MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. How they fell down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Everyone’s mental health journey is different. Our journeys are shaped through a mix of nature and nurture, genetics, our different lived experiences, families of origin, gender, how we see ourselves in the world, and how other people see us. This means that our mental health diagnoses, like depression and anxiety, have complex roots. There’s no blood test to figure out the exact issue you have – or even where it came from. You might get the impression, on your journey to better mental health, that if only you meditated a million hours a day or you became a master of mindfulness, everything would be fine, right? Wrong. Just as our mental health issues and our concerns are a complicated web, made up of layers, — so too are how we help ourselves feel better. The different modalities we use, practices, and medication. And so, while today’s guest is a master of mindfulness and an expert meditator – not to mention, a certified yoga instructor, he also says that medication and therapy have helped him work wonders, as he dealt with issues that ran in his family and that he struggled with for some time. Nor, does he say, is his journey over. And I think that’s such a powerful message to hear. For Anu Gupta, the path to mental health comes from many threads – better understanding of brain chemistry, family, life experiences, and identity. And I was so excited to speak with him about the journey that he’s on, which many of you will probably relate to.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: A quick warning for many of you listeners that we do talk about suicidal thoughts and some serious issues in this episode. And now, my conversation with Anu Gupta – scientist, educator, lawyer, and the founder of BE MORE with Anu.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So welcome, Anu.
ANU GUPTA: Thank you for having me.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m so happy to have you. I want to hear your story. Let’s start with when you were five years old. Where were you, and what was happening in your family and in your five-year-old life?
ANU GUPTA: When I was five, I was actually in Old Delhi in India. The year was 1990, so I’m trying to think what was happening. I think I was, as a young kid, I just found everything so magical wherever I went. The neighborhood we were a part of is over a thousand years old, so there’s just so much history and diversity everywhere. I think for me, as a young child, I was just mesmerized by the colors of the different festivals and rituals that were taking place. My grandmother, who was a very devout Hindu woman, would observe a lot of the changing of the seasons. I remember that one of the holidays is something known as Holika, which is now very popular in the U.S. too — Holi, which is where we throw color at each other, welcoming spring. The day before that particular festival, there is a huge kind of a funeral pyre that’s kind of placed in every neighborhood. And folks just come in and burn all of their regrets and all of the challenges they confront in life.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love the idea of – I, I burn regrets on the solstice twice a year.
ANU GUPTA: Oh, wow.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: But you didn’t stay in Delhi. You came to America with your folks. When did that happen?
ANU GUPTA: When I was 10. So I had an uncle who immigrated here in the late ’70s, and my parents were going back and forth. They had a pretty established medical practice in India. But I think in the ’90s, they just were fed up by a lot of the bureaucratic challenges in the country. They thought that we could all move to America together, and we would have a much more prosperous life — which actually, to their credit, it is very different here than it would have been in India.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: How so?
ANU GUPTA: Well first of all, I think that if I were still in India, I probably wouldn’t have come out as a gay person. My life would have been very different in India versus here, and I don’t even know if I would have known that I was gay, because one of the things that I share with folks that I actually didn’t know what the word gay was until I moved here. Until in middle school I was being teased for being gay. As someone who learned British English in India, I was like, “Gay? What’s wrong with being happy?” Then this one kid, Eric, I remember him to this day. He saw me, and he really pitied me. He was like, “when you go home today, please check the dictionary and let me know what you find out.” So I did. This was seventh grade. And I looked up the dictionary, and I found the word gay. Homosexual. I was like, “What does that mean?” Someone who is attracted to the same gender or same sex. I was like, “Oh my god, that’s me. There’s a word for it.” Suddenly, I also realized that it’s not safe to be this thing. It was kind of the dichotomy of, well, not knowing one in the closet, because not even knowing words to describe what one feels, but then going into the closet and being scared of what that means in the world outside.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow. Do you think there was a part of your parents that knew and that wanted you to live more safely?
ANU GUPTA: I think so. I think so. I think they’ve struggled a lot in India. My family were relatively well off in India, and we do come from the dominant caste. With that said, even though we have ideas of caste systems as hierarchies, things are incredibly complicated in India, when it comes to being able to fare well for oneself economically. There are a lot of different political factions and political parties that make life challenging if you don’t belong to the right tribe, the right political party. So the politics of just being there, and then imagine being in a country with a billion people, right? In a smaller space. They were just like, “It might just be easier for us to breath more.” And also, they were missing their family that — we have family in the U.S. — so wanting to reconnect with them as well. Multiple reasons. And I’m really grateful that they did because it has changed the trajectory of my life because in India. Because of just how deeply people are rooted in culture, and that’s in any country, whether it’s Italy or Ghana or Brazil, one tends to follow the desires of one’s parents and family. But I think coming to America and being exposed to these ideas of openness and freedom and what my desires are, I’ve been able to really chart a professional path that’s very different from anyone else in my entire family.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, let’s talk about that because I know from reading about you that you come from a family of sort of classically high achievers. I think your mom is a surgeon. You’ve said that your sister’s a quote “brilliant mathematician,.” So, checks a lot of our traditional boxes of “wow, these are smart, successful people.” How did you fit in?
ANU GUPTA: I think I grew up in an environment where academic achievement and intellectualism wasn’t just valued, but it was something to be aspired — to grow oneself and one’s spirit. For me, that’s literally why I sought education — going to college and grad school and law school. It was always this love of learning. Through that pathway, it was never to get a degree or be a professional for a job. It was really to satisfy this quench that I felt within. I can see the same thing for my mother and my sister. Of course, they found professions that are incredibly fulfilling, but my mother, even though she’s a surgeon, she came to surgery out of botany. She loves plants. You have no idea. And I think for me, the connection was really around people. I shared with you the story of me growing up as a young child in Delhi and just being mystified and mesmerized by all the colors and the sounds and the smells. One thing that I also noticed was, there were so many different people where I lived. The religious diversity was mind boggling. Of course, my family was one thing, but there were Muslims and Sikhs and Christians and Jews and Zoroastrians and Jains and Buddhists. They were all living in the same space, and they were all following their own ways of being. Of course, add to that color and gender and other things. I was like, “Oh my gosh, why do we do things this way, and those people do it that way? How do we live together?” So I think for me, that was always interesting. When I saw conflict take place, that’s where I was like, “Well, what’s causing this conflict, when at the end of the day we’re all the same organism?” I think my first contact with conflict was in the early ’90s, in 1992. There was a huge riot between Hindus and Muslims over a sacred site. I just remember being under curfew. We couldn’t leave our homes, and there was bombings and so many things happening everywhere. I was like, “wow, from one moment we’re a stable, loving community to another we are everyone distrusts one another.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So you moved to —did you move to Brooklyn or Queens?
ANU GUPTA: We moved to Queens first and then moved to Brooklyn a few years after that.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, both also — I think Queens is literally the most diverse, one of the most diverse places, probably, in America. Right?
ANU GUPTA: Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That must have been — was there a through line for you, do you think, coming to Queens versus a place that was more homogenous?
ANU GUPTA: Yeah, it was so fascinating because when I came here, once again, this inquisitive mind. I was always curious about all the different people that were around me and how we all looked so different. I remember one of my really good friends in middle school was this guy named Jesus. His family was from Peru. When I first saw him, I was like, “you look like my cousin. How is that possible? We look the same.” We would talk about that for so long. Yeah, I think the religious diversity and the kind of racial and ethnic diversity was really exciting to me. But I think within that, I kind of lost myself. You mentioned something about this being — this achiever. So I was an achiever. When I first came here, I was placed in ESL but pretty quickly my teachers realized that I spoke English very well. I could write English very well because I went to English medium schools, so they transferred me to the gifted programs — whatever that means, right? These hierarchies we create even in our education system. Suddenly, I was the only brown person in my classroom. If you remember growing up in such environment, your classrooms are basically your community. Those are the people you interact with day in and day out. Those were my frieends.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, they’re ecosystems where you learn everything about the should’s and the she does this, and it’s not good. He does this, and it is good. All of the patterns get formed.
ANU GUPTA: Exactly. Then, a lot of the things I learned unconsciously — what it means to be good. What it means to be bad, what it means to be competent, what it means to be incompetent. The stereotypes that were circulating. For me, it was always surprised, like, “Why am I the only person here who looks like me?” The story was that I was gifted. There’s just so few of us. I was like, “is that really true?” It wasn’t until college when I first began to really understand what was happening more systemically within our society. I worked for Teach For America, as a recruiter. They literally drilled it into me. You know, just thinking about what educational inequities mean and the role of race, gender, and all sorts of human identities — and how resources and opportunities are distributed in our society. So I think that kind of took me on a whole new quest of understanding how we could create a society where everyone has equal access to opportunity, regardless of their background or class, caste, you name it.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: At some point, though, when you were in New York, a new kind of feeling came in. An outsider feeling that you have said you actually internalized. You changed your name. You called yourself “Andy.” I don’t know if you called yourself Andy. Tell us the story of how you went from sort of inquisitive Anu to “Andy,” who realized, “uh-oh, I have to be different.”
ANU GUPTA: It wasn’t as intentional, right? It was, basically I was — in high school, in ninth grade I was volunteering at a hospital. We did these things in high school — again, part of being gifted — we have to do all these things, achieve all these things, rack up all these volunteer hours.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Got to go to the Ivy League.
ANU GUPTA: Yes, exactly. I was volunteering at a hospital, and my supervisor, who was this wonderful person, wonderful human, she welcomed me into the department. I was working in the department of cardiology. Then suddenly, she was like, “I can’t pronounce your name, so I’m just going to call you Andy.” I was like, “Okay, call me Andy.” Then, I literally took that on. The interesting thing was, I never thought there was anything wrong with that. I actually thought that the name “Andy” was more worthy than my name Anu. That was the nature of this internalized bias. Really kind of succumbing to the stories of the dominant culture. And that’s what happened with my sexuality because I saw how I was being treated or other gay students were being treated, I went into the closet and didn’t come out for another 15 years — even though in college, I was an RA. I was trained in holding safe spaces for LGBTQ students. It was so interesting, right? I could be so open and accepting of others and actually wanting people to thrive, but having that fear and not wanting that for myself.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: When did you realize that you were an anxious person, and that all these conflicting identities that you were holding were making you anxious? Or something was making you anxious.
ANU GUPTA: It’s so interesting you ask this, and that’s why I’m so excited for this conversation because I was reflecting on that. I think I first felt that [anxiety] taking my first standardized test. Do you remember the PSAT?
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh, yeah. What is that, you’re 14?
ANU GUPTA: Yeah, 13 or 14. This feeling of — because again I was high achiever, needed to achieve, had this destination. I remember before taking the exam, and of course I prepared for it and all of that, I wanted to throw up right before the exam. It was this visceral feeling in my body that I couldn’t be there. I was like, “oh my gosh, I don’t know what this is, but there must be something wrong with me.” So I would just suppress it, suppress it, suppress it for years. It wasn’t until I saw my first therapist. This was in grad school, when I was in England. I was like 23 now. They call them counselors there. She was such a wonderful and British, very proper lady — I loved her. She was like, “you have anxiety.” And the minute I heard those words come out of her mouth, it was like a dual feeling. One, relief. Once again, I have language to describe what I’ve been feeling for, you know, probably almost a decade at that point. Second, “oh, no, there’s something wrong with me.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh god. Were you still “Andy” at this point, or when you were in England? Where was your sort of sense of racial identity at this point?
ANU GUPTA: It was so interesting. My racial identity at the time was, “I’m Indian.” I was a citizen of the U.S., so I’m an American, and I was trying not to attract any attention towards my difference. So even my friends — and that’s why I feel like after college, I went, at a very unconscious level, went to all these programs. I did the Fulbright in South Korea afterwards. They were basically part of being an ambassador for the U.S., but where I could blend in and not feel different—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And have a lot of structure, because you were also Teach For America, Fulbright. Did you go to the UK under a structured program for grad school?
ANU GUPTA: I went to this kind of really incredible masters program in development studies. It’s one of a kind, really rooted in humanism, and really wanting to understand systems and structures and not just things like the World Bank or the IMF or governments — but things like gender, as a system and a structure. We talked about ethnicity and nationality as systems and structures. That really opened my mind up to how the world works. But being in this incredibly intellectual environment, I was at Cambridge, I also became alienated with who I am and didn’t know how to use my mind to define who I am. And that, I felt like, threw me deeper and deeper into kind of the realms of anxiety and depression.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What do you mean when you say you don’t know how to use your mind to define who you are?
ANU GUPTA: So as a young person, I’m learning about how societies are structured, whether it’s around gender or race — and how these structures really define people’s identities. In academia, there’s this air of, I would call it arrogance, where we look at these things from a distance, as sociologists, anthropologists — that it doesn’t apply to us. But for me, these were the issues I was struggling with inside all this whole time. I couldn’t not look at it. And whenever I would bring those up in the classroom, I would be told “that’s not important. This is not what we’re talking about. This is about this thing happening in Egypt, or this thing happening in Pakistan.” For me, that’s where I was like, “okay, it’s not about me. It’s about the theory of how these things are structured.” That was the mishmash. Of course, this program is preparing really incredible students to become future academics and intellectuals themselves. I understood the impetus from where that’s happening now, but at the time it was very difficult. Thankfully, one of my classmates, who I credit to this day, she was like, “you are talking about really deep issues, you need to go see a therapist.” I was like, “huh? What? I’m not crazy. Who do you think you are? How dare you?” Right?
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Was therapy a word in your family of origin, growing up?
ANU GUPTA: It was. And I come from a family where mental illness has been a challenge for decades and decades and decades. So I’ve seen it play out, but it’s almost — there’s a sense of fear around it. Mental illness is so taboo. It almost says that there’s something wrong with the human being who has this challenge. It’s better to deny it than to actually repair it or address the challenge at hand. And for me, going to therapy personally helped me identify what was happening in my family and amongst my loved ones and hold those people with compassion. Of course, not agreeing with or condoning their behavior or their words, but with that said, being able to see the human being that was suffering beneath that.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So, like every good narrative, you have a crucible moment where things burn. How old were you when you sort of had that moment at the windowsill, Anu?
ANU GUPTA: Yeah. It was 2009, so I was 24. It was back in New York. It was after the first year of law school.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow, so, you went from Cambridge to law school.
ANU GUPTA: Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What was the vision?
ANU GUPTA: I just absolutely loved my time at Cambridge. It was so intellectually fulfilling. Once again, diversity. My classmates in my program came from every continent across the world. We were all misfits in our countries and our communities, whether we were in Brazil or Nigeria or France or someplace else. It was a place where we found each other, and we could talk about big ideas and engage with each other in this way. And I also was seeking therapy there for the first time. But coming to law school — I came to law school because actually my advisor at Cambridge basically told me that your grades aren’t bad, but you’re too much of an activist to be an academic. Now going back to me sharing about myself and wanting to actually create solutions to things. He was like, “That’s a great thing, but you can’t work with theory. You’re going to be miserable, so I would recommend you go to law school.” That’s why I went to law school. Actually, what really attracted me to law school was when I’d come back from kind of the admitted students days, I went to NYU, and there was a professor at NYU who spoke, and I was in tears. This professor, I feel like everyone knows who he is now. If they don’t, they should: Bryan Stevenson. He spoke, and I was like, “I want to be where he is.” But of course, first year of law school, you don’t see Bryan Stevenson. You have to go through all of the mandatory courses. It’s like The Hunger Games.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Where was your anxiety and depression at this point, because it sounds like this was a mentally—
ANU GUPTA: Off the roof—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah, so, what happened?
ANU GUPTA: It was just suppressed, right? In England, I was seeing a counselor. I was doing a lot of self-work. I was also just feeling like I belonged. In law school because the way the system is structured is very Socratic and also very hierarchical. There’s a right and a wrong, which kind of went against everything I was doing prior to coming to law school. So I think I just kept on suppressing things, one after another, one after another, one after another. And you also have hundreds of pages of reading everyday, and you’re talking about things that are life and death, like criminal law. I remember taking criminal law my second semester and, of course, horrific things that are happening when you read the facts of the case. I’m like, “oh my gosh, I could relate to some of those things.” The human things around violence and anger and all sorts of abuse. I was like, “wow, I could have been that person.” So you think about these things, but you have no outlet to actually share these emotions because we’re just looking at it very clinically in the legal environment. I think those everyday kind of incidents — both in the classroom and outside and not being able to talk about it and share it with others — really accumulated. The summer between my first and second year was wonderful. It gave me some time to rest and reflect and kind of rejuvenate my spirits. But when I got back, the environment was the same. Just constantly questioning myself, around who I am. And I was one of the only people of color in my section. Everybody around me was — they were all good people, but they couldn’t understand why I was so frustrated. “Why are you so angry? Why?” So they would say these things. And again, in hindsight, I’m like, I don’t think there was any ill will, but my emotional reaction to that was like, “yeah, why am I so angry? There must be something wrong with me. Let me just end this thing now. I’m just so unhappy.” Right? It’s like that pressure cooker that’s boiling up. And for me, what I’ve learned since and, like you, I’m a student of mindfulness. Thankfully, since college I’ve been practicing mindfulness. Not very consistently, but the year until I started having real thoughts around suicide and attempting to take my life, I wasn’t practicing it. But with that said, that’s why I feel like there’s a magic to this particular practice. Because when I was about – so basically, I was living in kind of a highrise [building] in New York City. I was on the 18th floor, and something happened. It was early or mid-September. I was like, “let me just — what would happen if I just jump out of this building right now?” I opened the window. It was like, “oh, I could totally do that.” I went, “okay, let’s just do it.” I’m literally standing, and I’m looking at the little cars below as they’re passing by. You could hear the sirens. And in that moment, that was the flash of like, moment of mindfulness where I was like, “oh, wow. All these ideas that I’ve been struggling with about myself, about the world and how unfair the world is and how unjust the world is and how cruel the world is — they’re just ideas.” It wasn’t even that long. It takes longer to describe it in words, but it was in that moment I was like, “oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” And then, instead of jumping, I thought to call someone I had just met a few days prior. A total stranger. A queer woman, Asian American, with whom I just built a connection. I called her, and she showed up in my apartment in less than five minutes. She happened to be in that neighborhood.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow.
ANU GUPTA: At that time.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s, wow.
ANU GUPTA: It’s funny because I’ve actually thought of her and I’ve texted her many times. She came into my life for that reason because I remember when—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: She was your angel—
ANU GUPTA: Yeah because when Robin Williams passed away — I was a mess, Morra. You don’t understand. I was like, “oh my gosh, what? I love this guy. I can’t believe he was suffering.” It just took so much out of me, and I had to be like, “hey, this could have been me, and you saved me.” And I remember receiving two hearts from her.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s very millennial, Anu. I’m old, so I’m thinking of, you know, It’s A Wonderful Life and Clarence the angel and the Christmas tree. That’s my old frame of reference. [laughter] So I want to talk a little bit about, because obviously hindsight is a powerful thing. You tell your story for a living, so you’re very skilled at weaving together all these threads. One of the things that I’ve read about you that I found very moving was that you have described your journey back from that moment of despair as almost a process of building connection — that you had closed yourself off from a sense of belonging to who you truly were in so many ways, right? And that part of the work was figuring out the threads of your own identity and who you needed to connect with to be your real, true self. Is that, I mean, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But I find that very powerful.
ANU GUPTA: No, I think you’re absolutely right. And that is my journey, even to this day. It hasn’t completed. I’m still kind of returning back to the fullness of who I am and discovering those pieces and celebrating them. As you were sharing, I remember – you know, I was part of a lot of very inclusive circles, had friends who were across the alphabet city. And I knew I was gay from the time I was very young. But after this incident, I really went to do the work, went to therapy, and sought a lot of healing methodologies. Then I really struggled with why is it so hard for me to come out — particularly to my family and my parents. What were the stories? What were the fears? And this was where I began to see the play of depression and anxiety right in front of my eyes, inside my body. Depression was really, for me, experiences that were traumatic. Trauma, I define as anything that’s life threatening or emotionally overwhelming. It was in the past — things that have happened to me and I’m still holding onto them. That caused me depression. And anxiety was the future — fearing that what happened to me in the past is going to happen to me again in the future. And I was literally, and I oftentimes still am, because you know, it’s not something that just goes away. Depression and anxiety is something we have to live with, right? I just see myself kind of on a pendulum between the past and the future, and that’s depression and anxiety—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And once you felt that bad, once the depression has been that bad, there is also the fear that you will feel this bad again. How can you possibly get through it again?
ANU GUPTA: Exactly. And that — mindfulness really brought me to see it, particularly after law school. So the coolest thing was, once this happened, thankfully, I sought help. Actually, in law school I became a trained yoga teacher. I did my 200 hours with another law student friend of mine.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Of course you did.
ANU GUPTA: I kid you not. I spent 200 hours at a yoga studio doing yoga and learning meditation and then all these things. My grades were the best they’ve ever been.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow—
ANU GUPTA: Which wasn’t saying very much, but I was present, you know? I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m present.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You’ve also said that your shoulders went from being permanently up around your ears to going down.
ANU GUPTA: Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love that.
ANU GUPTA: It was in a yoga class. It was with a teacher named Douglas. He used to teach at a studio called Ishta Yoga. It was like my first year, really getting into yoga. Suddenly, I felt my shoulders fall. I remember, you know, when I was in Korea, I used to do mixed martial arts there. And before we started practicing, our instructor, our teacher used to pull my shoulders down. He would literally be like, punching me on my shoulders like, “relax, relax.” I was like, “what are you doing? They’re not going to move.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh my gosh.
ANU GUPTA: Morra, that was the amount of stress I was carrying in my body. And I was oblivious to it.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And you also, you went on antidepressants.
ANU GUPTA: Yes. It was basically, it kept me from thinking. As an achiever, you can imagine, I was addicted to thinking. And I think, for me, it was life and death. It was right after I attempted to jump off, or I thought about jumping off. The next day, I went to the counseling center, as I promised my friend I would do. Kept in touch with her about it. And then, they basically referred me to a psychiatrist. I talked to her, and she told me all the side effects and the pros and cons. My parents are doctors, right? So in the past, I would talk to my parents about all of these things. But this time around, something inside me told me, “don’t do that” — because of just how much taboo there is around this topic. I knew that they would dissuade me, and I was like, “no, I can’t.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Really? Did they know about your suicidality?
ANU GUPTA: No.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow.
ANU GUPTA: I told them like three years later, when I was ready. Yeah, so nobody knew, but I worked with this incredible therapist. She was an EMDR expert. So EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization — something R.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’ll put it in the show notes.
ANU GUPTA: Yes. Sorry. I just call it EMDR. Basically what it is is that — they don’t know why or how it works, but they know that it really helps with healing traumatic memories and trauma, particularly in the past. The way it works is that either you use tapping on different parts of your brain while you’re thinking of a traumatic memory or incident from the past. Or what she would do with me is actually hold electrical nodes in my hands while I’m moving my eyes around. Again, I don’t know — scientists haven’t really figured out why it is, but they have theories. But it makes sense, based on my lived experience. Basically, when I’m thinking of those traumatic incidents in the past — I mean, prior to doing EMDR, I wouldn’t even want to think about it, right? Because I would get so anxious and scared. While I’m doing it with, of course, someone I trust in the room, knowing that I’m holding something that I can feel, right, whether it’s tapping or electrical node, I’m in the present while I’m watching something awful happening in the window of my mind. And knowing that I’m safe. That association of fear, for me, was kind of slowly, what’s the word? It was weakened. I think that helped. Then my therapist, at the time, she basically said, “you have to share your story with 10 people in the next three weeks.” I was like, “what? I can’t do that.” She was like, “no you are going to. Ask friends or whomever — ten people in your surroundings right now. You’re going to go out for lunch and share your story with them.” I was like, “oh my gosh, they’re going to” – and she was like, “yeah, some people are going to take it very poorly. Some people are going to take it very well. Some people may not be your friends anymore. That’s not the point. You’re ready to do that.” That’s when I started sharing my story, Morra. And I realized how common it is. How common anxiety and depression are, and how it’s torturing all of us. We’re just kind of seeking connection to talk about it, you know?
MORRA AARONS-MELE: When did the concept of racial traum –, because that’s something that you use in your work a lot as a framework. When did that framework come to you as something you had experienced and could put words behind?
ANU GUPTA: I became very passionate about racial equity and gender equity as I was going through my own healing journey because I started seeing that a lot of the ideas I believed about myself that were unwholesome and that were cruel — kind of were going back to the color of my skin, my facial features, a lot of things that I’ve been told as — my name, my Indian heritage. Then, as a big nerd, I went to the science, and that’s where I began seeing that there was a lot of research around the trauma of racial bias, of racism. A lot of scholars had written about it—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I should also just point out, from what I’ve read. I mean, a lot of – you grew up in New York around 9/11. You’ve said that that sort of bias in the air was also a factor.
ANU GUPTA: It accumulated, right? Prior to 9/11, I was kind of an other. It’s so interesting. Even though New York has been such a diverse melting pot, in the ’90s, you were still black, white, or other. To be a child and check the box “other” — like what?—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Literally, other—
ANU GUPTA: “Other,” like, you’re something else, or miscellaneous, right? But I think after 9/11 suddenly there was a recognition of people who look like me, who are from very different parts of the world, but because of just how there’s a lack of education around the world — I mean, around our country about the world — people just assumed that I was from the Middle East. And then, it kind of worsened. I would acutely feel it on the streets sometimes, but also at airports. It was quite crazy. But I think one thing I wanted to share, I remember that I’d been wanting to share earlier, was this idea of the pendulum between depression and anxiety. And I’d go on a lot of silent meditation retreats, so I would highly recommend those — but of course, they are very strenuous. So I would really encourage people to first build a practice before just jumping deep in. But at that point, this was in my mid-20’s — I was really struggling with parts of myself that I was still judging, that I wasn’t fully accepting. And I was also struggling with this idea of pride itself. In the LGBTQ world, there’s this idea that I’m proud to be gay. I’m proud to be out, which is beautiful, right? It’s a way that we celebrate ourselves. But I think for me, I was like — there’s still something for me, when I say that, there’s an inkling of inferiority complex. Like, I have to be proud, as if there’s something wrong with being this way. It was at that moment, one of the teachers on the retreat was also queer identified, he talked about his own journey. And I felt that, “oh, what I want to feel isn’t proud. I want to feel honored to be in this body, just as it is. With this anxiety, with this depression, with its queerness, with its brownness — with all of those things, so I can fully belong in here.” And that really, I feel like, shifted my relationship with myself. This was, I think, about 10 years ago. Maybe, no, less than that — couldn’t be that long. It was probably six or seven years ago because I came out to my parents literally a few weeks after that.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: How did that go?
ANU GUPTA: Oh my god! It was a mess.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh, god.
ANU GUPTA: You don’t want to know. Maybe you do. I don’t know if you’ve seen any melodramatic, old school movies or Bollywood movies. I mean, my parents are scientists. I mean, they’re wonderful now. They’re so supportive and wonderful and loving, but this was seven years ago — 2013, what is that, eight years ago? And my mom was literally like, banging her head against the wall.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow.
ANU GUPTA: But you know, Morra, it was a beautiful thing was, this was happening. In the past, something would get kicked up inside me like codependency or something, where I’d want to take care of her — manage her. But because I’d had that realization, I knew there was nothing wrong with me. I understood her reaction. I respected it. It’s okay for her to feel sorrowful and want something for her son that isn’t who he is. And I was like, “this is who I am. I’m honored to be me.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh, my god. That’s amazing.
ANU GUPTA: Yeah, that was — and I feel like these types of incidents, and similarly what’s happened to me around race and ethnicity and other things, I’m like, “oh my gosh, we can really belong to ourselves fully.” That, for me, has been the opportunity.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to kind of close out there and come full circle because I feel like the goal is belonging and honoring ourselves, but also seeking interconnection without blame and judgment. Right? Feeling the sense, like you described, of, “you know what, Mom? You do you. I’m not going to save you. I’m not going to change who I am because of you, but I am still going to be there for you because you’re my mom.” I feel like that’s the work of a lifetime. That is the work. And you did a video with Sharon Salzberg, the famed meditation teacher—
ANU GUPTA: Yes.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And she talked about with you her own painful past, which was very traumatic. And she talked about her journey to mindfulness as sort of being stuck in the pain of the past without any of the tools to manage it. And I just wanted to ask you, what are the tools that you use every day in your tool kit? Because the past doesn’t go away. The feelings still come up.
ANU GUPTA: Yeah. Yeah, no I think it’s so true. For me, one thing I want to add there is that Sharon is a beloved and a dear, dear teacher of mine. Someone who’s been a huge part of my healing journey. Her books, her talks, retreats with her. One thing she says — back to the tools around this is — at any of those moments when judgment, blame, fear, things from the past get triggered, there’s always the breath. The interesting thing about the breath is that when we’re focusing on the breath, we can’t focus on anything else. It takes our entire attention. So it helps us kind of come back to the present moment. And that has been my learning. We’re going to jump between the past and the future. It’s just going to happen. We’re human, right? And we can be in the practice of remembering that we’re here, we’re here, we’re here. And we’re alive. Right? Other things that I’ve found helpful, and I teach this in my courses as a tool, is really becoming aware of body sensations. That’s been so helpful because it’s in our bodies. In that moment of conflict, when someone has said something cruel or hurtful or our mind has received it as such, what’s happening in the body? Right? Where is it contracted? Where is it tense? Kind of becoming a scientist of our own experience, and seeing that these things are happening to us. And then through practice we’ll begin to see that they’re happening to us, but they are not us.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, thank you so much, Anu. I really appreciate you and your work and your time with me today.
ANU GUPTA: Yes, thank you for having me.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thank you to my producer, Mary Dooe. Thanks to the team at HBR. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and truths. For you, our listeners, who ask me to cover certain items and keep the feedback coming. Please do send me feedback. You can email me. You can leave a message on LinkedIn for me, or tweet me at Morra A M. And if you love the show, tell your friends — subscribe and leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.