So often we see metaphors of war used to explain strength. We "battle" illness, we "conquer" challenges and we "vanquish the enemy," be it PMS, breast cancer, childbirth, or menopause! Women's magazines, internet memes, our friends, family, teachers and lovers all promote the idea that we women are warriors.
I get it. (After all, I get that the point is to encourage us to be strong and resilient.) But please don't apply these metaphors to me — I object!
When it comes to health and wellness, I've discovered that these ways of describing strength are deeply flawed. And I worry that we limit our capacities by denying that often, the toughest act of bravery is simply to let go.
A great example of when bravery means letting go is the process of giving birth. In my work as an obstetrician, I have the unique opportunity to witness childbirth and I've participated in the births of over a thousand babies.
In some instances, I've sat back and merely held the space, stepping in to "catch the baby." In others, I have intervened in any way necessary to keep mother and baby safe.
I've noticed that there is a tendency to take on male signifiers of strength to describe what is one of the essential expressions of female-ness.
A prime example of this is how we tend to judge other women's choices around medicating childbirth. Some women bring our babies here without pain medication, some women don't or (*gasp*) cannot.
Why does this even matter? When a woman opts to mitigate or manage pain in order to be more present, it somehow threatens our sense of women as powerful warriors who can " do anything" — when in fact she just did the most powerful thing ever: birthed a baby!
But more so than the language we use, the mental and physical attributes that enable the birth process are NOT about muscling through, but actually letting go!
When you think about a baby actually physically coming out of a body, this makes sense. If you only use muscle, it could literally obstruct the process, whereas when we let go, the opening develops.
How often have I observed a labor finally progress once my mom-to-be stops trying to control the process and just becomes present? And this isn't magic — it's physiologic!
When we struggle or are anxious, we experience a "fight or flight" response that blocks the release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for creating labor contractions.
But did you know that oxytocin is also considered the hormone of love and bonding? It's released in large quantities along with dopamine when we fall in love, when we hold our newborn or our puppy or even when we orgasm!
So how might the warrior stance constrict our ability to find expansiveness and strength?
I have pondered this question for years in the context of my professional work, but recently as I contemplated some personal challenges, it occurred to me (during meditation!) that perhaps powering through didn't serve me.
I realized that pushing myself to make a decision about the issue I was facing was the opposite of what was required. So was keeping my head down, gritting my teeth and grinding through like I've often done to finish tough projects.
The fact that this came to me during meditation only resonated more. The solution occurred precisely when I relaxed the muscles in my face, breathed slowly and deeply and my mind opened.
It's an elementary concept. Every preschooler is taught not to push. Not only is it a boundary violation and you might hurt someone, but you could hurt yourself!
So why do we keep wanting to push ourselves further when maybe we just need to stop, sit back and make room?
Maybe we need to re-frame "strength" as having the bravery to let go and be vulnerable. This is so often what makes space for the movement, growth or change.