31/10/2016 12:46 PM IST | Updated 01/11/2016 8:53 AM IST

Breaking Free Of The Doormat Syndrome: A Note To My 18-Year-Old Self

Dimitri Otis

When my friend and talented artist Dakshina Vaidyanathan visited New York for her dance performance in the fall of 2014, we walked the streets of the city, discussing a side of patriarchy that is not talked about very often: the "doormat syndrome," as she put it. It helped me look at patriarchy from a different perspective—my own.

The world needed Superman... the only context in which I heard people talk about Superwoman was to describe someone who could do multiple household chores at once.

It starts with playing with a toy kitchen set at the age of five, pretending to cook a meal for the family. I don't remember the boys in my neighbourhood pretending to cook with me. I didn't know this then, but I was role playing — taking baby steps towards being the society's definition of a good, cultured girl. By 15 I was fantasizing about a hero who would give my life purpose. In college, I once waited for over an hour on the sidewalk to hand over my class notes to a guy who didn't mind keeping me waiting. And it didn't bother me. If it did, it didn't matter. At 18 I barely had any sense of self in relationships. If a guy thought I was too thin, he was right; if he thought I was too emotional, damn right. I avoided authority figures, and when I did speak to them, it was usually in agreement, whether or not I agreed with them.

A man made tough decisions, was a problem solver, fought the bad guys, saved the day, and I had to support him so he could do his heroic deeds. Gotham needed Batman; the world needed Superman; and the only context in which I heard people talk about Superwoman was to describe someone who could do multiple household chores at once.

And that is what makes the doormat syndrome—where you become comfortable with having a servile mentality—a particularly difficult problem to address. Unlike other forms of patriarchy, nobody has to force you to do anything; it can be self-imposed. It's hard to snap out of, especially when you are cocooned in a society that not only normalizes this behaviour, but also rewards it. It is a mindset that is conditioned from a very young age, from watching family members fit into stereotypes, movies where a woman's role is secondary to the male lead's, and having few role models to look up to. There is no way of knowing something is wrong with your thinking, or that there could be an alternate line of thought.

In her article, "The desperation of Indian housewives in the United States of America", Diksha Madhok wrote of Indian women, "Many are just not conditioned to be ambitious." While her article discusses different reasons why educated women don't work in the United States, I found that sentence to be the most hard-hitting.

The same seeds of patriarchy that are planted in the minds of a young boy and a young girl end up taking two very different forms: domination and servitude; one takes on the role of the protector, and the other, the protected; one is punished for being financially dependent, and the other, excused.

At 27, when I look back at my 18-year-old self, I am looking at a very different person. For instance, low emotional intelligence in men did not bother me then because I excused them for being men. There was a time during my undergraduate studies when I had excellent scores, but wanted to be a housewife (now termed homemaker). This was despite having a mother who pushed me to value my education above everything else.

When someone tells you, 'But women are better at caring. Men will be men,' run the other way and don't look back.

Today, two degrees, a diploma and nearly a decade later, my most valuable life lesson remains discovering what my rights are as a woman. I had to unlearn many things I picked up from society during my teenage years and relearn them. And if there were some things I could tell my younger self to make this process a little easier, if there is something I can tell an 18-year-old girl in any part of the world who may be experiencing something similar, this is what it would be:

"A hero won't save you.

Fight your own battles and save your day.

Travel. Meet women from other cultures. Learn about their struggles, draw from their strength. There is nothing you are 'supposed to do' because you are a woman. There is nothing you cannot do because you are a woman.

Be self-sufficient.

Building a career and doing what you love will play as big a role in living a happy life as personal relationships would.

Be assertive in the workplace. It is more rewarding than being likable.

Watch better movies. Cinderella should have stood up for herself. Belle exhibits Stockholm Syndrome. Snow White should have been street smart and more aware of her surroundings. Kajol's mother in DDLJ was in an oppressive relationship and passed it on to her daughter. Be it Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, or Hollywood, nowhere is safe during the formative years of your life.

The financial burden of having a family doesn't fall on the man alone. And the emotional burden of having one doesn't fall on the woman alone. So, when someone tells you, 'But women are better at caring. Men will be men,' run the other way and don't look back.

Date a man who can cry without inhibition.

Question everything. Why does a woman change her surname after marriage? Why is it more acceptable for a woman to 'find a doctor, engineer, or a rich man' to live a comfortable life, instead of building that life for herself?

And finally, when you break free of self-imposed restrictions, watch yourself grow into the hero you have been waiting for."

This post was first published here.

Photo gallery Memento Mori by Pablo Bartholomew See Gallery