Written by Anna-Marie Swan
Most of us have spent our lives constructing a hall of mirrors around us, so that we don’t have to look ourselves square in the face. Because to really look, to really look, is not very pretty and it hurts. To see ourselves, know ourselves, as we really are means seeing the reality of the human animal: wholeness. And learning to walk through this world as a whole person is a whole other ball game.
We often talk about knowing ourselves, of finding ourselves. We talk of travelling to new places, meeting new people and exploring new situations, speaking often of adventure and opportunity; or taking time out and needing some space to figure out who we are. But the thing is this: the self that we are hoping to find is almost always someone very different from who we actually are - someone more confident, someone more beautiful, someone more like the image, the ideal, that we have held up and found ourselves wanting against. We’re not actually looking to get to know ourselves, we’re hoping that we’ll find that we’re someone far removed from who we are now.
Discovering who we are is not like that. It’s not taking an ideal version of ourselves and, through our experiences, becoming that person.
It’s facing the very parts of ourselves that we’re most afraid of facing. It’s looking with curiosity and a clear and brave gaze at the parts of ourselves we’ve hidden so successfully that we’ve almost convinced ourselves they don’t exist. And what we find is that the true hero’s journey is simply the journey into our self. And the monsters they always have to fight? It turns out we created those monsters and we placed them all along the way.
I have spent my life seeking to shed the layers that do not serve me, always the seeker, seeking the answer to the question of ‘who am I’. What I have learnt is that I knew who I was all along, I just didn’t accept it. We don’t accept who we are. We don’t want to be who we are. And we spend a lot of our time and energy trying to be the person that we think we want to be more than the person that we know we are.
Each of us have certain descriptions that we’ve been labelled with our entire lives. Some of these we wear with pride. Kind. Helpful. Clever. Pretty. Confident. Bright. Creative. Sensible. Fun. Gentle. Brave. We create ourselves from childhood up from the opinions of those around us. We walk into the world with them, both armour and peacock feathers and we prop ourselves up on them when feeling attacked or feeling low. And then there are the other labels, the ones that we reject with every ounce of indignation and disbelief. Moody. Quiet. Shy. Introverted. Angry. Different. Uncooperative. Sensitive. Opinionated. Unkind.
For me, it was moody and sensitive. All my life, from family into friends into partners, I’ve been called moody and sensitive. And every time I heard those words something inside me would rise up, becoming twisted and uncomfortable and very, very painful. Because moody and sensitive were not OK. There was something wrong with them. And if these parts of me were wrong, then so was I: wrong. Moodiness and sensitivity became my shame, and I did with them what we all do with the things we’re ashamed of: I ignored them. And I tried to hide them from others. And I tried to change them. At some point, I must have decided that I would be nice. Really, really nice. I would out-nice my moodiness. And my sensitivity? I would construct a wall and take that wall out with me into the world. I would make myself learn to not feel things as strongly as I did, and when these feelings worked their way past my inner wall, I would train myself to ignore them.
Why do we do this to ourselves, bending ourselves into versions of us that end up hollow, suffocating us with its tightly-knit weave? There are so many reasons. Each of us carry a story that is only ours, written with a thousand hurts, made up of things we did and things that were done to us, things we said and things that were said to us.
Maybe we do it because we were brought up in families that didn’t like who they were. Who had shaped themselves as they wished to be, wandering so far away from their true self that they didn’t know that what they had created for themselves was a self that was made of sand.
Maybe we do it because we are born into a world that tells us there are limited ways to be loved and accepted and successful, and what we find out is that these are mostly unobtainable, and that beauty and worth is only attributed to a special few and we don’t fit that bill.
Maybe we do it because we were schooled that love and approval was given to us by being a certain type of person. Like being nice. And the nicer we were, the more we got rewarded. Or by not being angry, because feeling angry was not OK and being angry even worse. Perhaps we learnt early on that expressing what we thought and what we felt would be punished, so we hid our thoughts and feelings behind masks that were not only permitted but were encouraged with treats and verbal pats on the back.
Maybe we do it because in this world certain qualities are encouraged and its twin is not: outgoing is best, shy is not helpful; ambition is a winner, reflection will get you left behind; speaking up will get you noticed, quiet definitely will not; congeniality is best for girls, anger is not pretty; boys should be brave, caution is not good; popularity is essential, solidarity is not attractive. Don’t be too sensitive, best not to be affected; try not to cry, keep a firm upper lip.
You take you, and having realised in a magnitude of little ways that you’re not OK as you are, you change you, and you change you, and you change you.
I built Me on a slippery bed of nice. I practised being sweet and I took it into all the branches of my life. With friends, I’d be the one who helped out, who always listened, who never took up space. At work, I’d be the one who was liked by the boss, I’d offer to do the extra hours, and do a really good job. I learnt to smile when I wanted to be doing anything else and I worked really hard at moulding myself into perfection and likeability and helpfulness. Except I wasn’t always successful. In all sorts of unpleasant ways. The more I pushed my moodiness and sensitivity away, the greater they would leak out the edges. The more they leaked, the more I tried to squash them, and the harder they fought back. I became someone that stopped speaking to someone instead of telling them how I felt, sending daggers through the airways, bubbling up with all the un-allowed and unspoken things I felt.
Until a few years ago.
I had started to see how detrimental these masks were, how pervasively they were affecting my friendships and my relationships and my happiness at work, and, most importantly, my relationship with myself. I was sick of smiling at people when inside I felt hurt or angry or uncomfortable, and I was sick of falling into dark periods of self-reproach when the squashed feelings rose up anyway. I craved the freedom to simply be in the hurt, to be in the anger, to be in my discomfort. It was spilling out anyway – how could it not? Throughout this consistent, internal tug of war, I was outed by the contours of my face, the tone of my voice, the movement of my body. Not only was I fake a lot of the time, I was keeping everyone at a distance, mask by mask. Or driving them away.
I wanted real.
I made a decision. I would stop smiling. Unless it felt genuine. And when I did smile when I didn’t really want to, I would enquire within myself to see if I could uncover what I was covering up. All of it - the niceness, the likeability, the helpfulness - I started to question where it came from and whether it was genuine. And what lay underneath.
Am I moody? Yes. Turns out that I am. Very moody. I have a swirling mass of ever-changing feelings within me and I cannot hide a single thing. These feelings, they don’t always sit easily. I find myself trying to hold onto the ones I like – joyfulness, serenity, playfulness, peacefulness – and I probe uncomfortably at the ones I don’t – anger, irritation, numbness, boredom, frustration. But what has been a revelation to me is that I can be moody and still I am loved. I am learning to soften my moodiness around my love and not to misplace it onto him and take it out on him. Yet, still, he loves me. Does this make me very likeable? To some, not to others. But I stopped caring about quantity a while ago.
Am I sensitive? Yes. Deeply. I give careful consideration to almost every action I take and every word I say; they all matter to me (and when I haven’t, I look at why). I believe that we cannot underestimate the impact we make and can make on our immediate environment and the world at large through what we say and what we do, and I like this. I hear people, listening between what they say to their fears and their loves, their hidden worlds and their unacknowledged selves. I can feel people’s pain and I share my wounds with tenderness and no apology, speaking of universal truths that matter to us all. Does this make me a person that everybody wants to be around? Thankfully, no. But the right people for me do want to be around. And they love this about me.
Beneath our many masks there is another us that’s waiting. Waiting for us to come home.
But remember. Before we look to take them off, we have to take a deep breath and square our shoulders for a long and challenging journey. And we need to be cautious and sensitive – these masks may be protecting us from something that hurt so much we may need help to work it out. But at the end of the road is a life lived out as us. As whole. And that is worth the hurt along the way.