Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

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Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by ElizaJane on Sun Jun 05, 2016 11:57 pm

In one of my recent disastrous attempts at therapy, I commented to my therapist that I've spent so long chameleoning that I don't know how to be myself anymore. I don't know how to relax. I don't know how to enjoy myself. Almost everything that I've ever done for pleasure, I have to find a way to make it serve other people as well: knitting prayer shawls and baby hats for hospitals, baking for my neighbors, growing food to feed my kids healthier options.

She said, "I don't know why you feel the need to do that. I find you very likable just as you are. You aren't playing a part for me, are you?"

"Yes!" I said. "But it's not playing a part. It's becoming the person who belongs here, in this room, talking to you."

She got very upset with me (one of many reasons it was a disastrous attempt) and told me if I'm going to lie to her we'll never get anywhere.

But it's not lying. It's a reality of not having a solid core personality. Even my likes and dislikes change based on who I'm with. It's not pretense. I just don't seem to have a base "me" at the center, someone I am by default when no one else is around. Solo me always has a viewing audience somewhere in my mind that I am performing for.

Do other people have this same issue? How do you find the real person you are at rest, and bring that genuine person into your life more fully?

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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by BasedBuzzed on Mon Jun 06, 2016 7:59 am

A bit, though without the pleasing-other-people part as much as "what makes a good story of the self?", coalescing mostly around flattering arcehtypes of what I'm already doing. The Dude, The Loveable Loser, The Clown, etcetera.

For me, it's a dose of Impostor Syndrome, filling in what you think people want to hear because you genuinely don't know how you could sum up the vast experiences you have inside, fear of exclusion and a forced habit of constantly questioning myself. It's a loop with no real satisfactory answer, as far as I know.

In my case, "Is the constant self-doubt of true identity not also an identity? There's probably a trope out there about the romanticism of the person who doesn't belong anywhere." Perhaps in your case, "Whose definition of full, real person am I working with? There's possibly a crowd out there I'm looking to please with this definition of authentic, independent self." I'd say, toss the question, although I am still trying to figure out how myself.

Ask for each activity, "would I be enjoy this if I would only do it for myself? What would I want from it, how would I rate the quality of the activity if I was the only person in the room?

Next, "is the fact that others might benefit from the activity a detriment or an asset to my own enjoyment (I've put an awesome spun on a recipe and I want to test it on my neighbours vs. I like experimenting in cooking, but I know my neighbours would find it odd. If the latter is true, scrap the altruistic part)?"

Finally, "who do I have to justify this to, what is the most horrible caricature I think of to match that sentiment, and how would I sound when I would blow a gasket towards said person?"
Person: ElizaJane, you're so busy with these new artistic patterns and they're beautiful, but it won't make a iota of difference to the baby who is going to wear it. I don't understand why you're wasting your time with this, is this another one of those finding-yourself moments that will blow over in a month?
Imaginary EJ: Listen here, you philistine. If we get truly so reductionist, I would be ditching the baby hats and starting knitting bednets against malaria. This way it brings me satisfaction and motivates me, so you can shut up and put up. You don't need to understand and can think of it as a flight of fancy if that pleases you, but the Golden Ratio is going to keep being a central part of these baby hats. Now vamoose!

Also, Anaïs Nin had some pretty good writing on how the concept of a core self is actually a lie: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/12/19/anais-nin-leo-lerman/ Severing that question from the question of how you can enjoy yourself sincerely and kick the imaginary audience to the curb could perhaps be helpful.

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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by Hirundo Bos on Mon Jun 06, 2016 10:10 am

ElizaJane, I'm sorry your therapist acted that way. I wasn't there, and don't want to have too strong of an opinion on your behalf... but doesn't that sound like almost the opposite of how a therapist is supposed to work? Like, try to convince you out of a feeling? Respond to your remark that you're losing yourself to be likeable by saying "well you do look very likeable to me"? Reacting to something you say from a vulnerable by blowing up and calling you a liar? Does not sound like the therapy training I went through in my time.

Your description of chameleoning sounds pretty familiar to me, it sounds a lot like what I'm calling my encounter suit, the personality I put on when I interface with other people. (A shell similar to but perceivably not human, with a weird glowing cephalopod thing inside.)

Mine is a little similar to BazedBuzzed's one I think, in that I play more on entertaining people than on pleasing them. And the difference has probably something to do with cultural expectations of gender... my encounter suit started to take shape in my mid-teens, and was inspired by people like Monthy Python and Douglas Adams and a Norwegian author called Tor Åge Bringsværd. Back then I started to do a lot of loudly weird things (that were appreciated because of the smartness people saw behind), while now I've toned it down more towards "loveable eccentric".

And it works for me in many ways. People for the most part like me, are motivated to be nice to me, don't react too badly to the jarring white noise of weirdness that lies behind eccentric show (they may not even perceive it), but it hasn't helped me connect very well to others, or to myself.

And I haven't been able to put into words exactly what that means, because in a way I have been very open about myself. I share a lot of facts, I'm pretty honest about my flaws and shortcomings... but there's been parts of me I've been so afraid about, I've hardly been able to share them with myself.

In my case it's been mostly my emotions... I spent a lot of my childhood trying to keep them in check, because when they burst out it resulted in lots of negative feedback... this was especially true for my anger. Additionally, emotions used to be pretty overwhelming for me, both cognitively and somatically (I have somewhat hypersensitive body senses), I had a hard time perceiving nuance and meaning, and I thought it better to avoid them when I could.

I've also been afraid to show – or have – desires, particularly desires for physical intimacy and social belonging, but almost any kind of wanting has been connected with some fear. I remember once I asked for a particular book in a store, I was almost surprised when the bookseller didn't climb the counter yelling at me, because how DARED I assume I was the right reader for that book. (In reality she said "okay" and went to find it.)

I'm speaking in the past tense though, because I'm starting to become more connected to these parts of myself now. It's part of the big changes, the new chapter of my life type of changes I've been going through this year, and I'm still trying to understand what they're about... therapy is part of it, because I've been luckier with my therapists than you. And I've done some self-administered exposure therapy as well, where I've practiced some vulnerability, made known to the world that I do have emotions and desires, and after a while they've started to not feel so scary at all. And I've worked a lot with body awareness, and learned to read those my hypersensitive body senses of mine. I've gone from "any strong feeling is painful" through "hey, I can actually tell the difference between thirst, mild hunger, and overheating" to "I can distinguish with some precision where that person wants this flirting to go".

So that's me... I don't know if any of these options are available to you... but I hope you do find the you-at-rest, because it can be a pretty good feeling when you do.
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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by Enail on Mon Jun 06, 2016 12:40 pm

That therapist sounds terrible, sorry therapy's been so disastrous so far!

You're definitely not the only person who feels like that, I think a few other people have even mentioned that kind of chameleoning/lack of core self in posts on this forum. I think I'm someone who could be said to have a 'real me,' so I guess my experience is more a comparison point than anything directly relevant to you.

But even for me, a "real self" is sort of a lie or at least an exaggeration. I vary a lot in different circumstances; as a kid, report card comments showed a totally different person depending on which teacher. But I often sort of do the opposite of chameleoning, I'll be the quiet one around social people or the enthusiastic one with timid people, and so on. I'm not sure whether it would be more accurate to say it's a way of being accommodating and sliding into an unfilled niche or if it's a way of being contrary and standing out. If I feel pushed, I'll get stubborn and hold my ground, but if I feel free to do what I want, I'll often adapt fit with those around me. So is my true self adaptable or is it that those qualities are not part of my core self? I don't know.

There are a lot of things where my likes and dislikes are variable depending on time and mood and situation. Many of them are true enough of the time that I sort of round up and say "that's the real me," but even those things have their high and low tides - for example, I could say I've always been into drawing, because I remember liking drawing as a kid, and I like it now. But there've been gaps when I had no interest in it at all, probably a decade total in my life, so was I not being the real me then? Or is saying that's an aspect of real me just simplifying my self to create a me-character I can get a handle on in the story of my life, much like what BasedBuzzed says. Or even something simple like "I like ice cream" - if I'm not paying attention, I'll just go with a default of getting ice cream if available because I think of myself as someone who likes ice cream, but occasionally I realize as I'm eating it that no, I didn't want ice cream this particular time.

The things that change less are a few ways of thinking (eg. I like imagining and questions of 'what if,' I think life is complex and full of shades of grey) and some values (I think it's important to stand up for people who need it, I believe in looking out for the people I care about most).

I think it's okay if you don't have a 'core self;' you exist and have value as a human being whether or not you can pin down who "you" is, so I hope you won't let that be a source of feeling less real or valid than other people (and as BasedBuzzed said, the not-having could itself be part of a real you). I wonder if maybe instead of trying to find some kind of ultimate 'real you,' it would be easier and more productive to start by paying attention to the you of each moment, to see if there's a quiet voice right now that feels X or wants to do Y? As Hirundo mentions, figuring out what your body wants, seeing what comes up if you give yourself permission to have desires. And from an aggregate of moments, maybe you'd be able to start generalizing, "I often find X relaxing," "I usually enjoy Y" - I don't know if it would feel to you like a genuine self, but I think that kind of generalizing is all a genuine self really is, and either way, hopefully it would help in the practical questions of relaxing and enjoying in your life?
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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by Werel on Mon Jun 06, 2016 8:39 pm

Enail wrote:There are a lot of things where my likes and dislikes are variable depending on time and mood and situation. Many of them are true enough of the time that I sort of round up and say "that's the real me," but even those things have their high and low tides...  I think that kind of generalizing is all a genuine self really is.
This is a really good way of putting it. Aside from immutable stuff like our eye color or blood type, there are very few things about a person that stay static; I think for most folks, our "self" is a bunch of recurring patterns that we round up to constants for the sake of efficiency (or narrative, like BasedBuzzed pointed out). Plus, most of the trendy research in social sciences these days approaches identity as something fluid, shifting, and constantly constructed and re-constructed based on external circumstance, so your experience lines up with the au courant shit in academia. Wink

In your case, could you consider "service-oriented" to be a part of your self? If you usually don't feel fulfilled or motivated by activities that aren't useful to someone else, boom, there's a "core aspect." Adaptability also totally counts as a core aspect in my book.

One last thought about the perceived necessity of a core identity to being a "real person"... Devoting a lot of thought to "who you are" is one of those luxuries we don't talk about as a luxury, but it is! It's hard to focus on what makes you you when you've got other people to take care of, or you're just struggling to get by (or you're from a culture which doesn't see identity as something which individuals define for themselves, but that's off-topic). Reflecting on this stuff requires free time and mental energy, which not everyone has much of, and they shouldn't feel bad for not having enough of those things. Plus, we (Americans, which you are IIRC) are encouraged so strongly to define ourselves by our consumer choices--Knicks fan, PC gamer, vegan foodie, Jezebel reader, Republican--that if you're not buying a bunch of goods and services as part of a well-established demographic, our cultural vocabulary for your identity has big gaps in it. So maybe you're also giving too much power to this idea that you need a well-defined core identity. Plenty of people don't spend much time thinking about it, or think about it in really different ways, and they manage just fine; what do you hope to gain from defining "who am I" in the way your therapist wanted you to? If you can't think of a reason you need it, maybe don't sweat it too much?
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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by ElizaJane on Mon Jun 06, 2016 10:23 pm

Thanks for the responses, everyone! I think just knowing that struggling with this question doesn't make me an anomaly is helpful all in and of itself.

To her credit (and I don't give her much credit, because she was awful in many ways), the original question from my therapist was rooted in something valid. She was asking what made me happy, and my answer was, "I don't really know. I tend to drift along with the group I'm in and adopt their patterns, but real happiness isn't something I even know how to feel anymore, or how to identify if I did feel it."

So part of figuring out how to stop a grind of life that is just survival is to find a way to be happy and fulfilled, and part of self-care is learning what I want to do for myself, not for appearance's sake. But I don't know how to find myself to ask. When I'm not with others, I kind of turn off. I get exhausted by people, but I define myself and my success by their reactions to me. Even when alone, I have an imagined audience in my head, and my whole being is a performance of a shifting persona.

It's exhausting, but I don't know how to stop.

Anecdote: When I was a kid, I sometimes found myself breathing along with my footsteps. I couldn't break out of the pattern without stopping breathing. Even deciding to stop walking, if I didn't keep imagining it in my head, my breath just wouldn't come. Life now feels a bit like that, like I am a character in a movie, and without the audience to perceive me, I just don't exist.

(I am also struggling with some horrifically bad reactions to antidepressants this month, on top of terrifyingly burdensome medical issues for my kids, so I suspect that I am feeling more fractured and detached than usual. I just know that if I don't find a way to take care of myself, I am not going to survive the next year, and I don't know how to find myself to offer care.)

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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by Enail on Mon Jun 06, 2016 10:49 pm

Oh, ElizaJane, that sounds so awful, I hope the reactions ease up soon and that the medical issues should clear up.

Have you ever tried meditation? It does tend to take practice, but it can be good for slowing down and just being, maybe that would be a way to try stopping the performance a bit? One thing that I did in a course (that I hated violently, but not for reasons that make me think it wouldn't be useful to other people Wink) that seems like maybe it could be useful was practicing breathing slowly and noticing each breath, and then watching your thoughts as if they're projected on a screen, just seeing them and acknowledging them and then watching them pass off the screen and away.
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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by Werel on Mon Jun 06, 2016 10:51 pm

That sounds insanely exhausting and painful, ElizaJane, and I'm sorry you're feeling so personally adrift while dealing with family medical burdens (though IMHO there's nothing like external stress/crisis to provoke a fracturing of our self-image). Big hugs.

How to find yourself in order to offer yourself care is just a heartbreaking question on its own, but: maybe start with the care that's applicable to everyone? Nutrition, movement, water, sleep?

And if you can't get around the feeling of constantly performing, is there any way to... be your own audience sometimes, or at least swap out your imaginary audience for one filled with versions of you? You probably have some sense of which behaviors/traits you approve of and respect in others; could you pretend you're assessing yourself the same way? Working towards an ElizaJane-Approved™ version of ElizaJane might point you in the direction of fulfillment and happiness.
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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by ElizaJane on Mon Jun 06, 2016 11:02 pm

Email: I have tried meditation, actually! It doesn't seem to work for me like other people. I spent a few weeks doing it daily, and noticing my breathing was really easy and feeling my weight and letting sounds come at me was really easily. But in the part where I was supposed to let the thoughts come, all of my thoughts were things like, "Am I doing this right?" and "What am I thinking right now? Am I thinking something?" and "What am I supposed to be feeling? Is this the way this is supposed to work?" It started kind of relaxing, but got more stressful as I started to feel like the guided meditation guy was judging me through the audio track, so I stopped.

Werel: that's an interesting idea. I'm not sure how that would work for me, because I can't even imagine what that audience would want. I have historically found myself closest to that when I reach for that spot through faith, with a "Okay, how about if I behave in the way that makes me closest to the Christian ideal I find in the New Testament?" but that framing is about selflessness and giving. It leaves me feeling like a good person, but I just have nowhere to reach for anything of myself to give right now.

I have been trying for self-care in the "stay alive" sense, but I find my emotional wellbeing fracturing to the level where I have spent a minimum of 2 hours in tears every day for the last week and a half, and that is obviously not sustainable long-term. I have some time off this weekend, when my ex has the kids*. I plan to sleep at least 12 hours a day, but I feel like I should do something to feed my soul, and I can't figure out what that could be. I don't know what is good for me anymore.

(* and all I have to worry about is whether he'll feed my daughter donuts then send her off to play at the park for three hours while not bringing her diabetes kit, leading to spiking and crashing blood sugars, or let our autistic son watch unsupervised YouTube and feed the bad behaviors that almost got him suspended)

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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by Enail on Mon Jun 06, 2016 11:33 pm

ElizaJane wrote:Email: I have tried meditation, actually!  It doesn't seem to work for me like other people.  I spent a few weeks doing it daily, and noticing my breathing was really easy and feeling my weight and letting sounds come at me was really easily.  But in the part where I was supposed to let the thoughts come, all of my thoughts were things like, "Am I doing this right?" and "What am I thinking right now?  Am I thinking something?" and "What am I supposed to be feeling?  Is this the way this is supposed to work?"  It started kind of relaxing, but got more stressful as I started to feel like the guided meditation guy was judging me through the audio track, so I stopped.

Aaaah, sorry it doesn't work for you, but Meditation-proof People solidarity fistbump! Wink


I have been trying for self-care in the "stay alive" sense, but I find my emotional wellbeing fracturing to the level where I have spent a minimum of 2 hours in tears every day for the last week and a half, and that is obviously not sustainable long-term.  I have some time off this weekend, when my ex has the kids*.  I plan to sleep at least 12 hours a day, but I feel like I should do something to feed my soul, and I can't figure out what that could be.  I don't know what is good for me anymore.

Could you maybe try a selection of a few different things that are generally considered relaxing and/or soul-nourishing and see if you can identify any that you feel some kind of positive response to? Like take a soothing bath, a walk in a nature-y place if such a thing is accessible, colour in a colouring book, swimming, listening to uplifting music, those kinds of things?
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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by ElizaJane on Mon Jun 06, 2016 11:35 pm

Enail wrote:Could you maybe try a selection of a few different things that are generally considered relaxing and/or soul-nourishing and see if you can identify any that you feel some kind of positive response to? Like take a soothing bath, a walk in a nature-y place if such a thing is accessible, colour in a colouring book, swimming, listening to uplifting music, those kinds of things?

That is a really good suggestion. I think as long as I can keep from feeling stressed out about needing to accomplish all the experiments, that might be a good place to start. I need to find away to lower the pressure and the stakes for myself.

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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by Enail on Mon Jun 06, 2016 11:43 pm

Would it help to make your one mandatory task be "ask yourself if you want to try this thing (or if you're enjoying the thing during)," with yes, no and "unsure, flip a coin" all valid answers? Maybe even give yourself a point for every time you ask no matter what the answer so that just considering the question is the Thing You Have to Do rather than doing all the things on your list ?
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Re: Asking "Who Am I?" [disc]

Post by Wondering on Tue Jun 07, 2016 12:37 am

ElizaJane wrote:(* and all I have to worry about is whether he'll feed my daughter donuts then send her off to play at the park for three hours while not bringing her diabetes kit, leading to spiking and crashing blood sugars

ElizaJane, did your daughter get diagnosed Type 1? If so, do you want to talk? I am more than happy to be an ear and share any of my experiences being a child (and teen and now adult) with Type 1 if you are interested. Feel free to PM me any time.

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