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How to 'Be Yourself' When Trauma Has Splintered Your Identity

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I like to joke with my husband about how he is the most well-adjusted person I know. He is truly happy with himself and who he is and how he lives his life. He genuinely doesn’t think about what others think of him because he’s already content with who he is, so their opinions just … don’t matter to him. Sometimes I try to pick his brain to figure out his secret, but he always says “Just be yourself. That’s all I do.” Seriously, that is his sage advice. As if I haven’t already heard that a million times. If you’re reading this, I love you dear, but anyone who struggles with their identity and self-worth will tell you this is garbage advice.

How are you supposed to “be yourself” when you don’t know who you are? Or, maybe more accurately, how are you supposed to be yourself when there are too many versions of you to consolidate into one consistent “self?” What if “who you are” is constantly shifting?

I know a big part of the reason my “self” shifts so much is to become a version of myself others will approve of. My husband’s solution to this problem would be to just … not care about what others thought. But I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s become automatic. I mean, I don’t sit around thinking about what others think of me or worrying about who I should be around them. At least not consciously. It runs so much deeper than that.

I think the truth is when I have been myself, I’ve been found wanting by the people who are supposed to love me. So, my identity splintered into a million different versions of “myself” to try to avoid that hideously painful reality.

Again, this isn’t really a conscious decision, it’s more of a trauma response, I suppose. It just happens, without my permission. If I’m myself, people will stare at me like I’m an alien or laugh at me when I walk away or tell me to my face how “ridiculous” I’m acting. So, I become someone else, someone less dramatic and weird.

Now, I’m trying to embrace my dramatic and weird, trying to be myself. But I’ve spent so long hiding myself and shape-shifting for other people, I have no idea who that is. I think part of the problem is just being human. In an age where all our hobbies are commodified and everyone has a personal “brand,” we seem to expect ourselves to have one, consistent narrative of the self. But in reality, we are who we are all the time, whether it’s how we “normally” are or not. The self is not something stagnant and matte, but something fluid and iridescent, looking slightly different in every light.

Then again, I think humans tell stories to make sense of the world, and that applies to our sense of self, too. It’s important we’re able to tell the story of ourselves — and that’s where my problem goes beyond the human condition. I might be able to tell my story one day, but then I can tell a completely different one the next. And I tell totally different stories to different people in my life. Which story is true? Which one is “me?” Instead of being solid or fluid, I feel unevenly coagulated.

When I ask my husband how he knows who he is, he says he doesn’t have to know who he is, he just has to be who he is. This is essentially the same advice as “just be yourself,” but I’ll admit it hit me much more profoundly. It’s like I’m a flower, and to try and figure out who I am, I tear off every petal and leaf and yank up my roots to inspect everything, but the process kills me. Whereas my husband on the other hand just … blooms.

I want to bloom, I do. Which means I need to stop the self-destructive behavior of ripping off my own petals. But like I said earlier, a lot of these behaviors and thought processes are automatic, and I have no idea how to slow down and change them without second-guessing my every thought.

I think the key is to start processing what it meant to feel so completely rejected at such a young age and accept it has affected me to my core, and start there. Acceptance. Then maybe I can acknowledge no matter who I am, I’m worthy of love, I guess (that feels gross to write, but I think it’s true, so I’m gonna write it). That might give me the freedom to let go of who I think I’m supposed to be so I can stop examining myself with such a critical eye and just … bloom.

A version of this article was originally published on Megan Writes Everything.

Getty image by unomat

Originally published: January 30, 2020
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