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Breaking Free from the Shackles of

Naina Grewal Darpan, 02 Oct, 2023

    In our communities, there exists a powerful force that often shapes our decisions, choices, and even our entire lives: "What will people say?" This phrase, uttered by concerned parents, well-meaning relatives, and sometimes even friends, has become an omnipresent specter that hovers over many aspects of life. However, in an advancing and globalizing world, it is time to dissect this notion and explore how we can liberate ourselves from its stifling grip.

    "What will people say?" encapsulates a web of expectations, traditions, and social norms deeply rooted in our cultures. From career choices to personal relationships, from clothing choices to marriage decisions, this question often looms large. It's a double-edged sword - on one hand, it can foster a sense of belonging and community, but on the other, it can stifle individuality and personal growth.

    One of the most prominent ways this question affects us is in the realm of relationships and marriage. There is immense pressure to conform to traditional norms, including marrying within one's caste, religion, or ethnicity. Deviating from these norms often leads to whispers, judgments, and the dreaded "What will people say?" phrase. It doesn’t just end there. Trying to exit relationships that no longer serve us are often met with unsupportive glares because of the very fear of others’ commentaries. This can lead to many individuals feeling trapped in relationships and spaces they longer want to be in. 

    Career choices are another arena where the weight of societal expectations is acutely felt. Many South Asians feel pressured to pursue certain professions, such as medicine, engineering, or law, even if their true passion lies elsewhere. The fear of disappointing parents and relatives by deviating from these career paths often leads to unfulfilled lives.

    As such, "What will people say?" can be stifling when it comes to personal expression. From clothing choices to hobbies and interests, people may feel compelled to conform to what is deemed socially acceptable. This suppression of individuality can lead to a lack of self-expression and personal growth. What’s more is that the constant worry about what others will say can take a significant emotional toll. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and a sense of never being good enough. It's a vicious cycle where individuals strive to meet the expectations of others, often at the expense of their own happiness and mental well-being.

    Breaking free from the clutches of "What will people say?" starts with the recognition that simply put, ironically speaking, if you believe in the narrative, you are also adding to it. The key lies in open communication. Families and communities need to encourage dialogue where individuals can express their thoughts, dreams, and concerns without fear of judgment. This requires a shift from a punitive mindset to a more empathetic and understanding one.

    Moreover, it's essential to redefine success on our terms rather than society's. Success doesn't have to be measured solely in terms of career achievements or marital status. It can encompass personal growth, happiness, and fulfillment in whatever form that takes. Encouraging a more diverse and inclusive definition of success can help individuals pursue their passions and interests.

    To navigate self-growth, building strong support networks is crucial. When individuals have the backing of friends and family who support their choices, it becomes easier to withstand societal pressure. Supportive communities can serve as a buffer against the fear of others. By educating oneself and others about the diverse range of lifestyles, careers, and relationships that can lead to happiness and fulfillment, we can challenge traditional stereotypes and norms.

    Looking inwards, setting personal boundaries is also essential. It's okay to say no when something doesn't align with your values or desires. Learning to assert oneself respectfully is a valuable skill and is a matter of honoring oneself. That said, it isn’t just about the self. Encouraging and championing individuality can lead to more vibrant and innovative families, communities, and economies. When people are free to pursue their passions and interests, it can lead to remarkable achievements and contributions.

    One of the most beautiful aspects of today’s global village is its diversity. However, the "What will people say?" mentality often suppresses this diversity. Embracing the richness of diverse lifestyles, careers, and relationships within these communities leads to a more inclusive and vibrant society. Rather than judging those who deviate from societal norms, we should celebrate their courage to be themselves. Every individual is unique, and their choices should not only be respected, but also celebrated.

    "What will people say?" is a question that has long held sway, but the time has come to challenge its dominance. Embracing diversity, open communication, and a redefinition of success can help individuals break free from the stifling grip of societal expectations. It's a journey toward personal freedom, happiness, and fulfillment, and it's a journey worth taking. As we empower ourselves and those around us to be true to ourselves, we can create a more inclusive and accepting society that celebrates the rich tapestry of our culture in its true essence. Next time, as we find ourselves questioning what others will say, let us instead ask ourselves what our inner child, or higher self will say!

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