This essay originated as a post on my blog, another writing mom, in August 2015. I have adapted and expanded it for OTV’s October identity theme. TW for mentions of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, sexual coercion, and gaslighting.
I wrote the following sentence over a year ago: “Knowing myself, being myself, even while chaos swirls around me, is my definition of happiness.”
Sounds great, right? A little gooey, maybe, but I was writing about happiness, and how to tell if you’re happy, because I was feeling happy at the time.
But how do you know if you know yourself?
I ask because the day I birthed that sentence, I had a conversation with someone versed in these issues. This person asked me if I had a strong sense of who I was. I said yes, without hesitation. This person asked me to elaborate, and pointedly asked, “So, who are you?”
Me: I’m a writer and a mother.
X: That’s something you do, and a role that is contingent upon someone else. Who are you?
Me: An artist. A communicator. A creator. Someone who tries to figure out and show what things mean. A protector and teacher.
X: What does that mean?
Me: Um. Ummmmm.
X: Ok. What else? Who are you?
Me: I’m passionate and loyal. I love the things I love loudly, proudly, and forever.
X: Good. What else?
Me: Um. I love food. I love music. I love being outside–
X: I’m going to interrupt you because you are now just listing likes and dislikes, and those are preferences, not traits.
Me: Ok, so I’m someone who doesn’t follow directions?
We laughed. This person laughed harder than I did.
Hi, I’m Stacia, and I tell self-deprecating jokes when I’m profoundly uncomfortable because someone has matter-of-factly pointed out that what I thought I knew about myself, I might not really know at all, and I’m possibly in the throes of a full-fledged, trauma-induced identity crisis.
Honest to goddess, this really shook me. I’ve walked around my whole life with the outward swagger of someone who knows who she is; but the more reading on identity/sense of self I’ve done, the more I’m realizing the huge difference between the public persona and, well, the soul. Who you are when no one’s looking or listening. Who you are if you could see the true patterns of your psychology, your actions and reactions, and how they are influenced by external factors and your own self-consciousness. Who you are if you were stripped of your relationships and career, or all the external things that you THINK make up who you are, the way I thought that a love of music, among other things, somehow defined me.
What are my values–not the ones I want to have, but the ones I DO have? What are the values of my family of origin? Am I suppressing or controlling traits that do not fit my idea of who I am or want to be? How do I handle it when things don’t go the way I want them to? Can I even attempt to answer the question: How do I know and experience my inner self? (I can’t. Yet. I am so much more brand-new than I thought I was.)
Anyway, this post isn’t really about who I am so much as my considerations of how we construct identity and how I came to them. I will say that I took the Myers-Briggs test and discovered I, along with only about two percent of the population, am an INFJ. Reading the description of my personality type was illuminating because I could never decide if I was an introvert or an extrovert. I have these strong bursts of energy where I want to socialize, where I crave connection. But the feeling is short-lived and I often find myself in the middle of a gathering feeling suddenly desperate to be alone.
I am talkative and loud, but easily and quickly exhausted in social situations, even those I am excited about attending. I’m the one who wanders away from the campfire to breathe alone in the dark woods. I’m the one who sits in a bathroom stall for 20 minutes at a concert. I’m the one who closes the office door to do standing forward bends and tree pose because I just can’t with people and need to remember to breathe. I’m the one who drags myself from bed before anyone else so I can sip coffee alone for 15 minutes before starting my day. I am apparently a true INFJ.
What that tells me about identity construction is, sometimes we perform our identities. Sometimes we do, think, say, feel, and act according to preconceived notions about the expectations of others. Social conditioning, self-consciousness, gender, education, race, class, ability—these are all factors in how we decide to perform, if we “decide” at all. Consciously and unconsciously, we do not always behave in ways that are true to our identities.
And now I will talk about trauma. Imagine you were once a young girl who was berated and silenced on a daily basis, constantly told to shut up and go to your room, put down and told that everything you felt or thought you knew was wrong. Never hugged.
Imagine that little girl growing into an adolescent as the emotional and verbal abuse grew worse. Imagine the gaslighting of hearing your parents screaming at each other, then being told we weren’t fighting, what are you talking about? Of witnessing conflicts that everyone around you later denied. Imagine being grounded for speaking. Imagine being grounded not only from talking on the phone or going to a friend’s house, but from visiting family members, stepping outside, or opening a book.
Imagine that adolescent girl growing into an adult and never being sure of the people she talks to, works with, loves—are they really listening? Do they actually care? Is she doing a good job, or isn’t she? Do they love her back or will they deny it tomorrow? Is any of this even happening?
Imagine this adult woman being charmed into a relationship with an abusive man, one who promises her the blood moon but blames her for its being out of reach. Imagine her enduring insults and rage and intimidation that feel so familiar. Imagine her being trapped inside her own house. Imagine her being assaulted on a regular basis. Imagine her hiding bruises and smiling for pictures. Imagine her being coerced into sex she’s afraid to say no to. Imagine her begging people for help and being ignored.
Whether it’s one instance of trauma or a pattern of sustained traumatic experiences spread over the course of decades, the sense of self is eroded. That girl never had the identity that began to emerge in her early teen years confirmed or validated by her family. She did not master that developmental milestone of adolescence where she might have learned that other people’s opinions do not define her. She never learned to trust anyone completely, but also, she never learned how or who not to trust, so relationships of any kind were complicated and risky.
She performed the identity of someone who was okay, or should be okay because none of it was that bad, others have it worse, stop whining. She stayed too long in dysfunctional (but non-abusive) relationships because she was afraid to fail again, because of course all of this was her fault and she was worthless. And even when she was being abused and knew that part wasn’t her fault, she shudders to think where she might have drawn the line if she hadn’t had a little boy to protect or a writing practice (the one constant of her “identity”) to defend and maintain.
I could be talking about myself here, but really, who knows?
How do we know ourselves? We turn inward. We dig deep. We reflect. We take on the probably inviable task of separating our likes and dislikes from our values and sense of how our experiences have shaped us. We also try to separate our idea of who we want to be from who we actually are in the present moment; we work backwards from our goals and assess where, who, and why we are. We close ourselves off from others’ opinions and listen to our quietest internal voices. We write. We remember. We face hard truths—what, you think I want to admit that I feel 15 most days, or that my childhood wounds, the ones I thought I’d healed from, made me more susceptible to missing the red flags upon entering a relationship with an abuser?
Knowing yourself is not a point of arrival, but a sojourn. It’s hard and necessary, if you ever want to break your most obstructive patterns and evolve. Knowing yourself is growing up for real. Knowing yourself is both impossible and possible.
I am someone who
knows is learning these things.
Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of two full-length and three chapbook poetry collections, most recently antidote (Winged City Press 2013). Her poems have appeared in North American Review, Fourth River, Barn Owl Review, UCity Review, decomP’s Best of 10 Years anthology, Crab Creek Review, Knockout, Best of the Net 2011, and more. Her essays have appeared at Quaint Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine and Delirious Hem. She co-founded Blood Lotus, teaches online writing courses for the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing, and works for the Peace & Conflict Studies department of a private liberal arts college in central PA. She’s @shapeshifter43 on Twitter and blogs at anotherwritingmom.wordpress.com.