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Reclaiming My Narrative: How I Overcame Trauma and Found Self-Love

When people find out that I do competitive bodybuilding outside of my work as a clinical psychologist, they often ask what got me into it. After all, when people hear “psychology,” they usually think of Freud or Carl Jung—not someone who lifts heavy weights or poses onstage.


But believe it or not, much of my passion for bodybuilding and psychology goes hand in hand. As a psychologist specializing in trauma and stress-related disorders like PTSD and anxiety, fitness played a big role in how I processed my own trauma and stress.


Or, to be more specific, fitness was a big part of my journey toward self-love. 


Let me explain: Before I learned to truly love myself, I was a passive communicator driven by the need to please others. I didn’t know how to set boundaries or even how to recognize unhealthy relationships, so I often acted out of obligation to other people and cultural expectations. This led me to agree to marry an abusive partner and eventually divorce in my 20s.


To heal, I needed to confront my past and learn to accept myself without judgment, a process that took years.


But in that journey, I learned a lot, like how self-love can have a ripple effect across all aspects of life, from your mental well-being to your overall health and relationships with others. In sharing my story, I hope others can understand the value of loving yourself as well as defining your own narrative. 


Here’s how I got to where I am today.


My childhood and upbringing


I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area as one of four kids with parents. My father immigrated from Punjab, a state in northern India, and my mother from Fiji Islands, although her parents were from Punjab as well. Punjab is known as the heart of Sikhism, the fifth largest religion in the world as well as an important part of my family’s cultural identity. Much of the values that my parents raised my siblings and me with, including diversity and gender equality, come from Sikhism.


If you were to ask my classmates what I was like as a kid, they’d probably say very quiet. I was incredibly shy and barely spoke throughout middle and high school. Part of that was because I felt most comfortable with my family.


My parents, married for 50 years now, strongly emphasized the importance of family ties. Not just immediate family, but the whole family. My dad was number seven out of nine kids, and my mom is one of five. I'm not exaggerating when I say I have nearly 50 first cousins, most of whom are also in the Bay Area. 


That meant a lot of family get-togethers and parties throughout my childhood, often weekly. As someone on the younger side of the family tree, being surrounded by so many loving relatives always made me feel loved and protected.


The flip side of growing up in such a close-knit community, however, was that it set a precedent for getting approval from others. My parents had raised me to be a “good” Indian girl. While it came from a place of love, it also created a lot of expectations for what I could or couldn’t do. 


As a result, I often sought validation from my family. As I got older, I looked to them for guidance and approval with every major decision—like getting an arranged marriage after college.


Why I agreed to an arranged marriage


To some, an arranged marriage may be a very unfamiliar concept. But this was how my parents and many of my cousins met their partners. Even my college boyfriend got engaged to someone else as part of an arranged marriage while we were dating—but that’s a story for another time. 


The point is that arranged marriages were the norm in my world. I write this to make it clear that no one forced me into one. It was wholly my choice. 


At the time, I’d just graduated from San Francisco State with my bachelor’s in psychology. What seemed to be the next step—the next life milestone based on what I’d observed all around me—was getting married. 


If you’ve seen Indian Matchmaking on Netflix, you might already know about the concept of matchmakers, also known as marriage consultants. I didn’t pay for one like people on the show do. Instead, a family acquaintance in California proposed to introduce me to his nephew in India.


To say I was nervous is a huge understatement. Just imagine getting handed your college diploma and then flying 20 hours across the world to meet your future spouse.


My dad and sister joined me on a 10-day trip to India to meet the man I might marry—Potential Husband. I can still remember the day we first met, how both of our families had gathered together in a restaurant. 


Potential Husband was a good-looking architect and just one year older than me. My shyness kept me from talking much, though the pressure of all of our surrounding relatives also probably didn’t help. I asked just two questions: What did you study in school? And what do you want to do when you come to the U.S.?


After the meeting, my family asked me what I thought. At this point, I’d known Potential Husband for maybe four hours. 


“I don’t know,” I admitted.


My sister weighed in and said she didn’t see any red flags. And my dad, ever the supportive father, said, “Whatever you want. It’s up to you.”


Potential Husband’s uncle, the man who had set us up, put his arm around me. “Don’t worry, Mini,” he reassured me. “He’s going to treat you like a queen. I’ll guarantee it.” Word for word. I remember this like it was yesterday as I write this.


It was ultimately my decision. But at 23 years old and without a lot of dating experience, I didn’t really know what to look for. 


Admittedly, some part of me was excited. My heritage was and still is a big part of my identity, so the prospect of marrying someone from India gave way to the fantasy that my husband and I could live part-time in India and part-time in the U.S. I imagined raising children who could speak our parents’ language, Punjabi, and grow up close to our culture. 


Having seen so many people in my life go through an arranged marriage, saying yes seemed to make sense. So I did it—I agreed to the marriage.


And with that, Potential Husband became Future Husband.


From that first meeting onwards, everything happened so fast. The next day, while still in India, my family and Future Husband’s held an intimate engagement ceremony. Indian weddings are known for being extravagant celebrations, and engagements, as a step toward weddings, aren’t that far off. I remember waking up that morning to strangers in the courtyard carrying flowers and sweets, and bringing dresses and jewelry to me—but the fanfare was overwhelming and I broke out in tears. 


Intuitively, I knew something was wrong—and yet I dismissed it. With all the forward momentum, it wouldn’t look or feel good to suddenly announce I felt unsure. The ball was already rolling, so I chalked up my gut feeling as nerves. 


Besides, my parents had an arranged marriage. So did my cousins, and even my ex-boyfriend. Somehow, I convinced myself that all of these factors weighed more than my instinct to run.


Getting married and moving in: expectations vs. reality


After the initial meeting and engagement in India, my family and I returned home to California. Future Husband arrived a few months later, after we applied for his fiancé visa and got immigration matters squared away.


Although we were technically engaged, we eased into our relationship. He stayed at his uncle’s, about an hour away from my parents’ home, and we met periodically to get to know one another better, without all the pressure of family surrounding us like they had been in India. 


Ideally, spending time with Future Husband should’ve made me more comfortable around him. But I found it difficult to connect, as he seemed guarded with his emotions. It was hard to pinpoint what I was feeling, making it hard to describe to my parents. They suggested it was just nerves.


Once again, I shrugged off my inner sense that something was off. 


Then just like that, within six months, we were married. Future Husband became my real, lawfully wedded Husband. 


Early on, our marriage was fine. We moved into an apartment not far from my parents. But after our first month together, things started to shift. Husband started getting overprotective and jealous when I went to work or talked to my friends. 


Who are you talking to?” he’d constantly ask. When I had to stay late for work, he’d insist, “You don’t need to work. I’ll take care of us.


Except here was the kicker: Husband didn’t speak English or graduate college with an architect degree, and I only found out after we married. 


Some quick context: While the official languages of India are Hindi and English, all major colleges and universities primarily teach in English. In fact, whenever I visited India as a teenager, I’d often sit in on college lectures with my cousins.


Because of this, I had expected Husband to at least be proficient in English. (Previously, we’d spoken to one another using Punjabi, our families’ shared language.) He knew some, but maybe not enough to land the kind of job he wanted.


My dad graciously hired Husband at one of the gas stations our family owned, training him to run the store. However, that didn’t stop Husband from becoming more and more controlling as the weeks passed. 


For instance, Husband started scrutinizing my phone bill and asking about every incoming and outgoing phone call. He also insisted on driving me to work and other places. Eventually, he asked that I stop talking to my friends altogether.


When you grow up in a supportive and loving household like I did, this kind of controlling behavior is totally new territory. My family approached anger and conflict by giving each other space—not fighting. Yelling and arguing were foreign and unnatural to me.


So instead of feeling within my rights to push back or stop Husband, I just wanted to keep the peace. Even as his demands became more unreasonable, I complied, hoping our relationship would stabilize.


Looking back, I realize I had been trying to prove to myself that everything was okay. It was my choice to get married, after all. Knowing my family’s success stories with arranged marriage, it was as if I wanted to deny the reality that for me, it wasn’t the right choice.


Can you guess what happened next? 


Husband’s controlling tendencies escalated beyond emotional abuse. I remember our neighbors often checked in after hearing his shouting and objects being thrown around inside our apartment. Even then, when they asked if everything was okay, I’d say yes. 


One day, in the midst of some conflict outside in our complex's parking lot, Husband hit me. It wasn’t the first time, but this time I lost consciousness. Our neighbors saw it happen and called the police. Though Husband tried to run and escape, my neighbors stopped him from fleeing and held him down until the police arrived.


When I came to, I learned Husband had been taken to the county jail. Despite his violence, I didn’t want to press charges. In my denial, I thought maybe we just needed space.


However, in California, as in many other jurisdictions, the state handles the prosecution of crimes. Although the victim’s wishes are considered, it’s ultimately up to the district attorney whether or not to press charges. So while I hadn’t wanted to, the DA did.


Husband remained in jail for more than a year, during which time I moved back to my parents’ home and continued to work. While I had previously avoided going into detail about my relationship with Husband, it was now clear to them that something was terribly wrong. 


After my parents learned more about what had been happening, my mother was livid. Her reaction gave me the confidence to finally admit that Husband wasn’t the right person for me—and to go a step further by asking for a divorce. Shoutout to moms and the protective women in our lives. 


The aftermath


You might expect that ending an abusive marriage would bring immense relief. It did in terms of returning the freedom I’d lost to my ex-husband’s extreme demands. 


But the thing is, no one goes into a marriage planning to get divorced. Even though overall social sentiment toward divorce has improved over the last decade in my culture, it’s still looked down upon and viewed negatively. Many cultures equate divorce with failure.


All this to say that despite becoming free from my abuser, my divorce also led to intense self-judgment and depression. And besides my inner critic getting the best of me, I also experienced a deep sense of betrayal. 


It wasn’t just betrayal from my ex-husband, but rather, betrayal from my culture. Having thought of arranged marriage as a longstanding cultural tradition, it pained me that mine didn’t succeed the way it had for so many of my loved ones. 


I also felt I lost part of my identity. I was always known as “Mini Kaur” because of how Punjabi I was, even among my Indian friends. Kaur is the last name of Sikh women and is translated as “warrior princess.” The cognitive construct of my understanding of the world, including my culture, was destroyed. I no longer trusted anyone, and I most especially didn’t trust myself anymore.


The stress of everything manifested in a few ways. For one, I lost more than 20 pounds, not because of a clinical eating disorder but because of a loss of appetite. I also didn’t feel connected to anyone or anything. In fact, the things that brought me joy before getting married, like learning or spending time with friends and family, no longer excited me. And feeling such a profound disconnect from my heritage, I couldn’t even listen to Indian music or watch the Indian movies I once obsessed over. 


In simple terms, I felt completely and utterly lost.


Making things harder, my ex-husband refused to sign the divorce papers for more than a year. Until that happened, it was as if I was trapped in some kind of limbo, still legally tied to my abuser.


The immediate aftermath of the incident that led to my ex’s arrest was the worst of it. But of course, life goes on. I moved forward with my career, pursuing my master’s and eventually doctorate in psychology. Along the way, pieces of my former self seemed to return. I embraced time with my family and friends and found myself laughing again. 


Some of this was genuine healing. But if I’m being honest, in the years after the divorce, I had also adopted some not-so-great habits as a coping mechanism. I abused alcohol frequently with friends and didn’t prioritize my health.


Then one day while driving in 2011, it struck me that I hadn’t looked at the sky in years


Instead, I’d been driving or walking with my head down, ignoring the simple and yet rich wonders all around me in my day to day. As I noticed and appreciated the beauty of the Bay Area’s rolling hills for the first time in a long time, I realized I didn’t want to live as I had been the past few years. I wanted to reconnect with myself and truly heal. 


My path to self-love


My healing journey began with investing in my well-being. 


At the time, one of my brothers, Gurpal, was competing in bodybuilding. Our family went to support him at a competition, which was also my first time seeing female bodybuilders.


I remember being astounded. The bikini division’s female competitors reminded me of Wonder Woman with their femininity and strength. It didn’t occur to me then that I might one day stand on stage alongside them, but I felt inspired to at least try to look like one.


In that sense, what first drew me to fitness was the aesthetics: I wanted to look good. I wanted to impress myself in the same way that I’d been impressed by the bikini athletes.


But as I started training and even getting into competitive bodybuilding myself, I found that physical transformation was just the beginning. Along the way, my attitude toward not only my body but my whole Self began changing for the better. 


My first coach taught me proper form while training, which meant having to learn to look at myself in the mirror with my chin up and shoulders back. It felt so unnatural at first but became empowering over time. 


Without even realizing it, I started becoming more confident. Training and nourishing my body gave way to discovering real self-love—something I never truly understood or experienced before then. 


But make no mistake: fitness is not the only way to find self-love and acceptance. There are many paths to reaching it; fitness just happened to be one of mine. I also started grad school and discovered yoga around the same time as bodybuilding—all of which also unfolded a path of my undertaking of continued yogic studies while attending grad school and learning about fitness. 


We can all grow from our trauma


My journey to attaining self-love was long and hard won, requiring deep reflection and intentionality over many years. But despite its challenges, I am incredibly grateful. 


Looking back, I’ve come to learn that trauma is just trauma. It’s a life event like any other, and as with all planned or unexpected circumstances, how you interpret that event is what matters. The meaning and narrative you create ultimately holds far greater weight than the actual event itself.


In psychology, there’s a phenomenon called “post-traumatic growth,” which describes the positive ways people grow from their adversities. As traumatizing as my marriage was, it also catalyzed tremendous personal growth and development.


When I was younger, I could’ve blamed my parents or my culture for leading me into a toxic situation. But the reality is that I made those choices myself. I now recognize the role I played in creating that situation and understand that it’s me who decides how I live my life. 


After all, we all get to choose the beliefs that we have. These are what we refer to in cognitive therapy as our “intermediate beliefs.” Unfortunately, not all of these beliefs are positive or benefit us. Sometimes, we unknowingly create rules that oppress ourselves or make us feel less than.


That was me, in the months, even years, following my divorce. But through finding self-love, I reframed those negative beliefs. I stopped blaming other people for my situation.


Instead, I started taking accountability. 


What next?


  • My mission and purpose in life is to help women, who, like my younger self, grew up as people-pleasers, feel stuck, and are ready to change their circumstances and expand with purpose and power. If I can do it, I know anyone can do it.

  • As a clinical psychologist, I love to support clients in developing skills to better manage their relationships with stress, trauma, and anxiety. If you’re interested in improving your emotional health, book an appointment.

  • For teams interested in self-development, I also offer group workshops, retreats, and trainings on stress management, yoga psychology, and mindfulness. Find out about upcoming events or reach out to schedule one.

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