The way to unlock our authentic freedom? Reconnecting to our natural rhythms

How releasing old scripts lets us be unapologetically ourselves

Hi friends, I never thought I’d be writing publicly about race and gender, but since the March shooting of 6 Asian-American women in Atlanta, it’s felt urgent for me to find freedom from voicelessness. Putting words to what’s long been marginalized in myself has given me a new perspective on authentic freedom that I hope resonates with you. Much love, M.

Freedom is perhaps our deepest longing — to be unshackled from expectations, unapologetically ourselves.

I doubt you’d guess this, but 90s hip hop is my most reliable doorway to freedom. Under the spell of Lauryn Hill or OG Jay-Z, every cell in my body awakens. The bass-lines unlock my body’s natural rhythms and unadulterated joy.

Many tell me watching me dance is infectious because they feel me come fully alive. They sense when I dance, I dance for myself.

It’s also why as soon as you ask me to follow choreography, I grow two left feet. When I can’t follow my instincts or worry others are watching, the joy evaporates.

For me, authentic movement is what James Baldwin calls “going the way our blood beats.”

This same freedom is what I’ve long yearned for with my voice. But for years, it felt impossible.

As one of the few senior women of color in workplaces typically led by white men, my belonging chronically felt tenuous. I felt I needed to prove myself over and over again, and that I had fewer chips when I took a seat at the table.

So, every time I spoke, I walked a fine line — trying to build a stack of chips that’d help me stay at the table, yet maintaining a poker face — censoring my thoughts and real self.

I’d run multiple scenarios of what I’d say, filtering every word through the lens of how it’d land with others. Can I really say this? Do people really want to hear this from me? How will this impact my relationships?

This level of perception management — hidden to others, but very present to me — was exhausting. I was perpetually wracked by doubt and fear because I couldn’t follow my instincts.

By contrast, male colleagues would frequently blurt things with far less substance or self-awareness, and be applauded. I wondered: “Why can’t I be as naturally bold or fearless as them? Is there something wrong with me?”

What I see now is that there wasn’t anything wrong with me; it’s the invisible system of expectations we’re cast into.

Under threat, a healthy nervous system mobilizes fight, flight, or freeze as temporary strategies — long enough to survive another day. It’s energetically costly to stay in these states, and so evolution designed our nervous system to quickly return to a resting state of relaxed aliveness.

But what’s rarely acknowledged is that though we may be created equal, nervous systems are not equally free to express themselves or to return to rest.

If our belonging is tenuous, our nervous system registers this as a threat to our security — setting off the same alarm bells as physical threats to our survival. It can leave us stuck in a state of chronic vigilance.

Plus, when there are power differences, the standard responses of fight-flight-freeze may not be open to us.

For example, “fight” often felt risky to me because conflict ran counter to how I’d earned acceptance: by being agreeable. “Flight” wasn’t an option because I needed to stick around for a paycheck. And in the alpha culture of business, it wasn’t an option to “freeze” like a deer in headlights.

So when my natural impulses couldn’t find expression, my nervous system defaulted to a fourth, under-discussed survival strategy: “appease and people please”. Under threat, I fit myself into others’ expectations and made my real self invisible because the risk of following my instincts felt too high.

It’s been heart-breaking to let this realization sink in: even the expression of my most instinctive bodily system — the nervous system — has been narrowed by social expectations.

You see, we’re all handed scripts at birth.

We largely accept our roles unconsciously, and generally don’t question them (at least not early in life) because they seem to give us a way to navigate uncertainty. They give us a template for what’s ostensibly worked for those who’ve come before us.

The director’s cues in my script — as the granddaughter of Chinese immigrants who arrived in an era that was largely unwelcoming to Asians — said, to stay safe: be nice and unconfrontational; prioritize others’ comfort; and above all, over-achieve.

The unspoken payoff of performing this role as a model minority was the possibility of making a life, and perhaps even being accepted in rooms where people who look like me historically weren’t welcome.

The problem with scripts?

When we mistakenly believe our social identity is the primary source of belonging and power, we override our instincts to feel part of a group. We lose touch with our full aliveness.

For me, in accepting proximity to power, I gave away the real source of power — my soul’s unique expression. In feeling divided from myself, I lost touch with my natural aliveness. And by following the scripts handed to me, I perpetuated the status quo where I was a bit actor in a system where power is unevenly embodied.

What we need to realize is that when scripts don’t allow us to be free, none of us are free.

Men, for example, ostensibly have more social power than women. But when I coach male leaders (and even women who have been raised to be like men), they often discover they too have been handed a script that says: disconnect from emotions and hide vulnerability.

While sticking to this script may help accumulate power, that power doesn’t necessarily translate into authentic freedom. Most discover that America’s narrow definition of masculinity and traditional leadership is its own straitjacket and muzzle.

As noted feminist Rebecca Solnit writes in The Mother of All Questions about those whose voices usually get heard:

“Often [they] earned the privilege through strategic silences or the inability to hear certain voices, including their own. …Being unable to [express]… is living death.”

Besides, if we’re unwilling to hear what we’ve marginalized in ourselves, we’ll never be able to face it in others.

So long as we follow the choreography of social expectation, we’ll continue to marginalize others who reflect back to us what we fear — powerlessness, unworthiness, and difference. We’ll lose our natural rhythms, and perpetually stay stuck in cycles of voicelessness and internal deafness.

To heal these inner divisions and external polarizations, it requires a willingness to reconnect to the rhythm of our own beat. Because when we’re no longer deaf to our own beat, we can hear others’ too. And perhaps then we’ll all be able to dance, together.

So, what voices do you need to hear? What scripts do you need to let go of?

I’d love to hear. Drop a comment below or send me an email.

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Melissa’s Reading / Watch List

What’s making me smile?

‘In the Heights’, where the streets explode with dance (NYT, 8 min)

In the kinetic movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway hit (in theaters now and worth watching!), the dance scenes crackle with energy and aliveness. As the NYT notes:

“The dancing has depth and feeling because the dancers perform as if they don’t know, or care, that they’re being watched.”

And for the story to be told with authenticity, the lead choreographer had to let go of his scripts about what a dance routine should look like. So instead of casting professional LA dancers who could execute flawlessly, they chose less polished New Yorkers who dance with raw exuberance.

What’s giving me hope?

Silence & powerlessness go hand in hand — women’s voices must be heard (The Guardian, 7 min)

I originally read this essay back in 2016 when Rebecca Solnit published it as part of The Mother of All Questions. It’s heartening to reflect on how as more diverse voices are starting to be heard — including those of women and other under-represented groups — it’s exploding some of our old cultural scripts.

And tactically, as I’ve consciously filled my life and social media with voices I wouldn’t normally hear, it’s definitely helped me see a bigger picture and consider freedom from a wider lens.

I'd be curious to hear: how are you expanding the range of stories you hear?

What’s making me curious?

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

This was one of the most insightful books I’ve read in recent memory. Wilkerson, a former NYT journalist, combines her instinct for narrative with a brutally illuminating framework of caste to explain race privilege in America. Rather than look at the external markers of power (e.g., status), she pulls back the veils on the invisible ways that America lives in caste system that keeps all of us from our authentic power. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

Why it’s so hard to speak up against a toxic culture (HBR, 5 min)

When people create new pathways (especially when there are no scripts), others are far more likely to follow. It’s the ambiguity that people need help in overcoming. And if even just one person sets down new tracks, it makes it far more likely that others will join in “positive deviance”.

And in case you missed it…

Why we need radical rest to allow something profoundly new to emerge (5 min)

In order to return to our nervous system’s resting state of relaxed aliveness, I reflect in this piece on the cultural and personal necessity of genuine rest.

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