Who am I? It's one of the earliest questions—or maybe the earliest question—we ask in life. It's also the question that we will continue to ask, answer, and reanswer. Our earliest answer is one that is much more given to us than something we find for ourselves. Yes, our parents, friends, families, and even society at large will all have things to say about who I am, who you are.
True identity does not enter from the external; it emanates from within. We must unlearn the former before we can embrace the latter. Our earliest idea of identity is one that is bequeathed to us by those who care for us. Our earliest idea of identity is much more of a persona than an identity.
Often with the best of intentions, our caretakers—whoever they may have been—try to answer this question for us. They reinforce certain behaviors, teach us that specific ways of being are acceptable while others are not. They speak attributes over us and we internalize them on the deepest levels. They become us, or should I say we become them. With the best of intentions, we still find ourselves lost.
We, sponge-like infants at this time, are no longer who we were. We cannot be. Because we need love, nourishment, and shelter. Thus, we begin to cover over our identity with the persona that we diligently patchwork together throughout many years into beautiful—albeit false—facades. We may even craft them so well that we forget there was ever anything behind our tragically intricate and lovely piece of art.
The persona—the facade I just spoke of—is a comfortable piece of armor. It feels like home once we finally feel the first rumblings of the shifting tectonic plates underneath our foundations. I know from experience that the first crack was revealed rather painfully when my parents separated.
I was wounded deeply at that time.
However, this was not my awakening. So, I got to work repairing the mask, perfecting the persona to the point that such an event in the future could not hurt me again. Certainly not in the same way it had before. It would take much more for me to ask different, more introspective, questions of myself.
In some ways, I've always been a late bloomer, or so I thought. It took love leaving—or, more accurately, asking me to leave—for me to begin to abandon the charade. Only when I began to set it aside did I realize how heavy it had been all along. And once again it had failed me. I was wounded—mortally, I was convinced. That was the day that the last of the bedrock underneath the personality eroded. I gave way.
Like a tidal wave, I realized that I had built this idea of identity upon my relationships with others. As a teenager, I had lost the dream of my perfect family. As a late twenty-something, I had lost the dream of my perfect family again, in the sense of my marriage. As the last grains of that relationship slipped between my fingers, I realized that I had nothing left. Who I was—how I had defined myself—was gone, dead. I could not get that back no matter how hard or how cleverly I tried.
Who am I?
"No one, nothing," was the initial reply from the depths. Those words were not wrong, yet they were a mere half-truth. I was no longer who I was told that I was by my loved ones, friends, family, or society. But I knew that I was someone. That was when the internal journey began.
It's a terrifying place, the self, where I started exploring. After nearly three decades, there was too much that I did not want to find. I was often overwhelmed in the early days. Impure motives and dysfunctional defenses imperiled much of the early journey. I was very fortunate to have found the guidance and support that I did. In a very real way, my therapist, family, and friends—all of them—saved my life.
The process has been messy. For one so intent on maintaining a manicured appearance, it has been a supremely painful and humbling experience in integration. By no means do I consider this journey culminated—I approach the question from a different angle. The process is one of trajectory and experience; I am far more interested in where I am heading and the scenery along the way.
Put another way, I believe this life is one of learning to forget our identity—who we were from the beginning, who we never actually cease to be. In our adaptive attempts at survival as children, we carefully curate a sense of amnesia that ceases to serve us at some point. Once we become aware that our once adaptive efforts are now maladaptive, the task becomes to unlearn this systemic amnesia and try to remember, to uncover, our true identity.
Re-membering is arguably the most critical task of life. It is arduous and fraught with pitfalls. Many of us give up. Many of us settle for another identity to be validated by other, external, false selves. For some of us, this takes the form of religion, politics, or social media.
Rather than answering the question and connecting from a place of wholeness and vulnerability, we seek validation of the persona. When the persona is validated, and we feel seen, we will give our lives to whatever or whomever provides the nutrients we need to live. And we do terrible things in the name of this savior. We will defend this life force fiercely, even if we know it is in some way killing us.
We either consider this person or institution to be without flaw or we we seek to perfect it. We need this because we want ourselves to be found not lacking. We need the external to be perfect because we cannot accept the internal. Thus, if the external is perfect then we can claim this for ourselves by association.
In this sort of belonging, I redirect my personal pursuit of perfection. If I can create or belong to something or someone that is perfect, then I, by extension, am perfect. And if I am perfect, then I believe I will no longer feel the soul ache from the wound in my self that I keep trying to numb while I fill it.
So what am I trying to make perfect? Simultaneously, what am I using to keep myself numb in the midst of the pursuit?
Who am I?