The power of honest writing, identity & validation
Imprinted in my memory, there is a little scenario from a cabin-trip. I cant’t exactly remember how old I was, so I’ll say I was around seven years. I was quite a “momma’s boy” back in these days, probably because there wasn’t always much warmth or interest from my dad’s side. Never so wild about going on fishing-trips or carving swords out of wood; I was playing more often with my girl-cousins, being fascinated at old vintage photographs, helping my grand-mom around the kitchen or playing with the dog. This summer I got invited to a fishing-trip with the guys, so I was naturally just going along for an adventure. Water was still a mysterious (yet captivating) element for me, because I don’t think I was too good at swimming at this age.
The light and warm archipelago-breeze was breathing against my face in our small, white fishing-boat. The subtle ocean currents would catch and guide the ultraviolet rays of sunlight against my skin. In the boat was my dad, my big brother and some other familiar faces, or as we might call them “island people”. Even though I couldn’t really register it at the time, the boys had definitely had some drinks, and there was a nice overall groove going on with smiles all around.
As I was the youngest, it was part of the game to encourage me everytime I would catch the smallest little perch, but we would just throw them back in to the ocean everytime, so I felt a bit frustrated. It didn’t take too long, however, until this big fish, a northern pike would take the bait. This is easily the greatest catch so far, probably weighing around 10 kg’s. It was quite an effort for me to reel it in. I stand up from the boat to see the fish.
“I don’t think I can lift this up into the boat by myself.” I’m thinking.
However the people around me are proud and excited — so I just don’t have a choice in my mind. The boat suddenly tips slightly, perhaps by a big wave or just the sudden movements around the boat. I fall down from the boat and everything happens in a flash.
Panicking alone in the water, I’m ferociously waving my arms and legs just to keep my head above the surface. I don’t have my life-vest and I don’t really know how to swim either. In this midst of panic, chaos and the seawater I hear laughter. And then, the biggest memory of my youth is constructed around this very instance, this laughing crowd.
I am in shock as I they pick me up from the water. I am physically alright, but I was left with these mental scars, being terrified of both water — and people. A year or two later I could learn to trust both of these things in peace, and when I did, I would cycle my way to the beach every fucking day. Once after school, and again after dinner in the evening. At school, they would warn us not to swim during a thunderstorm, and I would still be there.
When I first wrote about this trauma a couple years back, I remember exactly what happened. I wanted to cry during the writing-process. I wanted to give up and turn my back against these memories. Somehow I still battled it through, and made it to the end. It felt like I had just climbed on top of a mountain. I went outside and forgot my key in. I went to my neighbour and told them I love them for having a spare key for me, I just wanted to hug them, which is very uncommon in Finland. It was like I was on ecstasy, just sitting on my chair in my living-room, smiling uncontrollably.
I was free.
Such is the magic of honest writing. The key is to stay brutally honest to your feelings and write them down as you go, even if you sidetrack the story. They call this writing-style a “stream of consciousness”.
I edited out the angry-outbursts from this memory, because that’s a side of me which I don’t want people to see, but when you write for yourself, don’t censor anything. If you feel like setting the world on fire with your words, then do it.
Now that I had experienced these rapid emotions of fear, sadness, anger and then finally relief and ecstasy, I wanted to know “why?” I believe I mapped out the fact that I’ve been seeking validation for most of my childhood and teenage-years. A huge chunk of my identity was accidentally revealed to me.
When someone asks you “who are you?”, sometimes the natural way to start answering is by tracking down your life: “What have you done in the past”, “what do you stand for”, “what do you believe in” and so on.
Identity is like the collection of all your memories. We may not always be fully aware how seemingly small events in our lives have shaped us today.
Kids learn by seeking approval. If you do something as a kid and your parents or teachers display approval of your actions, you gain confidence and you begin to learn how the reality works in a fundamental way. Much like some of us touched the hot stove, burning our child hands on the contact, we then learned not to do it again. But if as a kid you do something you perceive to be the right action, and you get an angry/negative response or “punished” for it, then your perception gets skewed and even inaccurate. Then, instead of trying to understand reality yourself, what becomes more important is understanding how other people perceive the reality to be and your actions are calibrated towards seeking validation from others (intersubjectivity). This can easily take over most of your life if you’re not aware of the mechanism.
My identity or “personality” would branch out from this mentality of validation-seeking that I held close to my chest. For someone else the value might be security, money, religion, family etc. Is this the optimal way of going about things in life? Because for a person who loses their family all the sudden (or inevitably), they might break down and experience the heaviest identity crisis. The validation-seeker will also eventually run into problems, where trying to please others becomes an obstacle with personal goals.
Writing about your life with brutal honesty can potentially unlock your neural pathways and help you understand the parts of your life that shape your current identity, it can make you more self-aware, and most of of all, it can vanish the nocturnes of your past.