I grew up with three defining beliefs related to myself and the world around me, based on the prevailing family business environment and my response to it: First, to be successful was to be an entrepreneur or businessperson, not just because of wealth and lifestyle, but of standing, reputation, the lives at stake, contribution to society, assets at disposal….the general importance accorded to people of means, especially in a developing country. Second, that I was destined for this sort of success because of my intelligence, my family background and my willingness to work hard, and third, that personal identity and professional success were closely linked, i.e. being successful meant being someone and vice versa. However naive or inflated they might sound, these were key tenets for my younger self.
I soon discovered, however, I wasn’t necessarily cut out for the kind of professional success I had always taken for granted would come my way. This was for many reasons — my personality, my inclinations, family circumstances and considerations and my mental and emotional health. I had to begin an “inside-out shift” — to find a profession that suited my capabilities and interests, and I eventually landed on writing and journalism.
So how did I become an advocate for professional re-invention when it was something I previously feared and resisted? And how can this be relevant to others who may not be from a family business?
Find your purpose
The changing nature of identity, purpose and meaning, which dogged me for years, is universal. Many of us, regardless of profession or career, struggle to find purpose or meaning in our lives – with or without a mental health condition. The lesson I have to offer, after so long, is singular. What matters, I believe, is the conversation you are having with yourself, the narrative you are framing of yourself, the story you tell yourself about who you are – your self-therapy. And it is a journey. I have tried to share it in detail just to show how relentless the self-questioning can be. Some moments in time, in particular, set the stage for my self-therapy.
I lie on the floor, wearing a T-shirt and track pants, watching my breath, as my yoga teacher, Atmapadma, guides me in my practice. She is patient, warm and gentle. We finish our yoga session and I begin talking with her, about my move from my family business and my uncertain worklife. And then she recites a single shloka from the Bhagavad Gita that changes my life. She does not delve into explanations but leaves me to meditate on it.
Better is one’s dharma, even if imperfect
Than another’s dharma, followed perfectly
Better is death in following one’s own dharma,
For another’s dharma brings danger
She differentiates between the normal struggles that one may encounter in one’s life journey, when one tries to be true to one’s path, from the “insecurities, fear, anxiety, neurosis and psychosis” that take place when one deviates from one’s dharma. “It’s very elusive, because at different stages, what my dharma is in different situations, what my dharma is, is fluid sometimes. And it’s very tricky to be alive to that something inside, rather than what has been defined by something outside,” she emphasises.
My thoughts on the shloka make their way into my journal, a few weeks after Atmapadma first recited the shloka. I needed to still find a way of turning my intellectual interests – writing, film, design – into something that is of value, and would also fulfil my needs of winning peer respect. This is both exciting – because there are several options, and the road is entirely open – as well as terrifying, because of the uncertainty.
I suspect that when I think of myself as a promoter’s child or inheritor, I pressure myself to achieve a lot within a short span of time, or equally, get carried away by my own “credentials” and “position.” I feel validated and affirmed, think of myself as an achiever, because this is what society expects of me.
However, when I think of myself as a writer/ thinker, there’s far more emphasis on the means, rather than just the ends. The journey is about the pursuit of excellence, of competing with oneself, of producing good work: perhaps that is something that ties in better with my personality, its strengths and its weaknesses. There is much less affirmation, the territory is unknown, and consequently the possibility of not being a super-achiever is sky-high. But it’s intellectually richer, and more honest. Perhaps that is something which works better for me? What is the narrative of my life that I’m comfortable with? And will finding the answer to this prevent these ‘manic’ episodes?”
This was the beginning of a long line of journal entries on the subject of identity, dharma and purpose.
Tara Mahadevan, a counselling psychologist, is dictating a few lines to me. She presents me with a set of affirmations.
May I be free from stress and anxiety
May I be at ease and balanced
May I be happy
May I be free from my past
May I accept and choose myself the way I am because I am good enough
May I move towards the light always
May I be happy and fulfilled
I write them down on index cards and store them carefully in my handbag. They accompany me wherever I go, to this day. She makes me set a reminder on my phone, to say them to myself, at 6 pm everyday. (The reminder still exists, even though the ritual may have lapsed after the first year or so).
Not feeling good enough pervaded every cell of my brain, even though it may only have been visible to perceptive friends such as Tara. Coming from a family of high-achievers, and having studied at elite educational institutes, I never felt that my “achievements” were enough – especially given my mental illness. The combination of excessive ambition and heightened inadequacy, while probably familiar to many CEOs, is not a recommended recipe for arriving at emotional and mental balance.
For Tara, affirmations were vital to my well-being. “Affirmations are a really effective way to rewire ourselves. The way the brain functions, or the way it’s designed, is that the more we tell ourselves something, the more we believe it to be true. And we live in a world that is constantly giving us messages consciously and unconsciously, that we’re not good enough, we’re not thin enough, we’re not rich enough, we’re not successful enough, and that becomes the story which we live by. Affirmations are one way to plant new, more helpful thought seeds. Saying them over and over creates new neural pathways which strengthen over time, and then we start to focus and believe these, instead of the old thoughts that no longer serve us,” she says.
She understood my need for success – and even my need to often overcompensate because of my illness – and urged me to look beyond it.
I was seeking a definition that I had in my head of success – that I would reach a particular point, and then I’ll know that I’m good enough. That becomes this constant feeling of emptiness within myself, that nothing I do is good enough, because the more you achieve something, there’s always this lust for more, which is then fuelled in the outside environment.
Just affirming to go back within is connecting with your spiritual practices as well, because what our spiritual practices say is that the answers don’t lie outside, the answers lie inside, the peace doesn’t lie outside, the peace lies inside. It’s going to realign you with your spiritual self, which is go within, then seek that peace within, seek that security and create that space for yourself with it.
July 19, 2016:
What was making me feel down? Post-holiday blues, but beyond that – a nagging sense of insecurity or inadequacy at not being successful enough, not talented enough, not clever enough, not clued in enough, not hardworking enough. I am still haunted by the spectre of success, by the promise of talent and its rigorous pursuit. This feeling of inadequacy is heightened during conversations with high-achieving friends and mentors in the UK, whose intellect and success are enhanced by their values, especially compassion and sensitivity, that I would like to emulate. And so the easiest thing I can say to myself: I am still not good enough. What am I doing to make a dent in this universe? Look at XYZ and see where he/she is, as a writer, as a thought leader, as a creative artist.
Yet, when I reflect on it, as Sandhini said, creative pursuits are about looking at your own yoga-mat, and not being distracted by the perceived harmony’s in someone else’s mat. I need to find the balance of movement and stillness, the acceptance of both alignment and friction, of bricks and void, in myself.
So what’s my purpose and meaning? Even though I feel I’ve shouted myself hoarse on this subject, I still find myself going around in circles on it. Being able to make a dent in the universe – however tiny – is part of my DNA.
The discussion with Atmapadma set me off on a journey to seek my own path, independent of the family business. The affirmations from Tara led me to look within and be kinder to myself. All these exchanges were vital in getting me to have deep conversations with myself; my self-therapy on the subject of purpose, identity and meaning.
(Read more about Piramal’s journey in Chemical Khichdi: How I Hacked My Mental Health. Published by Penguin Random House India)