Self, Growth, and Pain: A Conversation with Najwa Zebian
Since publishing her first collection of poetry and prose in 2016, Najwa Zebian has inspired millions worldwide. Bravely sharing her experiences of displacement, discrimination, and abuse, Najwa is known for her best-selling poetry and stirring, widely-viewed speaking engagements. She became a trailblazing voice for women everywhere as a face of the #MeToo movement.
1440: How do you define the notion of self?
Najwa Zebian: Anytime I talk about the notion of self, I use the word soul. To me, your soul is your truest you. It’s the most real you. It’s the you that is afraid of talking about certain things. It’s the you that feels deep pain that you don’t always talk about.
It’s completely independent of anything around you, any kind of external factors, any people, any environment or circumstance.
It’s the you when you are completely alone with yourself and your thoughts.
1440: How does that compare to the understanding of self you grew up with?
Najwa Zebian: Growing up, my definition of who I was wasn’t just about me, it was about the community, the family, the reputation. It was about all these rules that I should’ve known and should’ve followed.
It’s like we’re taught (or I was) to stay within certain confines that you don’t know exist unless you try to push them. I grew up with the story that yes, I can do whatever I want, the sky is the limit, and all of that. But once I tried to say certain things or think in certain ways, I was told not to.
So that pushed me to question these boundaries. I began asking questions like: Is this something I believe in? Is this ethical? Does this make sense?
I began to see that our definition of self is often bits and pieces of how others define us.
And those bits and pieces have come to be what they are through the centuries of all these rules that we’re supposed to follow based on things like gender, religion, and culture.
I realized I wanted to rid myself of all of that and say I need to exist comfortably without all these external definitions. I need to define who I am.
1440: Where and how did you grow up?
Najwa Zebian: I am the only one in my family who was born and raised in Lebanon. My parents met and married in Canada. They had five children. One day my dad asked my older sister a question in our first language, Arabic, and she didn’t understand him. It hit my dad that his children were not going to identify with their first language and culture, so he decided to up and move to Lebanon. And then, eight years later, I was born.
The Art of Telling the Story of Who You Are
October 11 - 13, 2019
Confidence, resilience, and independence start by finding and raising your voice. In this thrilling weekend workshop Najwa Zebian—the author, activist, and inspirational speaker whose words became a face for the #MeToo movement—shares the importance of owning your story and how...
So, there is a big age difference between me and my siblings and a big age difference between me and my parents. I grew up in a small village of a few thousand people on a mountain. Everybody was Muslim. There was no exposure to diversity.
I would describe myself as a quiet observer during those years.
I often got told that I was way too mature for my age. And now, looking back, I see it as a product of always being surrounded by adults.
From the age of about eight to 16, my parents would go back and forth to Canada (because some of my older siblings later moved back). During that time, I had no consistent sense of home. I lived with different relatives based on who could take care of me.
I talk about this struggle to find home in my very first Tedx Talk. Ultimately, I found a home in poetry. My journal became my home.
On my 16th birthday, I moved to Toronto. I don’t think I realized what kind of culture shock I went through until years later. Because when I first came here, I was still that quiet observer.
At the time, I still covered. I started covering when I was 13 years old and so, when I came here, I continued to cover for a time and never really mixed with the outer world.
I lived in a mini world of what I had back home in Lebanon.
I only started getting exposed to the outer world when I went to Teachers College and did my first assignment in a Catholic school.
Imagine me walking into that school. I’m obviously not Catholic. I remember the principal saying, “You’re the most diversity we’ve had in this school for so long.” I started getting invited into world religion classes and kids would ask me questions, and that’s when I started really thinking outside the box—outside that little manufactured world that had been created around me.
1440: You talk about the importance of owning your story. Why do you believe that is so vital?
Najwa Zebian: The reason I use the word “own” your story is because I feel that most of us own our pain so well. Right? Like it really lives with us—when we sleep, when we wake up, when we have any kind of new experience, that pain is within us and we feel it so deeply even if we don’t talk about it. So, if an event in our life happened and we are going to own the pain that it caused, then why are we not owning what happened to us?
You see what I’m saying? It seems we focus so much on the consequence of what happened but not really on what happened.
When you focus on the consequence, what you’re doing is staying stuck in a place that doesn’t give you any power.
But when you can go back to that story and understand why it happened and why it affected you as much as it did, you can start to come to terms with it.
If you are constantly fixated on the pain and getting rid of it, you are going to be taught the wrong version of self-love.
Perhaps you’re taught: Go to a spa. Get your nails done. Spend some time doing yoga. You may do all these things but if you don’t go back to the root of why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling (which is the story), if you don’t own the story you’re going to be constantly caught in this loop of I healed a little bit and now I’m relapsing, I healed a little bit and now I’m relapsing.
If you’re able to go back to the actual story and redefine what you’ve allowed yourself to believe about that story that caused you pain, then you’re able to understand your pain differently and you’re able to heal from it differently.
1440: What did it take for you to start owning your story?
Najwa Zebian: It was a long journey. It was a long time of feeling like something was wrong with me and feeling that I needed to hide certain parts of who I was to be accepted into people’s lives.
I felt I needed to hide my sensitivity and the depths to which I felt pain.
And it just made me shrivel in every possible way. I felt very small and I had no self-esteem. I had no definition of self. My definition of self was based on what others thought of me and my idea of what they would think of me if I were to really be who I truly was.
It got to a point where there was this me that was so trained to hide how I was feeling. And then, there was the me that was dying on the inside to be seen and heard and loved for who I really was.
I felt so manufactured that I finally had to ask myself: Do I want to continue living and being loved by others for who I am not? Or do I want to be who I truly am and risk losing all the people who don’t love the real me and be alone for a while and build my own self and then, welcome new people into my life?
I chose my real self.