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Our conditioning starts young! Very young! I was reminded about this when my daughter painted children’s faces at a local event. She had also just completed a two-year high-school course in Sociology, so her awareness of socialisation and gender conditioning was in sharp focus. What stood out most to her from the event were the gender-biased comments about the face painting designs from parents, grandparents and the children themselves.

My daughter had a book of design examples from which the children could choose. To a couple of boys, she said: ‘You can have a pirate, you can have Hello Kitty…’ to which they laughed and said ‘that’s for girls! Don’t be silly!’

When a girl wanted Batman painted on her face, her mother asked my daughter to add flowers.

Another girl wanted a puppy, but her grandfather said ‘No, puppies are for boys.’

When a little girl asked for a pirate, her mother flipped through the book suggesting more girlie options.

How were you conditioned?

What sorts of things were you told by your parents, or other people in your life, about how you should look, what you should like, or how you should behave as a girl or boy? What did you learn about how girls or boys are expected to be by watching the people in your life?

One phrase my mother said repeatedly, was ‘Suffer to be beautiful.’ I took that to mean: go hungry so you’ll be thinner (because of course thin is beautiful); wear shoes that pinch, because they look elegant; wax and pluck so you don’t look like a man!

I also learned that girls should be helpful, and boys (men) should be served. I don’t know if this is across cultures, but in my relatively ‘detribalised’ South African-Greek upbringing, the girls helped, and the boys… not sure what they did, but I know they weren’t in the kitchen with me and my sister! Of course, this message was globalised into ‘serve others.’ And then with years of receiving approval for serving others, it became ‘even if it means over-riding your own needs.’

Girls should hold back and watch the boys enjoy themselves. I remember my mother buying sweets and treats ‘for the boys’ – which we watched them eat because we were ‘being good.’

How does this play out in your life NOW?

I yo-yo’d between suffering through dieting and overexercising, and rebelling against my mother’s idea that one needed to suffer to be beautiful. Now, I don’t give a monkeys about what is considered beautiful. Recently I had a full spa day without a bikini wax – gasp! I just could not be bothered enough. I wear clothing and shoes that feel comfortable; I do not starve or deprive myself, nor do I over-exercise.

The message about serving others has had such an enormous impact on my life. I’ve come a long way with it – it really has taken a lot of effort, practice and willingness to feel discomfort to change my behaviour. I used to run myself ragged to help and support other people. I’d automatically get up from the dinner table to get whatever anyone needed. Often I’d know instantly they were looking for salt, mustard or salad dressing, without them having to breathe a word. I could write a book of examples.

Now, I do still get into over-helping, but much much much less than I used to. I recognise it more quickly, often as it’s happening, check out my motivation, and make a decision about whether or not to continue. I can promise you, I don’t always get it right!

Stepping out of your conditioning

1. What’s the cost of keeping the conditioning active?

What helped me to put in the effort to change my behaviour, was recognising the impacts, not just on me, but on others as well. I’ll focus on serving others as it’s had the biggest impact on my life. I encourage you to look at this through the lens of your own conditioning.

  • I realised how energy sapping it is to serve others out of a sense of duty, obligation or a wish to gain or retain their approval;
  • I realised that I didn’t want to live my life trying to gain or retain people’s approval;
  • I saw the impacts on my husband and children especially; frankly, my over-helping was disempowering. My kids could have developed independence skills earlier; their Dad could have had more of a role in supporting them – which would have been good for them all, and good for me!

2. Notice the behaviour

It’s stating the obvious to say that you have to notice what you’re doing to be able to change it! Once you’ve revealed your still-active conditioning and recognised the impacts, you can then decide if you want to put in the effort to change it.

Without judging or trying to change, simply have an intention to notice the behaviour. You can even ask for support. My husband and kids are great at that. If I ask them to tell me when I’m engaging in behaviours I want to change, they will point it out to me. (It’s important to ask for exactly what kind of support you want – otherwise, it can lead to resentment.)

Then watch yourself.

Notice your experience of doing what you’re doing.

3. Get curious

If you like the experience of doing what you’re doing, ask yourself why? What is it about this that you like?

Is it the approval from others – the thanks, the acknowledgement? Is it your own acknowledgement you like? Perhaps you can hear yourself saying ‘you’re a kind person for doing this,’ ‘you’re a good and valued person,’ ‘this is what good [insert role – mothers/ wives/ daughters/ sisters/ friends] do.’ Perhaps others say ‘You’re always giving to others, you’re amazing,’ ‘You seem to have endless energy,’ ‘we can always rely on you to show up and help.’

If you don’t like the experience, ask yourself why? How does it make you feel? Sad? Tired? Angry? What thoughts go through your mind that trigger that feeling? For me, it would be thoughts like: ‘It’s all up to me,’ ‘I have to do everything around here.’

4. Is it true?

Dig deep and tell yourself the truth. Does acting out your conditioning actually mean the things you tell yourself? Is it really true, for example, that serving others makes me valuable, a good/better person, or a good/better mother, wife etc? No! It really doesn’t.

And does it mean that I actually do have to do it all? The fact that I have done so for years and years doesn’t mean that I should or have to. The truth is more likely to be that those around me have given up, because they haven’t had the chance to participate.

5. Look out for opportunities

This is the fun and hard part! Now that you’re noticing more when you’re acting out your conditioning, look for opportunities to do something different. It helps to have some support: my husband is brilliant with this.

In my case, at large family gatherings or parties, I would typically be up and down like a jack-in-the-box. These were my opportunities to sit. Have you any idea how uncomfortable that was (and still is sometimes)? I could feel the physical urge to get up and clear plates, wash dishes, collect glasses, replenish water jugs…

But I would sit.

My mind would go crazy!

‘They’ll think you’re lazy, a slob, an unhelpful, ungrateful lout!’

‘It’s not fair that you’re sitting when so-and-so is running around like a chicken without a head.’ ‘She’s been working all day and you’re just sitting. It’s wrong!’

I would need to remind myself that I’m intentionally practising doing less; that I’m detaching from my conditioning and that it doesn’t mean anything about me as a person.

I would need to watch others receiving thanks for their help while reminding myself that I no longer want to live my life seeking the approval of others.

And the support of others who know what you’re trying to do is helpful too. Now at social gatherings, if my husband sees me clearing, filling, emptying…. he just needs to look at me without saying anything, for me to take a breath and discern my motivations for the doing. Which doesn’t mean I never help!

6. Where discernment comes in 

The trouble with this kind of conditioning, around doing for others, is that it feeds into a value that I hold very dearly: which is about being of service. It matters to me to be a part of the bigger picture; to have a positive impact in the world.

The question to ask is: what or who am I serving here? Am I serving my ego, or am I truly serving others, from my heart? Is the doing or serving appropriate? Am I doing more than my part? Is it for my and/others’ highest good?

Need help from an expert?

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