Here’s something that I (and I’m sure many others) have struggled with all of my life – carving out my natural identity and maintaining it. It’s certainly good, sagely advice to “be yourself”, but what does that really mean? And how do you hold onto yourself when you are no longer just you but one part of a relationship?
Your identity is what gets left behind after your learning experience is long behind you and the details mostly forgotten. As kids and especially as teenagers, our identities are constantly in flux; we are learning, emulating, imitating and even eschewing. As adults in our twenties, we are expanding our horizons, falling victim to many traps and yet learning, learning all the way through it all. It’s usually only by our thirties that enough has happened and been distilled and forgotten to bring a more cohesive form to our personalities. We count ourselves lucky if, by this point, we haven’t managed to muck it up and are reasonably happy with how we have turned out. But how many of us are actually content with our identities today?
More and more of us in today’s fast-paced world suffer from a crippling fear of being left behind, or left out. This could manifest in different ways but the end result is always the same – fundamental changes in our behaviour and social responses that we perceive will help ease us into our many roles in life. Viewing our own lives is unavoidably a subjective experience for us and this inevitably influences our (conscious or unconscious) behavioural choices, not always to the best of results. Thus, when we spend nearly all of our time constantly adapting to stimuli, it is essential that we firmly draw a line between identity evolution and identity loss.
The first is a natural step forward – it will better the course of our life in some way (major or minor) and will make us the proverbial “better person” in the long run. This might be something as significant as learning to curb our tendency to speak bluntly and inadvertently hurt/anger others, or something as minor as trying to follow a sport in order to have something to make conversation with at parties. It might not be a pleasant lesson at first, but we eventually make our peace with it, especially as we see it working for us.
The second is the dangerous one – instead of bettering us, it slowly eats away at who we are comfortable being and replaces that with an alien mess that feeds into our insecurities and convinces us we will never be “good enough”. It is best observed in contrast with a positive behaviour – where you might on the one hand learn to be more considerate in your speech to others, instead you might force yourself into silence to avoid confrontation. You might choose to speak in a particular way to endear yourself to your audience at the expense of your personal comfort knowing you are doing the right thing, or you might do it only because you want to be accepted, in which case you will end up resenting said audience for presumably wanting it of you and yourself as well for “giving in”. In this case, when we see our changed behaviour “working” (in a very warped way) for us, we only tend to consciously or unconsciously castigate ourselves more. This might be in any situation – ingratiating yourself with new people at work, getting along with your partner of many years or a few hours, or changing your life around for a child.
It’s one of those slippery slopes where you don’t realise you’re in danger of it until you are already deeply entrenched. So what are some things you can do to help yourself out of your clusterfuck (because let’s be real – if you’re human, you’re nearly always in the midst of at least one mess)?
- Learn to step outside of yourself to view things from an outsider’s perspective. Like it or not, you as a human being are prone to victimisation; you might perceive yourself as the shining hero or the downtrodden underdog in your story, but you are no doubt always at the receiving end of the world’s actions. This is a hard mindset to break free of, and no one is free of it all the time, but taking a moment every so often to objectively view yourself as Mr/Ms So-And-So going about their lives is nearly always eye-opening.
- Deeply ingrain this one belief onto your psyche: your unhappiness, however deeply hidden, will taint you and the world. If you find yourself doing something that leaves a bitter after-taste, make sure you thoroughly question why you are doing it. Many times your mind will come up with a satisfactory answer; it’s the times it doesn’t that you should be vigilant for. Floating along in life as the current takes you is for turds. Be proactive in as many things as you can. Stop being a spectator at your own damn show.
- Forgive yourself for having done the things you maybe shouldn’t have (or not having done the things you should have). This is perhaps the very first thing you should do yet ironically is the hardest thing to learn. We are usually poorly equipped by our upbringing to handle most challenging situations. It is also natural for us to want to please. It is inevitable that we make a mess involving the two most of the time. It’s okay that you didn’t catch yourself at it until now; it’s okay that you’ve spent a year pandering to someone else’s whims; it’s okay that you’ve been browbeating yourself for the better part of your life for not being “good enough”; it’s… okay. It isn’t time that you can get back, and it usually isn’t damage that can be quickly undone, but it is always something you can overcome and convert from a loss into an evolution. Many times, it’s not going to be easy, and you’ll just as likely fall back into the trap for awhile because it was too hard to change. That’s never an excuse to not try, though: you are you – and if you don’t forgive yourself, the world won’t stop turning to do it for you.
Right, I’m verging on sounding like a self-help book now so I will conclude by repeating the one thing you will hopefully take away from reading this – seeing yourself change is inevitable; what matters is whose hand directs it. I’m not just being preachy here; I’m one of the worst offenders around that keeps getting confused by The Line, and remembering all this is what has helped me catch and clean up some of my messes.