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- How Neeta Bhushan Outran The Ghosts Of Her Past To Become A Best-Selling Author And Motivational Speaker
How Neeta Bhushan Outran The Ghosts Of Her Past To Become A Best-Selling Author And Motivational Speaker
Motivational social media accounts have emerged as an unexpected champion of emotional and mental health, providing a much-needed shot of positivity to those seeking to manage stress, grief and anxiety. Best-selling author, speaker and serial social entrepreneur Neeta Bhushan leads Verve down a path of self-introspection
The line from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) has instant recall among Indians anywhere in the world. That golden lehnga. The train. The self-sacrificing hero who explains to the (far more sensible) heroine that it would be wrong to go against their parents’ wishes, even as she berates him for not running away with her. The conservative NRI father who finally sees the error in his ways and gives his daughter the permission to live her life on her terms.
Permission. We first seek it from, say, our parents or teachers and then, perhaps, society. It is so ingrained that once we ‘adult’, we often forget that the permissions that truly matter are the ones we give — or deny — ourselves.
I was always free. To choose what I wanted to study, at which college, and when. To choose who I wanted to marry, and when. To choose whether to have children or not.
But I remember a time in my early twenties when I felt stifled; it was soon after I had started using Facebook. Initially, the platform offered me all the validation I had needed. I felt empowered. I was hooked. But after a while, I could sense a growing disillusionment and a discomfort. I felt a compulsion to be liked, to be witty, to exude #GoodVibesOnly. To accept a ‘friend request’ lest it resulted in unwanted confrontations and bad blood in real life. An unhealthy preoccupation with the hyperreal popularity contest that is social media also meant that I had become a real impediment to my own sense of well-being and productivity. It ultimately led me to deactivate my account back in 2012. Through the better part of a decade, I would realise that although this little step made life infinitely easier to navigate — no more tiptoeing — I had only just embarked on the journey towards the next level of my evolution.
A few months after quitting Facebook, I moved over to Instagram and Twitter, where I now proactively keep my feeds positive by freely following a slew of health, fitness, and motivational accounts that I resonate with. As a result, I wake up to daily posts and pointers by self-help gurus, who help me to refocus and readjust my expectations of myself and start my day with a strong dose of reality and #MorningMotivation. It all started when I chanced upon a video by cosmetic-dentist-turned-global-strategist Neeta Bhushan on IGTV. But I like to think of it as fate.
Bhushan is punctual, as most entrepreneurs are, even though she has graciously picked a time convenient for me, which essentially meant agreeing to be grilled over a video call at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. her time in LA. The 37-year-old grew up approximately 2,000 miles away, in Chicago, to Filipino-Indian parents, both of whom she lost by the time she turned 19. “My life has been shaped by a combination of the grit I was born into and my life experiences. My parents were immigrants — I had a traditional desi Delhi-Punjabi father — and they just wanted a better life for us, the American Dream. I became a child caretaker to my two younger brothers at age 10 when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She would pass when I was 16, after a six-year battle with the disease and so, I grew up in and out of hospitals,” says Bhushan. Exactly a year later, they would have another tragedy in the family. “Losing the older of my brothers was fully shocking, and it sent my father into depression. At this juncture, all I knew was that happiness is for other people, it’s the very desi mentality of putting your family first. And then two years after that, when we were finally getting our lives back on track, my father had a massive allergic reaction. The X-rays revealed a big tumour in his lungs. It was lung cancer, stage four, and he had eight months to live. At that moment, I was like, ‘Are you kidding, universe?’ All the anxiety and pent-up anger came back. I had to decide, ‘Is this going to make me or break me?’”
As she takes a deep breath, I silently curse myself for putting her through the ordeal of recounting her trauma, but Bhushan is polite and forthcoming, a consummate professional. “By 19, I had this supercharged drive to prove my worth in society, to prove that my brother and I could get out of this dark tunnel. The next few years were achievement-oriented and all about climbing up the ladder. Throughout my teens and twenties, my focus had been on family and getting straight As and different opportunities work-wise. I was studying to become a dentist because all ‘good’ desi girls become doctors, dentists, lawyers…something with a professional tinge to it. The one thing I kept ignoring was focusing on myself, and this showed up in my relationships.” Her abusive relationship with her ex-husband served as the wake-up call. And ending it would be the turning point that would lead her to reassess her goals, start afresh, and ultimately retire from her dentistry practice and life as she knew it. “I was spiritually broken, emotionally drained and mentally exhausted; I did not know who I was at all, and my life was being threatened. I decided that I needed to get out. It was December 31, 2011. On the outside, I had achieved everything — first-class travel, five-storey home, fancy car…you might as well have put me in South Delhi [laughs].”
Her self-deprecating humour defuses the tension expertly. I find out that she developed her emotional intelligence early on, as a response to her circumstances. “I was always fascinated with human behaviour as a child because, by the time I was 10, my mom was in the hospital. By 15, she was dying. Figuring out how to help change her mood while she was going through her experience was vital to me. One of the first jobs I ever had was working as an assistant at a dentist’s while my mother was unwell. I noticed that most patients who were coming in were much older, and they were so fearful. And that was the first moment I knew I could use my personality to make things lighter for people if I could really understand their psychology.”
In her early thirties, the overachiever had founded the Chicago-based Independent Awakening, a nonprofit dedicated to helping move the needle on self-confidence and self-love in women of colour, primarily desi and Asians. “Soon after, I was being asked to speak on behalf of myself [and not the nonprofit]. You have to have the strength and audacity as a person or leader to say no to the things you can’t fully commit to, and I put the nonprofit down to really focus on this next chapter. My first steps into these uncharted waters would lead me to the start-up world. Making mistakes at that moment in my life was liberating. As a medical professional, I hadn’t known what it was like to fail because I couldn’t. And thanks to my upbringing, I thought perfection was everything. At that point, I believed that my biggest failure was an unsuccessful marriage when, in fact, it was my greatest blessing and discovery. I became an angel investor for female-led ventures, and this eventually led to my becoming a mentor. Because when you are in your early thirties and single, you go into this overdrive!” she quips.
Her words hit home. We must be resilient enough to take the calls that enable us to become the best version of ourselves. But it’s far from easy. I made one such decision recently when I moved back to Kolkata — more specifically, my hometown — after living away for nearly a decade. The first time I left the city, it had been in a tearing hurry — the day after my undergrad exams at Jadavpur University, so excited was I to spread my wings and see my now-husband, then-boyfriend-of-three-years, who was working in Delhi at the time. I would come back for two short years and leave again for nine. By the time I finally returned this year, many had left. The city seems distant. Like a hallucination, distorted. Like it can’t place me. I am here, but it seems far away. Or perhaps I am the one who changed, who is unreachable, inaccessible.
Thankfully, Bhushan can relate. “We all have the same kinds of experiences, the same 24 hours, things that drive or motivate us — we are all mirror images of each other, and we are all trying to figure it out. Even the most successful people don’t have an answer. Everyone wants to know how I can inspire them to get them out of their heads. Now, on social media, people often want to share only their highlight reels, but it only really came together for me when I decided to own my story and honour all of my pain along with my successes. And when I was willing to unapologetically do so, subject to all sorts of judgements and criticisms. When I started telling my story, other stories came my way too, just like yours. It permits others to say, ‘I am struggling with that too’. And this is completely contrary to what we read, how we are bred. Then I began this research project all around the world, for which I interviewed close to 500 people — from founders to single moms to shamans to scientists — to figure out what makes them thrive, and what their view of actual success is. Turns out that it’s about having the willpower, focus and grit when times are tough, it’s about authenticity and courage, being able to adapt — and, most importantly, about having the ability to bounce back from any sort of adversity and actively build up that resilience to get up faster the next time around. That was the through line in all my conversations.”
We all have our demons. We are human after all, as Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo so eloquently put it. And we are continually evolving, as are our priorities. Still, we ignore the signs, the need to take stock of our own lives. And, in the process, we forget that, first and foremost, we are responsible for our happiness. We are so busy pleasing others that we often don’t treat ourselves with the empathy we reserve for everyone else. Do we permit ourselves boundaries with, say, our siblings or our in-laws or is that too much of a transgression? Do we permit ourselves the space to move out of our parents’ houses while living in the same city? Do we permit ourselves the freedom to make mistakes and run our homes or lives the way we want to, without giving in to pressures from whoever we are sharing our physical space with? Think of it this way: we need to be able to say no in order to safeguard the things we want to say yes to. “When we seek permission from ourselves, it’s about letting go of self-judgement and the fear that you will be judged by others. The awareness I’m talking about goes deep: ‘This person I’m speaking to does not really light me up, do I need to be around them?’ ‘I have to say no to this, even though someone might get disappointed or upset’. That’s checking in with yourself. These are small steps, but they will eventually keep adding up till you feel protected, till you’re like, ‘I don’t give a fuck’. With the desi diaspora, I often get, ‘Oh, someone will get really hurt’. But that’s programming, and there’s a tactful way to ensure that it doesn’t happen. There is a lot that can get triggered and locked up if we keep our emotions inside, and cultures that teach us to suppress feelings or not cry don’t consider how we are doing.”
Bhushan has an almost-toddler now, and there are times when she is exhausted and frustrated. “I always had mantras and affirmations that are very easy to include in my daily routine. It’s all about that word that will get you back to who you are. Unless you’re going through a bout of depression, you can train your mind just with positive affirmations. It also helps to create what I call an ‘emotional grit kit’ so that when you’re feeling fucky, you can pull yourself out.”
I reread the line: ‘Jaa, Simran…jaa jee le apni zindagi!’
This time, it’s quoted as a reply to one of Bhushan’s recent Insta posts, where she asks, ‘What advice would you give to your younger self?’ When you consider her growing-up years, you realise that the question is a loaded one. Bhushan did not have the option or luxury to give herself this kind of permission. But here she is, the happiest, shiniest and most nourishing person I have met in a very long time.
Each of us needs to remember that we are in it for the long haul. So, look alive. You got this.
In her book, Emotional Grit: 8 Steps To Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Thoughts, And Change Your World, the self-proclaimed “recovering perfectionist” talks about ‘grit’ being an acronym for Grow, Reveal, Innovate and Transform.
“G is for Grow, and the first step is having that awareness. ‘Hey, my emotions are not in check’ or ‘I’m suppressing this with drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, not eating, sex, etc’. These are coping mechanisms. The main thing is that when you’re ready, you have to have that element of growth.
R stands for Reveal. The next page in your life is revealed when you’re ready to accept whatever situation you’re in without judging it and you don’t want to be a victim anymore. Because now you’re ready to work towards it.
I is for Innovate — taking a stance and committing to making a change. You are now able to forgive. You can pivot. You can leave your current career path, for example, and start anew.
Finally, T is for Transformation; it only occurs when you take action on what has not been working or what you no longer want to be doing.”