Mental Health · non-fiction

Reverse Cinderella: Holding Back

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, so I wanted to deviate from the usual content on here and post something a little more personal. Feel free to let me know about things you deal with and how you manage them. I’m all ears.


Have you ever had that feeling that you’re just like Cinderella?

And no, I don’t mean like a Princess.

Let me start this again…

Have you ever felt some external force threatening to make you stay home doing chores that you simply couldn’t care less about, while others get to enjoy that slice of cake you really, really wanted to eat?

In the classic tale, Cinderella is taunted by her ‘evil’ Stepsisters and left to finish the chores at home while they go to the ball with the intention of meeting the handsome Prince and seeing if the glass slipper fits.

But imagine that, despite Cinderella wanting to go to that ball, she didn’t. Imagine that she instead resigned herself completely to doing those chores and never actually built up the confidence to go off in her pumpkin-turned-carriage. Imagine that she did this because somewhere, deep down, she believed that she was unworthy of happiness. Even when it wasn’t clear this was what she was doing.

Over time, and through a lot of introspection, I’ve come to rather a stark realisation. There are a series of small things that I do every day which I feel place me in a submissive position. Now, I’d like to make one thing clear; I don’t think being submissive is, by itself, a negative personality trait. Plenty of people are consciously submissive as part of their lifestyle—I absolutely understand that, and I see how leaning into it can be a gratifying experience, even therapeutic. But the question I find myself asking is whether it’s actually the perception of submission which has been the source of my personal grief over the years?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to please people, unwittingly craving their approval over and above my own feelings and opinions. I now actively acknowledge this tendency, and take steps to recognise it when it does happen. It’s not necessarily easy to break lifetime habits, and while I accept that they won’t disappear overnight, I can learn new techniques, become a more effective communicator, and embrace those feelings I have been struggling with for so many years.

There’s one specific example that I often go back to when thinking about this whole ‘Reverse Cinderella’ concept, and that’s during my first trip to Japan in 2013. I travelled there alone after having saved up for a long time. It was no understatement to say it was a much anticipated trip. It was wondrous and I had an amazing time. But there were several points during those six months where I knew I was throwing myself under the bus, psychologically speaking. Yes, I was travelling around the country to unknown places with unknown people. There was bound to be some level of anxiety attached to that. For around two weeks, I was staying at a sustainable living place in Kyoto. It was a place where you could really feel close to nature and its lack of modern fixtures was precisely what gave it character. It was keeping the local tradition alive. A group of students who were visiting and other volunteers had all finished preparing food and baking together in the kitchen. Afterwards, I was asked if I wanted to go with them for a walk outside. I declined, instead opting to stay behind and wash dishes.

Why? Because I thought that offering to help was the polite thing to do,

But then, as I was washing the dishes, something inside me deeply resented the fact that I hadn’t gone along with them. Something was nagging me, telling me I should have gone with them—that was my intuition talking. Still, I had chosen to ignore that feeling and stay behind and help. Now this is where the conflict happens. In that case, it wasn’t about the activity of going for a walk with a group of people I barely knew that was the issue. It was that even though I actually wanted to do it, I opted for the banal activity of washing up. Yes, it was an offer that could help the hosts, but ultimately I had retracted from what I really wanted in favour of doing what I felt was a bigger concern.

I’d like to also mention that at several points throughout my stay in Kyoto, I significantly held back from displaying my true feelings. I believed that if I did, I would cause offence, that I would breach some deep-seated cultural expectations of Kyoto’s (mainly elderly) countryside folk. And yet, by not sharing these things with the hosts and the others, it created an invisible rift between us. At one point, I remember struggling with a strong feeling of paranoia. I was overcome with the feeling that I must seem like a really strange outsider to the locals, who were likely not used to having non-Japanese guests pass through. It felt as though I was being scrutinised by them. In Japanese, no less (trust me, the local dialect was simply too strong for me to comprehend). And perhaps I was, in fact, being scrutinised by them. In any case, realistically they were probably just curious and genuinely interested to know why I was there. But my reaction towards the situation was unhelpful, for me and the hosts alike.

I will say this now. I do like spending time alone. I enjoy solitude when done for reasons that are conducive to my mental well-being and creativity, and when I just want to get shit done. Still, I accept that there are times when I choose to be alone even though I don’t necessarily want to be. It’s just one way of putting up a wall between myself and the rest of the world. Effectively, this means I am deliberately isolating. I have lost count of the times at school when I’d hole up in my room, never skipping class though—I was too obedient for that—but it was always at times when I could be engaging in a recreational activity outside the comfort of my room. It wasn’t that I felt any particular pressure either way. I simply didn’t.

There’s a difference between being alone for the sake of personal enjoyment and rest, and actively shunning social interaction with others. But what I have come to realise is that, in both cases, there is always a choice.

Learn to recognise these lulls, when you might be falling into a self-isolating state (and not because of COVID-19). After all, you can still be sociable or participate in activities or conversations with friends and family remotely. It’s all about creating those connections when you feel the pull, and not letting the weight of the world pile onto you.

Small steps. That’s all it ever takes. Just some kind of action.

I know we can all manage our minds more effectively. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows. But if we roll with the punches and accept that struggling against the tide is futile, we can become better friends with ourselves.

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