The Identity Onion
You wake up one morning, and in that moment of waking, know instantly that everything has changed.
So immediate and overwhelming is your sense of disorientation, you may as well have been deposited during the night on an alien planet, without Mark Wahlberg’s potato-growing prowess to keep you distracted.
Every rope that previously kept you tethered in the world broke during the night and flew away.
A sense of loss — even grief — descends, and you cry hitch-hiccuppy sobs. You stay in bed all day. Probably for more than one day. Reading, binge TV watching. Avoiding phone calls. Not eating. Anything to avoid looking more closely at your new reality.
Eventually you drag yourself from your safe duvet-covered haven, because a responsibility demands your attention. Walking a dog. Attending a job. Keeping a promise.
Perhaps you take yourself to a medical professional, are encouraged to explore your childhood, and leave with a new clinical label and a prescription.
You might be able to pretend to yourself after a few days of semi-successful adulting that everything is back to normal. But it’s not. How could it be? Something has changed irrevocably. Gone forever. To be papered over temporarily, perhaps, but not to be ignored for long.
You’re not broken. You’re not depressed. You’ve onioned.
A carefully constructed layer of your identity has peeled away never to return, leaving a fresh, raw, unfamiliar and vulnerable version of you in its wake.
It doesn’t take a major crisis for you to onion, although often crisis will precede the process. Not necessarily immediately — for crises layer themselves like onions too, gathering momentum and strength until they can no longer be ignored, and the only way to survive and move forward is to shed the protective skin you formed around the pain they cause and immerse yourself in what lies beneath.
We keep ourselves feeling safe by tethering ourselves to a familiar world. We map our route through life using landmarks constructed from our beliefs around who we should be, what we should want, how we should show up in that world.
I am fat and want to be thin.
I am broke and want to be rich.
I am insignificant and want to be seen.
I am lonely and want to be loved.
And even if you are fortunate, hard-working or resilient enough to get everything you think you wanted in life, that day may come when you wake up on a foreign planet because a journey has ended. A goal has been achieved. Behind you lies the ‘stuff’ of your life so far, before you….nothing. A vacuum to be filled.
In the first moments, hours or days of your onioning this can feel like grief, because it is a little death, or series of deaths. Everything you held true about yourself and your world turns out to have been transitory, illusory. It is frankly terrifying.
Roll with it. Stay in your bed crying those hitch-hiccuppy sobs. But not for too long. You’ll know when it’s time to get back up.
Avoid the temptation to drive yourself further into overwhelm in an attempt to re-tether your ropes and grow new layers too fast. This is a process and this feeling will pass, but it can’t be forced.
You’ve been here before, you’ll be here again. And each time you shed a layer you’ll be closer to the core of who you really are — an unassailable kernel of truth that offers more comfort than your duvet ever could.
It’s ok not to be ok. No matter what the circus mirrors of social media tell you. Every single one of us is onioning every single day. You’re one of the fortunate folk who woke up this morning blindingly, painfully aware of this.
Because it’s so much easier not to be aware, but so much less rewarding.
“Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it — that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is a truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing — an actor, a writer — I am a person who does things — I write, I act — and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.” — Stephen Fry