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Dear MR team,
I seem to be stuck between different versions of myself.
I am at this point in life where I don’t know what to do, what I want or who I am.
When I was a child, I was kind of a free spirit, afraid of nothing, always doing what I wanted, running around, opening my mouth, curious about everything, not caring too much about what others thought, standing up for myself. These past few years, and particularly through college, I let myself change. I am now afraid of absolutely everything. I’m always trying to prevent conflict, not upset anyone and avoid drama at all costs. I do nothing about the causes I care about and that are important to me (except talking about them and stating my opinion to prove I am not the person I am). I am not being harsh, this is just me now — maybe not who I am, but what I do. This shift of personality happened slowly, I just let myself navigate through life without overthinking it, always making the right and sensible choices, thinking that the future might untangle itself without me involving too much of myself in it.
I am now stuck between the current version of myself that I can no longer live with, and this idealized-me as a child, who I want to be again so badly.
I have no idea who I am, who is the true me, and who is just an idea of me I built to reassure myself. The thing is, I want to be fearless. I want to stand up for myself. I want to work for people who respect me. I want to take risks. I want to fight for the causes that are important to me. I want to give my opinion and care less about what others might think. I want to be a person I might respect more. This is who I want to be. Or at least, this is who I think I want to be.
Here I am, grown up, not knowing who to choose between my old self, actual self or future self. What I (seem to) want may just be an unattainable ideal that is just not compatible with who I am anymore, or never was. Does knowing that I’m chasing an ideal make it less dangerous?
Thank you MR team and please, pardon my English, for I am French.
Please don’t pardon your English! C’était parfait.
(I had to Google that.)
The first emotion I feel when reading your letter is admiration. What a gift to be so self-aware — aware that you’ve changed, aware that you are a hypocrite, aware that you want something different and sometimes get in your own way. These are things that can take a very long time — and a lot of therapy — to parse, understand and come to terms with. But you already know exactly why you feel like a nostalgic, confused fraud, which is much better than not knowing.
The second emotion I feel is empathy, because the angst you’re expressing is very human. Most people I know are nostalgic for their youth, even more are afraid they are somehow not measuring up to their peers, and almost everyone is terrified of what would happen if they charged straight into the fiery mouth of their fears. These are the building blocks of human suffering and existence. They inspire poems, songs and epics. They inspire us to hold onto what we love about our life stories — sometimes with a death grip. Even when it’s blistering our hands.
Who would we be without this kind of existential folly at some point or another? This is how we grow and change — by a sickening mixture of guilt, fear and an honest drive to escape such feelings. That’s why the third emotion I felt was excitement. You are clearly on the cusp of transformation. To borrow the most cliché metaphor in the advice-giving book, you’re a carefree little caterpillar whose gone into her cocoon.
You find this cocoon very boring. You remember who you were before (fun and free, mostly, even if that wasn’t completely true), but you’re not sure who you are going to be next. And so you’re filling in the blanks until you figure that out — with political posturing, with conflict avoidance, with tidy but false versions of yourself that make you a little bit sick. This is how you feel safe, but it doesn’t make you feel good. Safe is distinct from good — it’s important to remember that.
The other day I was feeding mashed-up squash to my one-year-old niece. It was getting all over her face and I kept wiping it off between bites until, eventually, I gave up and just let it sit there on her cheeks in yellow chunks. She seemed unbothered. “Doesn’t she care?” I asked my sister.
“They don’t seem to care at all!” my sister said. ”It’s the weirdest thing.”
I wondered when I started caring whether there was squash on my face. Not out of deference for other people — I wouldn’t like it if I were alone, either — but for some internal sense of order. The way I wash my hands 25 times while cooking, or refuse to sit on my bed in a pair of pants I’ve worn outside, or need my pen to be perfectly parallel to the edge of my computer. These are little ticks that make me feel in control. They stave off my overwhelming fear that, ultimately, life is squash-smeared chaos and there is nothing I can do to change that.
This is the same emotional place from which conflict avoidance springs. It makes perfect sense that you would settle there when you’re experiencing an intense bout of uncertainty. Conflict — at least the healthy kind — requires a kind of confidence. Avoiding it enables you to stay in your clean, boring cocoon, no hint of food on your face and no sparkle in your eye, either. (My nieces faces may be dirty, but they’ve got sparkles in spades.)
You say you want to be fearless (although courage might suit you better), that you want to work for people who respect you, that you want to live by your values — but these are things for butterflies. They aren’t qualities you can self-hate your way into embodying without moving a muscle. They are the result of pushing yourself up and out of your comfort zone, a task that’s infinitely easier to do when you’re not preoccupied with beating yourself up.
But how to do that? You seem young, so for you I’d guess it’s a matter of compassion and patience. I don’t just mean compassion for yourself, but compassion for others, too. Because they are intimately linked. Often our fears are based on what others will think of us if we do x, and we construct that idea based on what we think of others when they do x. Meaning that learning to be compassionate toward other people’s missteps and growing pains and failed attempts is an important part of doing so for ourselves. Many preach that you ought to stop caring what other people think in order to accept yourself, but I find compassion to be a far more inviting approach.
Here’s what compassion for yourself might look like: Of course I miss being a child with no responsibilities or insecurities. Of course I feel pressure to perform my values — it’s become cultural currency. Of course I don’t know who I am yet, I’m still figuring out what I like and don’t like, want and don’t want. Of course I changed when I went to college; that’s the express purpose of it. Of course I navigated through life the way I did — it was all I knew. Of course I’m afraid of everything, I’m knee deep in searching for myself. How am I supposed to navigate life without knowing who I am first?
You said you weren’t being harsh with yourself, but I think you are. What you’re experiencing is a reasonable and important part of growing up. That you can see the inner workings of your own coping mechanisms speaks to an emotional intelligence that sounds like a whole lot more than having “no idea who you are.” Here are some things I think you are, just based on your letter: anxious, a critical thinker, highly sensitive, attuned to human desire, steadfast in your pursuit of inner harmony. These are interesting qualities — those of some of my favorite people, in fact.
When we’re young we’re implored to describe and identify ourselves in much more literal ways (“into knitting,” “going to medical school,” “a dog person”), but over time life gets much mushier, and the makings of a personality much more elusive. This transition into the figurative can be tough. Everyone responds to it differently — by hiding behind who they want to be, by avoiding ridicule, by standing completely still. But the only way to escape these holding patterns is to have enough compassion for the process to allow yourself to move through and beyond it. To try new things out of curiosity — even if you’ll fail — to unpack what you like and why, to experiment with new versions of who you could be. It’s a messy-ass process, and it’s inevitable that you’ll feel out of control and look dumb at some point, with squash all over your face. But that’s where patience comes in.
Here’s what being patient with yourself might look like: I’m not sure who I am yet, but it will become clearer in time. I miss who I was as a child, but there is a depth and nuance to me today that I’m willing to explore. I’m afraid that I’m a fraud, but it’s not too late to examine my values and learn how they can fit more practically into my life. I’m overwhelmed by the journey ahead, but also excited for it. I’ve made mistakes, but I’m still learning.
This hugely embarrassing and circuitous journey is worth it because working for someone you respect starts with respecting yourself. And respecting yourself is really just a form of accepting yourself — falsities and all. It’s accepting that change is inevitable, and that you’re normal for begrudging and fearing it, but are also capable of weathering it. Finding your path forward, then, is a lot less about looking ahead with a confident gaze than it is about looking around with a forgiving one.
What if you tried saying some of these fears out loud? How would it feel to say to a confidant, “Sometimes the realization that I talk about the causes I care about way more than I do anything for them makes me sick”? Or “I feel like my entire personality has been subsumed by my fears”? Or “I’ve spent so long assuming things would work out and now I’m terrified they won’t”? Sometimes letting these things out is the easiest way to recognize their smallness and move past them. Everyone thinks these things from time to time — I think you’d be surprised how many would admit to you that they shared your fears.
When I was 25 and feeling consumed by those same worries (now replaced with a new set), turning them over with a few choice friends become one of the most treasured, formative experiences of my life. Realizing that I was not some hollow, delusional freak was key in breaking me out of my shame cocoon so I could move a little bit. Movement is key — it’s the antidote to the safe, clean, conflict-free stagnation you’re feeling right now.
You’re right when you say that wanting to become who you were when you were a child is unrealistic — but reconnecting with the sense of freedom that defined your childhood is not. The ability to be playful, curious and childlike exists within all of us. Especially the parts of ourselves that are compassionate enough to try new things, patient enough to fail at them, and, above all, willing to get a little dirty in the process.
Ask MR Identity by Madeline Montoya.