Nobody needs to see the real you

You can never truly be yourself, and that’s a good thing.

Photo by Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash

Just be yourself. That’s what people say when they’re out of advice. But it’s a lie. We can’t always say what we’re thinking. We act different around different people. True self is a fairy tale.

Just like true love. Or true anything.

We have a bad habit of throwing the word “true” in front of big ideas. You can have more than one love. It’s okay. Just because you fell out of love doesn’t mean those feelings were fake or wrong.

The same idea applies to the self. You can have lots of selves. Each one can feel genuine, a different shade of something smoky. They might contradict each other. They might get into fights.

But that’s a good thing. Great ideas come out of the constant push and pull between your different selves. Look at Bowie. Or Dylan. Or any great artist. They go through phases. Change. Evolution.

My mom used to torture me with this shit. She would ask questions like, “Who are you?” I had to tell her in one word.

I’d barely turned eight. And she wanted me to brand myself.

Who was I? I’m not sure I ever answered that question the way she wanted. I spent hours coming up with different answers. A list of adjectives. Poems. Speeches. Each time, she closed her eyes. Shook her head.

To her, I was a disappointment.

I’d throw in some Foucault or Bakhtin right around here, if I were writing an academic article. Maybe some Nietzsche.

But lucky you, I’m writing a blog. So let’s skip past the philosophy. Don’t even expect a pithy quote. They all say essentially the same thing anyway. The “self” exists only in fiction. We make it. And remake it.

Self vs. selves

A boyfriend almost had a mental breakdown when I tried to explain the myth of the true self. He described postmodern philosophy as bullshit, and redirected me to Plato.

You have a soul, he insisted. An essential self. A true nature. Anyone who resisted was deluded. They were running from the truth.

That bookish dumb ass just didn’t understand. Whatever self we have, it comes from lots of different places. It never sits still. Always morphing. You can’t pin your identity down for dissection.

Our relatives see one side of our personality. So do our friends. Our coworkers. Our spouse. The real you doesn’t even exist at one given moment. You can’t be something that’s not real.

Plus, you’ve got secrets. Don’t feel ashamed. Everyone does. Imagine knowing everything about someone. Imagine your spouse telling you every single thought that ever occurred to them.

My students don’t need to know how much I dread teaching some days. I’m great at lying. We all have to perform a work persona every day. When your coworkers tell you to relax and be yourself, they mean be your work self. Nobody wants you to come in as your weekend self.

We keep little secrets for good reasons. My spouse doesn’t know much about my blog, for starters. Doesn’t want to. Not that I’m hiding it. He respects my privacy, and I return the favor.

Sometimes people are right

You don’t have a self without others. We’re social creatures. Whether we like it or not. Parts of my identity depend on how I compare myself to people. And how they compare themselves to me.

For starters, I’m stoic. Laconic. Kind of sarcastic. But those adjectives don’t mean shit without a touchstone. I’m laid back, but that means something because it contrasts with exuberant.

People have told me a lot about my personality. Sometimes, they’ve even corrected false impressions I had of myself.

A few years ago, I described myself as demanding and high-maintenance. My friends looked at me weird. No, a demanding person would bother them more. The only thing I demand sometimes is that people fuck off.

Turns out, that’s really the opposite of demanding. So people perceive me as not very demanding, and extremely low-maintenance.

From other friends, I’ve learned that I’m self-sufficient. Or as some like to call it, “emotionally unavailable.” You see? Even the same trait appears differently to different people.

Sometimes they’re wrong

In college, a friend watched me staring through a window. He said, “You look like you’re thinking about rainbows.”

Corpses. I was thinking about corpses. I’m pretty sure, at least. Specifically, statues of corpses. Rodin.

So he was way off on that one. I’m not the kind of person who thinks about rainbows.

But he thought I was. And that’s how he treated me. Even then, his mistake helped me learn about myself. Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me that thinking about corpses might creep out my friends.

So I became the girl who thought about corpses when everyone else thought she should be thinking about rainbows.

Your identity lies in that — the difference between what you know about yourself, what others know, and what others merely think.

Go ahead, be a mystery

We don’t make much sense to ourselves. We do things without fully understanding why. Justify later.

Some of us spend lots of time mirror gazing. We try writing in reflective journals. Keep gratitude jars. Click through online personality quizzes. Mainly to see which Avengers character we’re most like.

None of that’s bad. We like learning about ourselves. Just don’t expect it to stop. One day, you might feel like Black Widow. The next day you feel like Scarlet Witch. That’s how identity flows.

You never reach the end. You might think you have, for a little while. But then you’ll change again.

In my late 20s, I decided I’d never get married. It felt like fate. Matrimony? Me? No way. Too much of a loner. My identity rested on my preference for solitude. All my favorite characters from books and shows were loners. It felt right. I almost prided myself on that part of my identity.

A few months later, I met my life partner. We married about a year later. Not exactly a prediction.

My partner brought out sides of me I didn’t know I had. My friends even like me more now. One of them said, “You’re way cooler.” So much for my plans to turn into a witch. Part of me was all ready to build a little hut out in the woods for baking lost children.

And now I’m a happily married professor.

Kind of sad, in a way. I think I would’ve made a fantastic witch.

If one thing’s always true, you can’t force personality changes. Your identity slips and slides. Glides right through your fingers. You can ride it. But you’re probably not going to tell it where to go. Which you am I even talking to right now? Beats me. Hopefully one wearing a shirt.