‘Beta, you can do whatever you want to do. As long as you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer.’
A mantra in brown families, the extensive variations of this phrase perfectly capture the pressure placed upon their children. Thankfully, I managed to escape the STEM route that my brain was incompatible with, but the work ethic championed by my ancestors was not so easy to shake.
When you are one of the youngest in a family of maths geniuses, medical saviours and academic superstars, you are inevitably indoctrinated with the need to do better. To work harder, to achieve more. Whilst this has traditionally been verbalised – ‘Did you know Preeti got all A*s in her exams?’/‘Zara has got a promotion at her law firm’/‘Your aunt’s cousin’s best friend’s sister now runs a multi-million pound corporation’ – nowadays, we willingly place ourselves in competition with our peers with little external prompting. My parents never actually told me how well other people were doing academically, but I was always aware of it. I understood the history of success and achievement that existed within my community and worked hard to contribute to it. But in doing so, I was beginning to define my own accomplishments based upon the triumphs of others. I was placing more pressure upon myself, my strengths clouded by my weaknesses. I couldn’t enjoy what I accomplished because I knew that somebody had already done it earlier or better. But no matter how many hours I worked, sleepless nights I endured, and social events I skipped, I still felt like I was 5 steps behind.
It is impossible to keep this up forever. You cannot continue lighting a candle within you, letting it burn out, and then relighting yourself just to burn out again. Eventually, there will be nothing left. However, the pressure that motivates your work ethic remains constant. You hope that all of the efforts you are putting in will help you clear the next hurdle, but the hurdles keep coming. It is a vicious cycle and one that doesn’t show any indication of letting up anytime soon.
This manifestation of guilt for not working hard enough or hitting important milestones does not solely stem from our immediate community. It is exacerbated by social media, where we can witness the victories of millions of people we have no connection to. It ultimately provides us with more opportunities to compare ourselves with others whose lives, successes and failures have no bearing upon our own. It emboldens the cruel voice inside us that reminds us that we are not enough, and is quick to dismiss our talent. As women, we face added layers of scrutiny in a world so poised against us and generally underplay our strengths, to begin with. We have been conditioned to undervalue ourselves, whether it be in comparison with other women, men, or societal standards as a whole.
In this era of connectivity, we owe it to ourselves and those closest to us to be kinder to each other. Whether vocalised or not, the burdens we shoulder within the brown community – and indeed, beyond – do nothing but weigh us down physically and emotionally. We have to accept that all pathways to success present their own challenges, and we cannot expect to consistently clear each hurdle that pops up along the way. But speaking to ourselves in a kinder voice may ensure we stay alight for a little longer.