Slow down. We live in a culture that values the hustle and grind. Living under supremacy’s systems of oppression, that’s built by design. When we’re too stressed and busy, we’re too exhausted to see what’s happening within and around us. Stress and busyness keep us in a burnt-out, numbed-out, disempowered state. It leads to us operating on autopilot and doing whatever is the norm or the status quo rather than challenging it. When we slow down, we have an opportunity to become aware of our internal and external experiences, which gives us the power of choice.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shirani M. Pathak.
Shirani M. Pathak is an author, speaker, relationship therapist, consultant, and healer with one mission: To help us heal from the pain and trauma of supremacy culture so that we can live in a world based on love, not fear. She works with impact-driven women of color in leadership at the intersection of science, psychology, and spirituality to help them experience amazing personal and professional relationships by healing from the perfectionism, imposter syndrome, judgement, criticism, and the “not enoughs” that we’ve been programmed to believe living under supremacy culture’s systems of oppression. Shirani shares her knowledge in a book series and weekly podcast titled: “Fierce Authenticity.”
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Thank you so much for inviting me, it’s a pleasure to be here. I’m Shirani M. Pathak and I’m an author, speaker, relationship therapist, consultant, and healer. I work primarily with women of color at senior-level and C-suite positions in Silicon Valley. I help these powerful, high-achieving, impact-driven women grow personally and professionally by healing the trauma they’ve experienced living under supremacy culture’s systems of oppression so that they can live the fullest, most authentic expressions of themselves. I believe that when we do our personal healing and reconnect with who we authentically are underneath all of the stories we’ve been told about who we are, it ripples out into the world and allows others to be their authentic selves as well. As more of us do so, we change the legacy of humanity.
On a personal note, I’m a fifth-generation Indo-Fijian woman who immigrated to the US at the age of 3 with my parents following significant social and political unrest in the Fiji Islands in the 1980s due to a military coup d’état. I grew up in a typical immigrant household where both of my parents worked two jobs to help make ends meet and my grandmother did most of the primary caregiving. My parents highly valued education and I was the high achieving, straight As, 5th in my class with above a 4.0 GPA student. I participated in extra-curriculars, was part of the government and political sciences programs, the Indian club, and youth programs at the local temple.
I never said to myself, “When I grow up, I want to be a therapist,” but here I am; purely placed on this path by Divine Intervention. As it so happens, when I graduated from college, the economy was booming, and all the jobs that interested me were Master’s required or Master’s preferred. I had no intention of going to grad school, but as I was in the midst of my job search, one day, I received an email announcing, “NYU has extended their social work deadline!” I took that as a sign and submitted my application. I applied to one school, and I got accepted into that one school…within the same 24-hours that I also received the offer letter for the job I had most wanted at the time.
Since the value of education had been engrained into my brain, I chose grad school at NYU.
I had no idea at the time that the NYU School of Social work was a highly clinical program. I hated it actually, but I loved my internship placements. Now, here I am 15 years later, and I can see exactly how that put me directly on the path I’m on today.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It was September 2020, and I was on one of the final days of launching a new service offering, a group coaching program supporting women in liberating themselves from the effects of the conditioning that prevented them from living as their most fiercely authentic selves.
I had done all the things that online business coaches teach you to do: the Facebook ads, the funnels, the incessant daily emails “warming up” my audience for this new offer, the free webinar, followed by another barrage of daily emails selling them on my offer, and not a single person signed up for the service despite all my efforts.
I literally sat there on that bright beautiful sunny September day listening to the birds outside chirping sweet songs, squirrels playfully chasing one another up the trees in our backyard, and all I felt was anger and humiliation.
I was in the midst of my morning prayer and meditation practices and I recall looking up and yelling at my Higher Power, “Why God, why did this happen to me? I did all the things and nothing… why?”
In response, I heard:
“Because you’ve been doing it the colonizer’s way.”
Immediately, in my mind’s eye, I saw a long line of my ancestors who had been subjected to indentured servitude and a whole host of other systemic, institutional, personal, and interpersonal oppression, and it dawned upon me that every action I’d taken during that launch, and for most of my business, was based on inherited encoding about how to respond to and survive the trauma of supremacy culture. At the time, I was wholly operating under survival defenses, triggered by stress and fear, rather than in alignment with a Divine Source of inspiration and guidance.
That’s when I realized that even though I had been participating in training on epigenetics, intergenerational trauma, neurobiology, and healing from the effects of internalized supremacy culture’s conditioning, I had fallen right into supremacy’s trap.
That experience threw me into a dark night of the soul and led to a complete mental, emotional, and spiritual reorganization of how I was doing my business and my life. It helped me realize just how sneaky supremacy’s programming is; that as a woman actively engaging in practices to heal the internalized conditioning, I still fell into the old programming.
More importantly than that, however, was the lesson about exactly how sneaky, cunning, baffling, and powerful supremacy’s insidious nature truly is and how we can fall into it at any given moment. That’s when the importance and necessity of my work in the world became even more apparent to me.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’m a rebel and deviate from everything that both the psychotherapy industry and the world at large tell me I need to be as a therapist. While everyone is looking at X, I’m looking at Y. While others are focused on treating symptoms, I’m focused on addressing the root cause.
The same is true of my work as an author, speaker, and consultant. While everyone is focusing on the trauma we’ve experienced for the past 500–600 years starting with European colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I’m over here saying, “Yeah, that’s important, and it’s still not the root cause of why we experience the injustices, inequities, pain, suffering, and trauma we see in our world today. That’s merely another symptom of a much older problem.”
My superpower is seeing patterns in relationships and how the microcosm is impacted by the macrocosm and vice versa. As a clinician trained in social work, I can’t help it. My brain thinks in systems. Therefore, in my work, I zoom out and look at the bigger picture of where this originally began.
What I can tell you is that it didn’t begin in the 1400 or 1500s. It began over 5,500 years ago during the ancient Sumerian civilization when the first group of people invaded, conquered, and subsequently oppressed another group of people by exerting false power, dominance, and control over them. The trauma of this original oppression was never addressed and it continues to live in our brains, our bodies, our nervous systems, and our DNA. Scientific research on epigenetics shows us how trauma lives in our bodies, alters our genetic expression, and is passed down through the generations as trauma adaptations. Neurobiology further demonstrates how trauma resides in our bodies and nervous systems, impacting our neuroanatomy.
This is why it’s imperative for us to address the unaddressed trauma of over 5,500 years of supremacy culture if we’re to grow our resiliency and create a world where we don’t continue to perpetuate these oppressive patterns personally and interpersonally creating further adversity. Our macro-level systems and institutions will change when our micro-level interpersonal relationships change. If we’re going to heal from adversity, we’re going to need to understand what causes it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Honestly, there have been so many mentors and supportive people I’ve had at every stage along the way, that it’s hard for me to name just one person. The main characteristic they all shared is that each of them could see in me what I couldn’t yet see in myself.
One person who stands out is my very first post-master’s clinical supervisor, Erin Sewell at Lifeworks NW. When I began my position with Lifeworks NW, I was assigned to work with some of the most traumatized children in the system; children who had experienced all levels of mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. I recall telling Erin that if this is what my entire caseload is going to look like, I can’t do it and I quit. She reassured me that my caseload would diversify, it’s just that these children had been waiting for some time for a bilingual Spanish-speaking clinician to join the team. That was the start of a long-standing relationship with a person who I consider to be one of my first mentors, one of the first people to see in me what I could not yet see in myself.
That’s the power of mentorship and having supportive relationships in our lives. It’s also part of what helps us grow our resiliency. Without the love, encouragement, and unwavering belief my mentors had in me, I wouldn’t be here where I am today. Without them, I would likely still be hiding out in fear as a little Brown immigrant girl who was too afraid to speak up about who I am and what I see. I am grateful to every single one of my mentors at every step of the way.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I used to believe in several different definitions of resilience, primarily that it’s the ability to keep going and excel during turbulent times, until I started to learn more about epigenetics, intergenerational trauma, and neurobiology. Today, I define resilience as the ability of our nervous system to move along the continuum of fight-flight or freeze and return to homeostasis following a stressful or triggering event. Homeostasis is the rest-and-digest space of health and safety, right in the center of the continuum. It’s where our breathing, heart rate, and other organs are returned to their stable state of functioning.
It’s important to note that the “triggering event” doesn’t have to be something majorly traumatic such as physical violence or abuse. It can be as simple as someone suddenly cutting you off on the freeway as you drive home from work, your boss calling you into the office to speak with you about your latest performance review, or seeing the name of the hospital pop up on your caller ID when your loved one is under their care.
Each of these events activates your nervous system to brace for what might be needed in order to help you survive the stressful experience. It releases a flood of hormones, can get your heart rate pumping and your breathing quickening. Or it can signal your body to freeze, going into a type of “playing dead” mode in a similar way that mice do when they’re confronted by cats. This survival defense is the sudden shock and shut down that happens after the shock. Another example of this is when you receive the news of a loved one’s sudden passing. The shock can be so great that it puts you in a numbed-out- disassociated state.
Our resiliency is based on both, how quickly stressful events move us out of our center of homeostasis and how much time it takes to return to the center following a stressful event. A major component of resilience is that we need to be able to move back towards the center. When we don’t, we get stuck on either side of the fight-flight or freeze continuum and that contributes to our lack of resiliency.
Based on that, what are the characteristics of resilient people?
Resilient people have befriended their nervous system. They understand how their nervous systems work and possess a deep awareness of how certain events can pull them out of the center and what that feels like in their bodies. Resilient people learn to discern when they’re shifting out of homeostasis, and, in which direction they’re headed: fight-flight hyperarousal or freeze hypo arousal. They also understand how to regulate themselves in either direction: either activating when needing to act or downregulating when no action is necessary.
All of the above requires an individual to take the time to engage in practices supporting them in learning their internal experiences. These practices include mindfulness, meditation, an awareness of their bodies and their breath, and how each respond under certain circumstances. Most importantly, however, is the ability to pause and breathe. Without the pause, the brain can get hijacked into old survival patterns, and the pre-frontal cortex where our higher reasoning and problem solving resides can go offline. The simple pause and big deep belly breath allow for an interruption of your reptilian brain’s survival hijack so that your mammalian brain stays active and engaged. By keeping your higher reasoning brain centers engaged, you have an opportunity to respond appropriately, rather than reacting, and you’re less likely to get stuck on either end of the fight-flight or freeze continuum.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
I had a mentor once tell me that Fear + Excitement = Courage. When we put that into the context of neurobiology, both fear and excitement can trigger the same responses in the body. The brain can’t tell the difference between the activation from fear or the activation from excitement. It’s all the same to your nervous system.
The difference is when we get our higher reasoning brain centers, which live in the neocortex, involved. This is what makes the previous techniques powerful and important. When your neocortex is online, you can discern the difference between fear and excitement, and take action accordingly.
It’s important to also consider that you might engage in a courageous act, but what happens when it’s over? Do you celebrate, which signals cues of safety to your nervous system? Or do you go into shame and despair, which gives your nervous system cues of danger and instructs you to stay stuck on the far edges of the fight-flight or freeze continuum?
Courage (fear + excitement), and resilience work together in order to support you in being able to experience the celebrations and joy of your courageous acts, which further grows your resilience.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
When I think of resilience, my mom comes to mind. She lived through poverty and oppression in a post-colonial Fiji, had me at the age of 22, moved to a completely foreign country at the age of 25, worked two jobs when she arrived, put herself through trade school, advanced to get a degree in registered nursing, all while staying engaged with the people she loves. She might not be an expert in how to regulate her nervous system, but she works towards it every day, and she’s given us a better life than she was able to have. All of that takes courage and resilience.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
Early in my private psychotherapy practice career, I had several marketing professionals and a spiritual teacher tell me that I can’t market therapy and spirituality together. Being the defiant rebel that I am, I thought, “F*you all, watch me!” And I did!
In fact, people craved the inclusion of spirituality in the psychotherapy space. For far too long in the therapy world (and the world in general) we’ve abandoned the spiritual aspect of psychotherapy. When we do so, we’re leaving out a large part of the human experience. At their core, psychotherapy and spirituality are one and the same. Both are a means to support us in remembering the truth of who we are and reconnecting with our wholeness as individuals.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Absolutely! The story I shared from September 2020 was the greatest setback of my life and career. Yet, as I allowed myself to stay present with my process, fully embracing my dark night of the soul, it ended up becoming my greatest gift.
I grew in my ability to further befriend my nervous system. The experience required me to slow down. It required me to rest, to get quiet, to learn more deeply the cues my body was sharing with me.
In December 2020, I decided that in 2021 I would take every decision and filter it through the wisdom of my body and my nervous system. As I’ve done so, I’ve experienced my most abundant year to date. An abundance of time, energy, and knowing exactly what do to and when to do it, has led to not only writing my second book, but also to contracts and opportunities I’ve been dreaming of for years. The byproduct, of course, is that this is my most financially abundant year as well. Win-win all around.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Growing up as a Brown immigrant girl in the US was incredibly challenging. Moving here at the age of 3 and arriving in a strange land where I didn’t know the language or the culture, led me to experience a significant amount of confusion, which only worsened when both of my parents had to work two jobs each in order to make ends meet. The kids were mean, I got picked on a lot, and I developed stories about myself that if I only worked hard enough, achieved enough, and was enough of what others wanted me to be, then I’d be liked.
These false narratives I developed led to a significant amount of hustle, grind, and burnout in my life.
I thought I was highly resilient in navigating these experiences. To some degree, I was, based on definitions of resilience we’re taught in the mainstream: the ability to excel in the midst of great challenge.
Turns out that though I appeared resilient from the outside, my nervous system was far from it.
I spent most of my life on the outer edges of the fight-flight-freeze continuum. If I wasn’t hyper-aroused, anxious, and stressed out, then I was hypo aroused and stuck in the state of freeze, and getting things done was a challenge. My system either operated from the fear that led to hyperarousal, or the fear that led to paralysis. It’s no wonder I often felt burnt out!
In my late 20s, I started a regular meditation practice, which evolved into a deeply personal spiritual practice, and slowly I started to grow in my resilience. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago when I began studying more in-depth about the nervous system and neurobiology that I was able to experience true resilience in the way that my brain and my body respond to stressful experiences and events.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’m so glad you asked because resilience absolutely can be strengthened! The scientific term for it is improving vagal tone. We can tone the part of the nervous system that supports us in moving in and out of homeostasis in the face of possible stress, threat, or danger.
First, I’ll share the steps, then I’ll share a story that encompasses all of the steps in action. You’ll understand why when you hear it.
Here are five steps to build resilience:
1. Slow down. We live in a culture that values the hustle and grind. Living under supremacy’s systems of oppression, that’s built by design. When we’re too stressed and busy, we’re too exhausted to see what’s happening within and around us. Stress and busyness keep us in a burnt-out, numbed-out, disempowered state. It leads to us operating on autopilot and doing whatever is the norm or the status quo rather than challenging it. When we slow down, we have an opportunity to become aware of our internal and external experiences, which gives us the power of choice.
2. Pause. As we learn to slow down, we develop the awareness of when we’re starting to move outside of our center of homeostasis and regulation in our nervous system. This interrupts the part of our brain that can hijack us into a fight, flight, or freeze response as a way to cope with what’s happening. It’s the difference between a disempowered knee-jerk reaction and a conscious empowered response.
3. Breathe. Your breath allows the part of your brain responsible for higher reasoning, decision-making, and social engagement to stay online when your survival brain gets activated by a real or perceived stress-related threat. Keeping this part of your brain active and engaged allows you to accurately evaluate what’s transpiring and evaluate if what’s happening in or around you is an actual threat or not.
4. Notice. By slowing down, pausing, breathing, and keeping your higher reasoning brain active and engaged, you give yourself the opportunity to discern what’s happening in your body. Your body carries significant wisdom and when you learn to notice what information your body is giving you, you have the power of choice: the choice in how you respond to the situation. At this point, however, you’re not trying to change anything. You’re simply observing.
5. Regulate. Once you’ve been able to discern what’s happening in your body and what messages your nervous system is giving you, then you can regulate. If you’ve moved out of your center, you can engage in practices to calm and soothe your nervous system back to a state of safety and calm. As you do so, you stay connected with your entire brain and body, which allows you to take the most appropriate action that will cause the least amount of harm. If you end up making a choice that’s harmful or hurtful to yourself or others, no problem. With a regulated nervous system, you can see it, engage in steps 1–4 again, and easily course correct.
It may seem like the above steps are long and complicated, but you can move through all five steps in a matter of seconds. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you just walked into the house from a long, busy day at work, and you see that the kids haven’t taken care of their afterschool snack dishes. The dishes are piled up in the sink and the kitchen is a mess. You’ve told your kids numerous times that they need to handle it before you get home so that upon your arrival you have a clean kitchen to prepare dinner in.
Neuroscience tells us you have 1/8 to 1/12 of a second before your brain is triggered into a stress response. If you’ve learned to slow down enough (step 1) to know that walking into a messy kitchen piled up with dishes after work is a stress-inducing trigger for you, then when you walk into the kitchen and see the mess, you have the ability to pause (step 2) and breathe (step 3) allowing you to notice (step 4) what’s really going on for you. Neuroscience additionally tells us it takes 2–3 seconds for the brain to register that there isn’t a real threat present and to disarm a stress response. Steps 1–4 give you the 2–3 seconds for your brain and body to register that your children leaving dishes in the sink, yet again, is not an actual threat.
From there, you can regulate (step 5) your nervous system through a few additional big deep breaths, and choose:
Do you want to ruin yours and the kids’ night by yelling at them?
Or, do you want to be able to have a calm, level-headed conversation with them about how when they leave dishes in the sink it leads you to feel they don’t care about you, and how much it means to you when they can help you by honoring your request to handle afterschool snack dishes and kitchen messes?
The first option further alienates you and your children and perpetuates cycles of isolation, trauma, and lack of interpersonal skills. The second option fosters care, connection, vulnerability, and emotional intimacy, which are four additional factors in strengthening resilience and healing the trauma from systems of supremacy.
You get to choose. Which would you prefer?
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m on a mission to help us heal from the interpersonal trauma we’ve experienced from over 5,500 years of supremacy culture’s conditioning on our brain, body, and behavior, so that we can create the world we want to see, a world based on love, not fear.
By illuminating the origin of the pain and suffering that we’re collectively dealing with as humans and how it shows up in our interpersonal relationships as a result of the internalized systems of oppression, we can change the course of civilization and create a new legacy. That’s what I’m here for and I hope everyone who reads this will join me.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Brené Brown is one of my personal sheroes. Her work on shame, vulnerability, and human connection has not only been impactful to me in my personal healing journey, it’s also one of the main bodies of research that forms the foundation of my own work in the world. I also admire her courage and resilience as I’ve watched how she’s advanced in her career. I’d love an opportunity to connect with her personally!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best place readers can find me online is through my podcast, Fierce Authenticity. Weekly I share the latest tips on what impacts us and our resilience, and how to support ourselves, our nervous systems, and our relationships as we heal through it. To connect with me more intimately and hear about the release of my upcoming book focused on what we’ve discussed here, I invite readers to join my newsletter community.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!