I think a lot of us look back on our past-selves and think, “who was that person?”
We go through transitions constantly. We change our minds, we change ourselves, and we change our surroundings. Sometimes, as we change, we get to know ourselves more – and sometimes, we get to know ourselves less. Unfamiliar territories can open up a big can of “who the hell am I,” and “why am I doing this?”
Questioning yourself is the most important part of getting to know you. Lately, I’ve been feeling unfamiliar to myself. I spend so much time cooing patients at work and focusing on other people, by the time I sit down and look in the mirror, I’m thinking –
I look back on pictures of myself and see a lost community college student tied with ribbons, a strung-out red-head on the brink of her bachelor’s, and the manic pink-haired aftermath of working hard and amounting to not much at all. When we think of our past selves as different entities, we tend to compartmentalize our growth. “Ah, my emo phase.” “Oh yes, my hypersexual phase.” Those past selves tend to not feel like us anymore. But they are, and parts of them are still you. Because that’s how growing up works.
Maybe you went through a time where life felt purposeless, and wearing all black and cutting your hair atrociously made you feel like you belonged. Maybe you went through a time when you were broken, so you hooked up with people you didn’t really like to feel wanted. That wasn’t emo-you or slut-you. That was you, going through something hard. And the more you try to dissociate those you’s from you, the less you you’ll be. (Did that make sense?)
For me personally, I tried to dissociate my past selves because I hated them. I was grossly misled as a child and developed a lot of problematic opinions and views. I was zapped of my strength and independence by a power-hungry patriarchy. And worse, I was so morbidly depressed that I hurt people. I didn’t like that me, because that me was weak, harmful, and foolish. But don’t we all start that way? Weak, malleable, and impressionable? Past-selves aren’t inherently bad; their mistakes are what teach us who our present-selves have become. By cutting off the past-you’s that were hazardously flawed, you end up with a present-you who has no idea who they are or how they got there. That’s when we lose ourselves.
Ask yourself questions.
When you start feeling unfamiliar to yourself, ask what qualities are “you.” If you have trouble with that, try asking a close friend what characteristics they feel are quintessentially you. Your core qualities. Try and focus on the good ones, though – I find that the first word people think of for me is “anxious,” which isn’t necessarily what I want to strive for.
I feel my core qualities are: a little sassy, childlike, empathetic, excitable, determined, very silly, and thoughtful.
Once you figure out what qualities are the most you, you’ll be able to tell when you deviate from them. Which can help you get back to feeling like yourself again. When I was in school, I worked my ass off – I studied all night, put my heart and soul into my projects, and genuinely enjoyed learning. I was 900% determined to prove that I was intelligent and that I could be something great. Even as a kid, I felt so driven to achieve and to change the world around me. I fought what I felt wasn’t right, particularly boys who were incidentally sexist. I have most definitely fallen out of that tree, because lately all I want to do is sleep and roll in my own self-pity. That core-Steph quality is something I’m losing, and being aware of that is the first step towards getting it back.
This brings me to another issue – what do you do if you feel the most “you” when you’re in a bad place?
I think this is more common with people who struggled with ED’s, mental illnesses, or some other trauma during adolescence. Sometimes, we turn our bad places into our comfort zone. If we associate our illness as one of our core qualities, it feels like we are our depression or our anorexia or our PTSD. We forget that we’re people and that we are capable of happiness (you are, I promise).
Like I mentioned before – people say “anxious” as the first answer when I ask them what they think of me. (Then comes small, weird, and loves microbes.) While I do get that, it’s important for me to separate myself from my anxiety. Anxiety is something I have, not something I am. Tell yourself that – insert whatever you’re struggling with and tell yourself that every day you have to deal with that something.
There were, and still are, times in my life where I relapse back into those bad places. And you know what? I feel comfortable there. Because I was there for a very, very long time. I felt comfortable damaging my body because that’s the way I was when I trudged through adolescence. I’ve recently had several bouts of panic attacks – those crippling ones where you shake and hyperventilate and claw at your skin. It’s an out of control feeling, like your hands have no choice but to try and pull you out of your skin – but it was so deeply ingrained in what I thought was “me,” it almost felt satisfying. That feeling of “ah, there I am. I remember this me.”
Feeling like this is harmful for many reasons. a) You are not what ails you. b) Just because something feels “comfortable” doesn’t mean it’s good for you. c) What did I just say about compartmentalizing your past selves?
Happiness is fleeting, and I think that might be another reason these bad places can become so comfortable. Society teaches us to view happiness as an end-goal. For a lot of us, we feel that’s just not going to happen if we don’t have (what society says) will make us happy. So we burrow into our depression-holes and bad habits and call it a life. I think we all know deep-down that happiness is a transient little elf that sprinkles us with sunshine-dust from time to time, and treasuring those moments is what makes us happy as people. (Being happy and feeling happy are two totally different things.)
If you’re feeling too comfortable in your sadness, you need to make it a point to get the heck out. Cognitively and physically. Anywhere, doing anything that makes you feel something. And when you come home to just you, give yourself something else to look forward too. A show, a bubble bath, a phone-call to grandma, a fluffy dog – as long as you’re keeping your brain active and your plans positive, that depression-hole should start seeming less and less appealing. And I promise you’ll start liking this healthy you way better.
Maybe there was a time when a past you was fighting something hard to become the present you, and maybe that past self did some harmful, ignorant, and hurtful things – but all those sloppy, reckless past-selves made this you. And you should be proud of you – all of you, as a whole.
One time, upon hearing my story, someone told me “Wow, you’re like a flower in the concrete.” He turned out to be a dickhead, but that stuck with me.
Be good to your selves,