Get Over Your Self
‘Who I am’ is just a story I’ve been struggling to maintain since realizing my reflection didn’t match the expectations of my surname, ethnicity or sexual orientation. I am a walking case of bewilderment to many whom, even though I'm grown and know better, I always feel like I'm on the hook to explain myself to. When we’re kids, we learn to build up ideas about ourselves in comparison to others. As adults, we continue to do this by holding on and repeating scripts based on early experiences that get translated into our ‘personal brand’.
I’ve been wondering about who I was before I had a ‘self’ - who was I before my relationship with Patrick and Denise Tong? Who was I before I started Catholic school? Who was I before I could internalize spoken and unspoken cues to stop being seen and heard? I mean, I’m not miserable by any stretch. And this might be confusing for the people in my life that would describe me as their most outrageous, experimental friend that often talks too loud and laughs with her whole heart (it's pretty much a cackle). I assume that I am closer to the person I was before I had a 'self' than ever before, because when I ask my elders what I was like as a child they branch out into highly entertaining tales supplemented by the following descriptors:
Silly & Wild
Very Naughty and Disobedient (Rude)
Poor Listening Skills (Rude)
Clever & A Little Sneaky (Rude, But I’m Low-Key Proud of This)
Loving & Sensitive
And that all seems right on the nose (at least 75% of the time). And here I am, 5 years into a sometimes painful post-mortem of my youth asking myself why and how all those wonderful things got lost for so long. Why is most of my childhood memory blanketed with feelings of inadequacy and disappointment with only flashes of this bold and whimsical child? When and how did Chris Farley suddenly become Woody Allen?
When we are kids, the only identity we have is the one we attach to our families. Mom has always loved me, fiercely. My memories of very early childhood are mostly with her, the weekend adventures she’d take me on, and the epic birthday parties she’d plan that drew in the whole neighbourhood (Ponies?! Really, Mom?! You are literally so obsessed with me). But she’s never really understood the wild side of me that is like my Dad. To this day, I know she sees it as dangerous, unstable, and risky - things that threaten a family. And she’s always kept my Dad and I in check when we exhibit these traits - relentlessly tinkering away at passion projects, spending too much time away from home, recklessness, and sometimes drinking too much. But in her well-intentioned disciplining to keep our family strong and very much together, my independent thinking and bravery was resigned to hide from my very own in-house Judge Judy (who we all know to have a very expressive, shade-throwing disposition and just generally absolutely terrifying). Seriously still get shook if she ever calls me by my full name or makes any sudden movements.
I only started giving up my childhood identity when my Dad died rather suddenly on my last day of University exams. Overnight, two identities shifted: I was no longer a thriving student with loads of work to throw myself into, and I became someone without a Father. My family identity was no longer, because one of us was gone. That version of my family ended and a new one was beginning. In this new version, I instinctively and somewhat manically stepped into his role I refer to as ‘resident crazy person’. I became braver, more fearless, and uninhibited. That identity and the traits I let myself embody led me to my next identity as someone who worked for Virgin, where I worked for over 4 years to develop those skills and where I began to see myself as positive, confident, and even a leader. That identity, and the skills I picked up along the way, led me to being strong enough to let go of my ‘straight’ identity to venture into a new queer life that’s teaching me even more about the importance of healing, forgiveness, confidence, embracing the unknown, and rejection - all the things we typically hide and avoid like the plague.
Identity grounds us. It’s appears consistent and stable. People want and search for their identities because it gives the illusion that something is solid and impermeable. In reality, identities are just clusters of current experiences we learn to live through that have the power to influence how we behave in the future. They ground us in what’s happening right now - the skills we embody temporarily through practice, so we can use them to i) survive and/or ii) become who we want to be. But they aren’t who we are.
My experience with identity is that we can’t grow if we don’t change identities. It’s only when we are forced to change identities through circumstance and post-traumatic growth (losing some ability, having a family member die, being laid off from a job, etc.), or voluntarily giving up an identity (getting a divorce, quitting or switching your job, coming out, etc.) that we learn more about who we are beyond the limitations and restrictions we routinely put on ourselves. If I go a step further, I believe the person we really are is the person between identities that’s in transition. We always are the entity without a label who accumulates the skills and experience, and who is always a work in progress. It’s really sad that we all go to such great lengths to never show this person because we so often want to be seen and see ourselves as ‘complete’.
We humans have a knack for thinking that we should be a certain way. My therapist used to playfully remind me of how I was really good at ‘should-ing’ all over myself (try as I might, sometimes I’m still really exemplary at this). We want to create stability out of chaos and get locked into identities that are very structured, rigid and unforgiving. We’re trained to feel ashamed and guilty when we betray and step outside the lines of those identities. The truth is that people are imperfect. For example, I’m writing this now with perfect resolve and commitment to my personal improvement because that’s my identity right now - but in all likelihood, I’m going to mindlessly do some hoodrat shit I’m going to have to apologize and forgive myself for this weekend. We think and act in ways that sometimes contradict our existing value system. We are messy, inconsistent, and unreliable judges of what is good for us. We want identities, but if we attach ourselves too strongly to that self-image, we can’t handle when events occur that threaten those identities.
Realizing you aren’t the sexual orientation or gender you thought you were.
Losing all your money or possessions.
Being a cheating spouse or having a cheating spouse.
Failing a project.
Losing your job.
These are some examples of events that challenge a hardened identity. They are just events, but what makes them more than just events is when we attach the significance of our entire personhood to them.
Who am I if I am not straight?
Who am I if I am not a man, or a woman?
Who am I if I am not a parent?
Who am I if I don’t have any money?
Who am I without a partner?
Who am I without my code of ethics?
Who am I if I don’t succeed at achieving my goals?
Who am I if I am not an executive, a writer, an artist, an athlete, an academic?
Who am I if I don’t have the answers?
Who am I if I am not the person I thought I was?
Sometimes we get attached to the image of who we are. We see ourselves as capable or incapable; a good person, or a bad person; lucky, or unlucky. Not only do we cast ourselves as one or the other, but we cast others into these roles too. A huge part of our ego is wrapped up in identity and who we think we are, and who we think we are in comparison to others. When I find myself in this place, it has been in the darkest times where I was never allowing myself to see how the things I “didn’t want” could help me become a truer version of myself. Losing a parent, being gay, having my heart broken, failing miserably, not having as much money as I’d like, and on occasion indulging in morally bankrupt hoodrat shit are all things I probably wouldn’t tick off on an on-boarding survey to be honest, but being each of these things at various times has opened me up to the most exciting experiences, opportunities and people in my life so far, and I wouldn’t give any of them back.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this and what it means to be a person who’s prone to limiting possibilities in this way; a person with a huge ego and competitive streak; a person who cares a lot about what other people think. In response, I’ve committed the last year and the rest of my life to the systematic letting go of ’who I am’, because when you break it down, without all those things we attach ourselves to, we just are - and when we just are, then we can be, do, try, and achieve anything without the friction of expectations - that’s the plan, anyways. Just like we train ourselves to limit ourselves, we can train our way out of it as well - a process I can only describe as untangling a necklace that’s been sitting at the bottom of your backpack for a quarter of your life. I’ve opted to chip away a little bit every day, instead of tackling it all at once which - as anyone who has tried to untangle a necklace knows - would only end in bursts of profanity and flipping tables in the presence of innocents just trying to help.
Besides watching The Matrix, and reading A New Earth, here is a 12 step strategy for getting over your self that I’ve found incredibly helpful.
Ask people what exciting projects they’re working on instead of what they do. On the flipside, introduce yourself with the projects you're working on and the problems you’re trying to solve, instead of your position, title, or company.
Plan a last minute solo vacation and watch who you become away from work, friends, and family.
Practice belonging. Wherever you are and whoever you’re with, belong with them by (i) not feeling like you have to explain yourself or get their permission to be there, (ii) add value with tangible action, (iii) stop looking for reasons why you shouldn’t be there.
Look for opportunities to be uncomfortable in not knowing. Put yourself in new situations, with new people, in new places, and doing new things often. It’s good for your brain in so many ways.
Develop a routine for bouncing back after negativity. For example, rejection is a trigger for me that I used to take really personally and get down and out about for way too long. When I encounter rejection now, as often as possible I just say to myself ‘well that could have gone better’, channel Connor McGregor, and move on to the next challenge. If you know how to bring yourself back to center, getting off track with things like fear, guilt, shame, envy, or jealousy isn’t scary, just information we need to process to improve tomorrow.
Steer right into whatever causes you pain and stop identifying with it. Say it out loud, research it, learn more about it and the people who have overcome it. ‘Job shadow’ the people just like you who are living the life you want and really listen to them.
Write down 3 versions of what your best life looks like. They are all possible. If one doesn’t work out, get cracking on plan B or C or D...stop thinking you can only do one thing.
Be present and listening as often as possible - in conversations, in your work, in your relationships. The interesting stuff happens in the process, the transition, the work. Living for bookends is like living for 5% of a 20 Pack of Chicken Nuggets. Why even bother if you aren’t going to appreciate all that golden goodness? They’re getting cold, you monster.
When you have a decision to make (unless it’s a decision to murder), do to the thing that you are afraid people will judge you for (we will judge you guilty for murder). The truth is that barely anyone cares what you do, because they’re all thinking about fixing their own lives and scrolling Insta for dank memes. And if they are judging you, it’s probably because it’s hard to see people doing the thing you want to be doing so badly.
Remember every day that you will die, and you can’t take your things or identity with you, but you can leave behind a legacy ... and you get to choose what that looks like.
You aren’t the driver. You’re riding shotgun, so just navigate, play the music, fill ‘er up with Premium, and really trust that you’re going to get where you’re going in exactly the right time. Make your mantra: ‘Trust the driver.”