It was a virtually empty train carriage.
I sat down and pulled out my freshly purchased Thai green curry. As there was no one in sight, I was soon in my own little world enjoying my food and looking aimlessly out of the windows.
Before long, I was startled by a woman who had come from behind. She stood over me and said “What you are eating smells disgusting. It is very unpleasant to others and it makes me want to vomit…can you stop?” Caught by surprise, I simply said, “Sure, no problem,”,and put my food away.
It took me a long time to process the experience.
Food was allowed on the train and people had their meals all the time but I wondered if I had indeed done something vile. She could have moved to another part of the carriage. She could have told me in a friendly way about her discomfort, in which case I probably would not have been so affected. Her attitude was unnecessary, and I was offended. Why then did I react as if I had not been bothered at all?
My default reaction in this instance, as with every other confrontation, was to freeze and acquiesce.
For as long as I can remember, I have learnt to accept everything.
I once sat in a public cafe crying as my ex-partner’s mother threw groundless accusations and insults at me and my family, completely out of the blue. I wrote a letter in defence of myself when I got home but never sent. Indeed, I have hard-wired a rather cowardly way of being with confrontation.
While causing me episodes of trauma, it gives me the comfort of not being “the unpleasant” one in my mind. “Being pleasant was important because otherwise I would not have friends,” said the little girl from my past who played alone for years. I have also chosen a way of showing up in this world that makes me small and more easily accepted, because growing up, I was told that I could be “too much.” I was always too energetic, expressive, confident-looking and I rather crazy with my non-conforming views of everything.
We are an embodiment of our history in more ways than we realise.
Despite the fact that we all have hard-wired beliefs and behaviours that no longer hold true in our present life, we never question them. In fact, we do not even notice that we are operating within the constraints of our beliefs. Most of the time, we learn to get on with life rather than step back, assess and try to reshape it.
Questioning what we take for granted can start from simply allowing some time and space for curiosity to emerge. A year ago, I would not have analysed the incident on the train. I did and learnt tremendously about myself on that occasion because I had cultivated a habit of taking my mind away from the to-dos of daily life to be curious about my most subtle feelings.
Self-awareness is the first step for personal growth. It is an ever-evolving process that deepens and rewards in the most unexpected way.
A few months after the above-mentioned incident, I was “checking in with my body” one day when I realised that deeper than my avoidance of conflict was my inability to let myself be angry with people. Offended, wronged, hurt or abused, I had always sought to understand others’ perspectives or give them benefit of the doubt, and in so doing numbing my anger with sympathy.
There was nothing for me to do from this realisation, neither was there a desire to vent my suppressed anger of the past decades, but I could sense a physical relief in my body and a part of me became “unblocked.”
I am now making a conscious choice about how I show up in the world. My body will still only give the slightest hints when my boundaries are stepped on, but I will listen to it and I will not tolerate in silence.
Author: Chi Phan
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Ayana T. Miller/Flickr