t recently dawned on me that, after years of treating introversion as a bedrock of my personality, I might not actually be introverted, nor believe in the Jungian binary at all. Sometimes socializing makes me feel alive and rejuvenated; other times it doesn’t. It’s all circumstantial, reshaping around my moods and insecurities. Letting go of the whole thing opened up how I behave and view myself socially. A small but important shift.
This is just one of the left turns I’ve taken over recent years, and the longer I’m around, the less surprised I become by them, these reappraisals that take something I was certain of and discard it in favor of a different truth. It’s humbling. I used to believe my identity was like a house, something I was building, brick by brick, upon an established foundation. Now I see myself and the world as something far more organic, alive and entropic, like a tree whose leaves must fall off once a year in order for it to thrive.
Surprising or new conclusions never come easy, though. I avoid them for a long time, ignoring signs for years until I’m forced to reconcile the fact that I’m working with faulty or expired information. Like the idea that I enjoy being fiercely independent. Or am inherently thrifty or still athletic or shy around strangers. We shape ourselves around little facts like these, but what happens when they’re no longer true, or never were?
Embracing the fallibility of our perceptions requires a high tolerance for uncertainty, a quality most of us don’t naturally maintain, if only because we can’t spend all our time pondering the unknown or we wouldn’t get anything done. It helps to lean on small certainties: I am self-conscious. He is smart. I’m afraid of that. It will all be okay. These ideas help us move through life and make sense of chaos, but they can also hold us back.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these kinds of stories. The ones we seek out, consume, internalize, tell others, tell ourselves. I keep noticing how people can build them out of nothing, or ignore them patently, or cling to them until their fingers are bloody just so they don’t have to find out what happens if they let go. Stories are the framework of human thought, the means through which history is recorded: in patterns, narratives, causes and effects. It’s easy to forget that they are often creations, and that it’s worth revisiting them every so often to kick their tires and make sure they’re still serving us. How else can we honestly stand by them?
“Bad stories” is a concept Harling recently wrote about in the context of realizing she was telling one of her own. It’s the idea, created and propagated by the hosts of the advice podcast “Dear Sugar,” that we often forget there are multiple ways of looking at our life stories. That it’s within our power to recast ourselves as victor instead of victim. Flawed instead of fucked up. Hopeful instead of hopeless. It’s not about changing history so much as it’s about understanding the role that shame and denial play in how we remember things or see ourselves, and the power in reconfiguring it all.
For me, therapy has been one of the safest places to explore these ideas. It’s there that I’ve learned to give some of my oldest identity markers a second look. Does writing actually help me process feelings, as I’ve always believed, or does it sometimes serve as a protective facade? Do I actually hate talking on the phone, or am I just being lazy about putting effort into long-distance friendships? Am I actually obsessed with making my parents proud, and have I simply internalized their markers for success and turned them on myself? Maybe that all sounds like cliche therapy fodder, but examining your stories doesn’t always have to come with a copay. It can be as simple as pausing after you rattle off something you’ve been saying forever to ask yourself: Is that still true? Do I still feel that way? Changing a belief is difficult; it demands you rethink the house of cards often teetering beneath it. But it can also be an enormous relief, because trees don’t have to be nearly as structurally sound as buildings, and that’s half of what makes them beautiful.
In an interview in 1994, Octavia E. Butler said the famously quotable lines: “Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.” She was talking about the way writing books has changed her, and she captured something so many of us often forget: We are the sum of our stories. We can recreate ourselves or tear ourselves down through the stories we choose to repeat to ourselves and to others. It’s a fact I find comforting, because it means we have a say whenever we want it.
It also means nothing about us is permanent. For me, accepting that has made the world seem more watery, and me seem more watery, but it’s also instilled a sense of optimism and openness I didn’t know I was capable of. Because what do I know? Everything could change tomorrow, including me. When I was 20, admitting that might have felt like a kind of defeat. At 29, it feels like growing up.
Collage by Emily Zirimis; Photos via Man Repeller.