beliefs manifest as unquestioned traditions. For example, when making the Thanksgiving turkey, my friend’s mother always cut the breast of the bird off and roasted it separately. This process was embedded in my friend’s view of “how to cook a turkey.” When she moved to New York and began hosting her own Thanksgivings, she also sliced the top off the turkey and cooked it separately. Naturally. 

One year a guest asked her why she didn’t cook the turkey whole, which got her to thinking. She didn’t actually know why. It’s just the way it had always been done. So she called her mother to ask about the tradition: Why do we cut the tops off our turkeys? Her mother replied that she had always taken the top off because her mother had always taken the top off; it’s just the way she had learned how to cook a turkey. Naturally curious as to where this learned behavior all began, her mother called her mother, my acquaintance’s grandmother, and asked: Why do we cut the tops off our turkeys?

The grandmother, stumped, thought for a long, hard minute. “Oh,” she remembered, “the oven in my very first apartment was too small to fit an entire turkey, so I had to cook it with the top cut off.” Sixty years later, in a city across the country, my acquaintance was still cooking turkeys as a result of an oven that was too small. This is how inherited narrative works.

Here are some of the narratives that I inherited over the years, in order from most helpful to least: You can be anything that you want to be. Money isn’t very important. It is what it is, and it can’t be changed. Men prefer pretty over smart. Asking for help means you’re weak and needy. These are the ones that I’ve managed to tease out; I’m sure there are plenty more operating in the background that I can’t see.

Part of developing a wholesome or Beneficial View is identifying the stories that we live by, where they came from, and, perhaps most importantly, whether or not they are helpful on the path of waking up to our worthiness. Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, described Beneficial View as the practice of identifying which of our views spring from beneficial beliefs and which spring from harmful beliefs, and then choosing which to nourish and cultivate. Sometimes this also means looking at the views of the culture that we live in.

A few times every year, I host group coaching programs for a rather large online training institute with a global reach, drawing students from a dozen countries, primarily women of varying ages. These groups offer an encouraging environment in which we can speak openly about our fears and hesitations. Over the past decade, working as a coach has revealed to me just how many of us feel a chronic sense of falling behind and a nagging suspicion that we’re not quite _________ enough. You can fill in the blank here with your own particular flavor of not-enough-ness. Not educated enough, smart enough, good-looking enough, likable enough, thin enough . . . You get the picture. A consistent element of these groups has been a gobsmacking number of women sharing that they view their capabilities as insufficient or lacking. Sometimes this feeling extends to the way that they view themselves as people. It’s said that if one fish washes up on the shore, the scientist will call it what it is: a dead fish. Nothing of note, really. However, if hundreds of fish wash up on the shore, the biologist won’t look to the fish for answers. They’ll test the water that the fish are swimming in. So what’s up with the water that we all seem to be swimming in?

In the Western hemisphere, there is a deeply embedded narrative of scarcity that is nearly invisible. I don’t know about you, but I clearly remember playing the childhood game of musical chairs. It begins as a cheerful romp around the circle, with kids squealing and running to nab a chair once the music stops. As the game progresses, however, the stakes get higher. The chairs begin to disappear. The slowest, smallest, and most accommodating kids get disqualified. And the fastest, most aggressive kids advance amidst the dwindling resource of chairs. Good, clean childhood fun. Also, a wonderful way to implicitly teach kids this prevailing myth of scarcity: There is simply not enough to go around. And you better get yours before someone else takes it.

Author, activist, and fund-raiser Lynne Twist illustrates this phenomenon exquisitely in her book The Soul of Money. She likens the scarcity narrative to a “helmet” of insufficiency that we wear throughout our day that flavors every interaction we have. For example, our first thought when getting up in the morning tends to be I didn’t get enough sleep. As we get ready for the day, we think, I don’t have enough to wear, I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough room on the subway, I don’t have enough help to get this job done well, There aren’t enough good men or women on Tinder, I don’t have enough energy to meet up with my friends, and then our final thought before falling asleep is I didn’t get enough done. This view of not having enough is truly pervasive. It’s no wonder that the women I’ve worked with consistently communicate that they don’t feel like they can live up to their own, or society’s, expectations.

Even if we try to address the messages we might tell ourselves about what we have and don’t have, we can’t avoid them altogether. I was riding the subway to Brooklyn one day when a father and his daughter, who was all of five or six years old, entered the train and stood toward the center of the car. She was chatting to her dad about her day at school until one of the many subway ads caught her eye. In it, there were two juxtaposed photos of a blonde woman. In one photo, the woman was frowning while holding a lemon in each hand, which were hovering at chest height. In the other, she was holding two grapefruits, also at chest height, but she was grinning. “Dad, why is she happy in that one and sad in that one?” the girl asked, pointing to the ad for breast augmentation. I swear the entire subway car went silent in anticipation of how her father would respond. He awkwardly and skillfully lobbed the question back to his daughter. “Well . . . what do you think?” The girl waited a beat and then answered, “She’s happy there because she has big ones and sad there because she has small ones.”

Clearly she had understood the message this poster was communicating to us all: a message of scarcity, insufficiency, and how one might always be “better.” And in that instant I understood how conditioning works. Hello, demon of self-doubt. Just like the fish in the ocean, we’re bound to swallow the water that we swim in. When considering what it means to develop Beneficial View, and the view of our own worthiness, it can be helpful to identify why we might not feel worthy to begin with. If our cultural perspective is rooted in the myth of “not enough,” it would logically follow that we would inherit this not-so-beneficial view of ourselves. Through looking at our own mind in meditation practice, we begin to take stock of the stories and beliefs that are not serving us, unraveling this myth of “not enough,” and revealing the Beneficial View of our innate wholeness and worth.

This is an excerpt from Tea and Cake with Demons: A Buddhist Guide to Feeling Worthy by Adreanna Limbach.Tea and Cake with Demons

Adreanna LimbachAdreanna Limbach is a personal coach and a lead meditation instructor at MNDFL, NYC’s premier drop-in meditation studio. Her teachings have been featured in the New York Times, Women’s Health, and Refinery29. She lives in New York City. For more, visit adreannalimbach.com.

Buy your copy of Tea and Cake with Demons at your favorite bookseller!

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2 Responses

  1. Dusanka Woods
    | Reply

    All well and done from the rational and psychological point of view except that low self asteem is also a symptom of depresson, I mean clinically depressed people who are not capable to see their way out just by understanding and believing that they may talk themselves out of negative thinking and by practicing positive affirmations. I have seen depression first hand … in my family…hours and hours of therapy and still the self doubt and low self asteem is there. It’s almost like its etched in our cellular memory and stuck there. the early childhood trauma are very difficult to overcome, it’s like the tape is playing all the time somwhere in the background and does not allow one to move on despite all the gifts and talents one is told to have.
    Thank you though for your good work and the book.

  2. Maria
    | Reply

    Thank you, great article

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