You’d think that being yourself would be the easiest thing in the world, wouldn’t you?
But I think we lose ourselves somewhere along the way. I suspect it starts in sixth grade, meaning middle school, which is a sort of state-sponsored engine for the crushing of souls. In sixth grade we learn, if we haven’t learned it already, that we’re supposed to be a number of things we probably aren’t naturally, such as cool. Sixth grade was when I first started to realize that there were fashionable clothes, and that I didn’t have them.
And then there’s high school, where the message becomes more complex and sophisticated. In my high school, there was tracking, which meant that certain kids were on the academic track and certain kids weren’t. (I was on the honors track, which was a separate system, about fifteen of us taking classes all together, essentially separated from the rest of the school. Imagine how cool that made us! If you did not notice the sarcasm in that last sentence, you must have gone to school in another country.)
What were the expectations placed on me? I was supposed to be pretty and have boyfriends. That was what my peers expected. I was supposed to excel academically, that was what the school expected. I was supposed to go to a good college so I could eventually have a successful, meaning reasonably lucrative, career. That was what my family expected.
I had a vague idea though all this that I wanted to be a writer, that writing was somehow at my core. But I was also the captain of the debate team, because I was probably going to law school, and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland because my boyfriend was in drama, and on the tennis team I have no idea why, because I’m naturally the sort of person who cannot hit balls.
And then I went to college at the University of Virginia, and I was supposed to be pretty and have boyfriends and excel academically and go to law school, but by then I think I had developed a subversive streak. I worked as an artist’s model, I dated the boys who had to leave next semester, I stopped telling my family which classes I was taking because they were simply not going to understand how African and Caribbean Literature was going to advance my career.
But I still went to Harvard Law School. And that was it for me. I think at one point, on the forty-second floor of the MetLife building in Manhattan, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and asked the Caterpillar’s question: who are you?
It’s very difficult, after you’ve spent twenty years and eighty thousand dollars becoming someone else, to become yourself again. It takes time. At that point you can’t just be yourself anymore, because you have no idea who you are. You have to figure it out.
I’m sure there’s a better and easier way than the way I tried, the way that more or less worked for me, over time. I first read about it in Oprah Magazine, make of that what you will. The way has two steps:
First, ask yourself what you like.
Second, try to go in that direction.
So for example, if you’re standing in front of a display case full of cakes, as I was yesterday at Berdick’s, look at all the cakes carefully and ask yourself, what do I actually like? Do not order the richest, most chocolaty thing because that’s what you’re supposed to order in a chocolate shop. Do not order whatever looks least caloric because you’re supposed to be losing weight. Try to figure out what you actually want. And then get it, unless you’re simply not sure. In that case, order something as an experiment, and see if you like it. Treat your journey through the world on any particular day as an experiment in what you like.
There are a number of things I thought I liked that I realized I didn’t like after all. Dramatic, sweeping skirts. They were gorgeous, and I kept stepping on them. Waist-length hair. I had it for years, and it didn’t actually suit me. (I grew up with short hair, which was my mother’s idea, and that didn’t suit me either. So I’ve been to both extremes.) I’ve been through three different pianos because I thought I really ought to have a piano, and they were free. (There are a lot of free upright pianos out there.) Each time, they took up space and were never played. And don’t get me started on when I adopted two borzois because I had a secret thought that I might be a Russian countess under the skin. (I am not. I like pets that walk themselves and have no deep-seated desire to slay wolves on the steppes.) And no matter how beautiful I think hats are, I will never, ever wear them because I find them hot and itchy. And they’re always blowing off in the wind.
In other words, I’ve made some strange mistakes.
The surest way to become yourself again, I think, is to discover what you actually like, item by item, and fearlessly acknowledge it, no matter how uncool it makes you. I have a passion for murder mysteries, for example. I like Land’s End cardigans, and buy them in various colors. I also like pearls, and brooches of various kinds (I know, what am I, sixty-two?). Also, The Secret of Roan Inish and banana splits (I know, what am I, twelve?). I will probably never wear a scarf, because I have a passion for murder mysteries and it would give someone a convenient way to murder me, thank you. Most modern dance bores me, but then so does most Russian ballet. I don’t really see the point of modernist art. I love the pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau, and if that means I have bad taste, so be it.
I remember the days when I used to write with a fountain pen, until I realized I didn’t really like it. I was just trying to fit an image I had of myself as a writer. Now I write with a cheap rolling ball ink pen.
Figure out what you like and move toward it, one item at a time. Each item individually may seem trivial. But in the end, you will start to figure out who you are, and to become it.
(Me on Peak’s Island, being very much myself . . .)
I think sometimes, too, there’s a word. I was well into my 40s when I suddenly realized, what I really am is a priestess. And that everything that I do, own, work for, etc. should be congruent with that. It was at that point that I began to eliminate a lot of stuff that wasn’t really me.
Oh, I love this post. I have copied the two steps to being a happier person into my poetry notebook: First, ask yourself what you like. Second, try to go in that direction. Genius. Thank you thank you thank you.
Also, I love The Secret of Roan Inish and the the pre-Raphaelites as well, but I am also awfully fond of sweep skirts and scarves (sigh). And I did just quit a job that I was quite good at because it was slowly sucking the marrow from my bones.
Your advice couldn’t come at a better time.
Hecate: Yes, I would definitely call you a priestess! 🙂 I think you’re right, sometimes we need to find the word that describes who we are. And I think that’s something that comes to us, rather than something we assign ourselves. The 40s are great! Now that I’m here, I’m not sure how I ever made it through the 20s and 30s . . .
Erin: I’m glad! Yes, it’s simple, isn’t it? And the nice thing is, if you find yourself messing it up, you just start over again at step 1, and take it one thing at a time. Every choice teaches you something . . .
Thank you for this post!
I love the quote about asking yourself what you like, then trying to go in that direction. So simple, yet so many of us (and is it more women, I wonder?) don’t do it. I remember a friend of mine telling me, years ago when we were not yet out of our late teens, that she remembered consciously creating herself; becoming who she wanted to be. That stuck with me, perhaps because I didn’t really understand it at the time. Now, in my forties, I finally do understand what she meant, and have been trying to apply that to various aspects of my life – including my writing and art. What do I really like? It’s funny how much of who we are is often just habit.
Perhaps it’s only with the experience that comes with having lived a bit that most of us can even ask ourselves that question. And, with that experience, have the confidence to answer it honestly.
(Oh, and I totally agree with you about grade 6. Egads! Could Hell be any worse that that??)
Sigh. You are so right that, after twenty years (or so), it’s hard to know who you actually are, when you’ve worked so hard to suppress it.
I have found myself standing in front of the cakes and have been uncertain which one I really wanted.
I am calling this The Year of My Extravagance, and have given myself permission to try Everything.
I love the pre-Raphaelites and Art Nouveau, and if that means I have bad taste, so be it.
Wait, since when is Art Nouveau bad taste? That exhibit the MFA curated last year will be so depressed . . .
(I just showed The Secret of Roan Inish to some friends on Friday. It remains the best unambiguous selkie film I have ever seen.)
I suspect we may have had this conversation but, yes, “The Secret of Roan Inish” rocks.
Did you see “Ondine”, with Colin Farrell? Nowhere near as good as “Inish”, but worth watching, I think.
I think for myself, losing myself happened even before I was born. My mother was extremely narcisstic and I never had a chance to learn what my personal preferences were. I’m not blaming her as I inherited many wonderful traits from her. But, it seems to be the case rather than the norm, where parents can say to a child “What do YOU like? I may like this, but you don’t have to feel the same.” At least I never heard of any parents who’ve done this. I tried to do this with my son, who’s now 23 and definitely has a mind of his own. I was also forced to have a pixie cut which I hated when I was little. You’ve written so beautifully the process to reclaiming ourselves, listening to our intuition, our bodies and our souls..Thank you.
I don’t think who we are is constant. For so many years, I was sandwiched between taking care of my aging mother and my teenage son. Just one of those jobs would have been enough to define me. Now my family is all gone, my son is grown up, and I just went through a divorce. I’m trying things on now, trying to figure out who exactly I am. So far, I’m finding that I’m more poetic than I thought I was. It’s been painful, but interesting.
yes, she nods sagely from the middle 50’s … haha! I’ve finally caught up to the fact that I know who I am but I have no idea what to do- picture a wild haired river daughter glancing at the sky waiting for that perfect wind to blow up and transform her very being. A perfect chameleon – joyously so.
Well. Hmm. What job can I do? Politicians are chameleons too – but somehow I doubt I’d be elected 🙂 so just being it is. Sometimes we simply need to live outloud, right?
thanks for this delightful blogpost. wonderful reinforcements to keep me trying.
“It’s funny how much of who we are is often just habit.” I think that’s so true!
“I am calling this The Year of My Extravagance, and have given myself permission to try Everything.” What a wonderful plan! I love that. 🙂
I haven’t seen Ondine. I should seek it out.
And yes, I think who we are most definitely changes, although I do find that for me, there’s a core identity, a me that hasn’t changed all that much since I was twelve. But I think life is a process of constantly trying to figure out who you are, so you just have to keep applying the steps, keep learning about yourself . . .
So true … Thank you for reinforcing my (slow, but obviously necessarily so) process. I’m 52 chronologically, but various ages emotionally 1, 2, 3, 5,12, 15, 20 … all those ages, I imagine, where I was “shocked” (as my mother would say …), “so I froze” … All those frozen selves lead up to one big traffic jam.
I’m now laying on a thick layer of Compassion and Love to melt all that fear away and release my frozen selves so they/I can resume the process of being
Glad you like! 🙂
I love this so much. I lost myself during middle school, too, and it’s taken years to find me again. Even then, it’s been a work in progress. I’m still discovering what i like and don’t like. It’s been a beautiful, enchanting journey.
Good luck on that journey, Elizabeth! 🙂
This was great. I especially liked the part about just…trying stuff, to see what you like. I think after a certain age we forget how to do that.
So true! And yet we’re always in the process of formation, no matter how old we are . . .