empathy

The Trap Of Living By Someone Else’s Definitions

Painting by Daniel Galieote

Painting by Daniel Galieote

 

We’re all born feeling “different”— born feeling somehow isolated from our environment. And you would be correct… you are, in an extremely tangible and practical way, the only person inside your world; a vague sense of “Me-ness” located somewhere behind your eyes travels for an entire lifetime in a world of “not me”. But we look to our environment— the people in our lives and the situations we encounter— to help us see who that person is. That is an entirely natural, functional process— we are constantly seeking other people to provide us with a mirror so that we might see what role we play. And we want that mirror to be a positive, encouraging reflection. However, we are also constructing our identity based on how we feel and who we want to be, which is based on the things we love and enjoy. When those two images of self (how others see us and how we see ourselves) don’t line up, we feel angry, sad, and powerless. If we can’t reconcile the images of who we want to be with how the world responds to us, that powerlessness sinks into depression. 

 

So, if someone wants to be smart, but the mirrors around them are telling them they’re dumb, then they experience feelings of failure. Or if you’re a little girl who desperately wants to be pretty, but you don’t look like the girls that your environment thinks are pretty, you experience rejection. Or if you are a young black boy who wants to be a rapper, but your environment tells you that you have to be “bad” in order to be that, you will experience internal conflict. Because you are not born feeling “bad”, you are born feeling “good”— but more on that later. Or if you aretransgender— perhaps a girl born in the body of a boy, you will experience intense confusion. The situations are different, but the question is the same— how can my outsides not match my insides? If you have the strong desire to do something or be something that you love or that feels natural , the way you will reconcile those conflicting images will be to make yourself fit that image externally in a way that others will recognize, even if it means behaving “badly” or rejecting the other things that make you, you. In doing so you will have reclaimed some feeling of power, and since reclaiming power feels good, you will accept that image as your character. However, if that new external image is not accepted by your environment, the rejection, failure, confusion, and conflict grows. You will absorb this evidence as truth of the way things work— that you lack control of who you are, and your belief in your powerlessness will intensify.  After failing to match your environmental reflection of self to your internal self, often the next defense will be to try to match your internal self to your environmental reflection of self. In other words, becoming the person others think you are. Remember, these two images demand reconciliation on some level or else the emotional self melts down. Of course,  the meltdowns may occur regardless, but until actual healing has occurred, you will bounce back from each meltdown by blending the images with a new fractured version of the self. 

 

I am mixed race. I grew up in nearly all white schools, in nearly all white neighborhoods, with nearly all white friends. I grew up identifying with the white Disney princesses, liking Baby Spice, and wanting to be the white female leads in all the Disney channel movies. But I had an environment that told me I had to be Scary Spice, that I had to play the brown sidekick regardless of that girl’s ethnicity, and that I couldn’t be Ariel because I wasn’t white… but if I still wanted to play Disney Princesses I could be whichever white princess nobody else wanted to play. None of this was intentional or malicious, but it taught me that who I felt like on the inside was not who I was, and my powerlessness to control how others saw me or treated me translated to the idea that I could not be who I wanted. And from the other direction, my loving mother wanted me to enjoy being the black character, playing with the black barbies, and to embrace black culture. But that was not a place where I felt like me, and I could tell that, despite her skin color, she didn’t feel entirely in line with that image of herself either. In essence, I was an impossibility. I did not recognize my reflection. I couldn’t connect it to any image that made sense. My edges were blurry. I did not exist. 

 

At a very young age it became clear that I was “different” in other ways as well. There was a level of intensity to everything I did. I felt emotions intensely, I felt competition intensely, and I was always thinking about something and trying to figure it out— but not in a mechanistic sense, in an abstract and emotional sense. I craved artistic and musical subjects because they seemed to exist entirely within a world that made sense to me. I couldn’t help but to feel, and feel, and feel, which was a lot for my friends and family to wrap their minds around. My well-meaning parents, authority figures, and therapists would tell me that I “thought too much” and “felt too much” and that something was wrong with me that needed to be changed. I would follow every emotion, thought, and action to its extreme. Anything less was somehow unfinished. When I stumbled upon a new feeling or a new concept I had to understand it; I had to name it, define it, explore it, explain it, share it, and control it. I had to get to the bottom of the “why” of everything, and I soaked up new information like a sponge in order to answer this question. I was hungry for experience and relationship and mystery and knowledge— intuitive and eager from the very beginning. However, as is often the case, my somewhat tempestuous intensity came in tandem with a natural skill for singing, musical instruments, dancing, story-telling, and areas generally concerned with creative expression. For this, I was called “special” or “gifted”— destined, people would say, for great things. I did not realize then that this identity was also a trap, just as dangerous as “different” but with pretty shutters and a well-manicured lawn.

 

Around the age of 12… something happened. I have gone back over and over to puzzle out what was going on, but words feel small next to it. It was like everything had collapsed. Life felt like a series of rushing transitions and heartbreaking let downs. I couldn’t be alone without tumbling into terrified thought spirals, ending always in the realization that I was completely pointless. Something was wrong— but it had gone so wrong that I couldn’t tell the difference— like standing on the opposite side of the same perspective— sad doesn’t change the movie, it changes the soundtrack. Trying to shake me from my new story was like telling a fish it lives underwater, there was no world outside of my tiny chaos. I fought with my mother constantly. I slammed doors. I slammed my head against walls. I screamed until my throat was on fire. I screamed like every breath was a crisis. I couldn’t lay still— I wriggled like I might manage to get out of my skin— reaching with an enemy mind for any form of relief from existing. And then, I found one. 

 

Painting by Daniel Galieote

Painting by Daniel Galieote

After a particularly nasty fight with my mother, I slammed my door and sat on the floor next to the wall. I spotted a safety pin on the carpet near the dresser. I unhooked the pin and slowly ran the point against my forearm. Then I did it again, but faster. Then I did it again, but harder. And then… there I was… inside a body… slowly breathing in the pain like a mantra. There is not enough space for me to explain the many reasons cutting started to relieve me, and unless you know that strange freedom, the words wouldn’t make sense anyway. For the following several years there lived within me a war between control and chaos. I was control, and everything else was chaos. There were diagnoses, and doctors. There were pills taken and pills thrown away. The worst part of my deterioration was that it was not quiet. Everyone in my small world knew. I could not control what others saw, or how it morphed in their brains and turned into a deformed, unrecognizable rumor— close enough to the truth to get inside and far enough away to horrify me. My peers— whether friends or strangers— wanted nothing to do with the broken girl. So I adopted this broken girl, and I made her my weapon.

 

Not all internal image conflict is obvious. In fact, some of it takes an intuitive understanding before it can be made logical. For example, everyone is born with the subconscious knowledge that they are “good”— that they are loved, accepted, and suited for their environment. We are also born seeking out things that feel “good”.  At first there is much similarity in what feels good— drinking mom’s milk, cuddling, experiencing new colors, shapes, and sensations, etc.  As we age, we are exposed to more situations and stimuli, and we gravitate towards the ones that feel good for us specifically —music,  foods,  games, and even sensations. When the feeling that we are “good” lines up  with what our environment is providing us, there is no dissonance. But when we are told something that feels “good” is actually “bad” or “naughty,” we experience dissonance (internal conflict). If we’re told something that feels good to us, or natural to us, is bad, we subconsciously take on the environmental reflection that we are also “bad”; that we are unloved, not accepted, and not suited for our environment. How could something that feels good or natural be bad, we wonder. Maybe we are bad too, then. 

 

But since we don’t feel that we are bad, we will attempt to reconcile this by thinking that the “bad” must be hiding somewhere inside of us. Somewhere outside of our control or knowledge. Some of us will behave, then, in ways that our environment tells us is good, and be quite content to do so because of the positive feedback we get for our behavior. However, some of us will lean into those behaviors that our environment has deemed are “bad” because they feel good to us, or because they feel natural to us; we will stubbornly insist upon doing the thing that feels good even if it means we have to believe that we are bad in order to reconcile our image with our behavior. But because no person can feel entirely satisfied doing only what they are told is good if it doesn’t feel good, and avoiding things that they’re told are bad regardless of the fact that it feels good, then the individual will either suppress the “bad” behaviors— subconsciously feeling “bad” while maintaining the image that they are “good”— or they will build up an image that is “bad” so that they can act out their “bad” behaviors, while subconsciously knowing that they are “good” and being angry with the world for not seeing it. We practice both of these defense mechanisms throughout our lives, often entirely unaware that we are doing so— creating uncomfortable cognitive dissonance— a dissonance that we come to accept as “the way things are”. 

 

For most of my life I ran desperately from the reflection that said I was “different” toward whichever reflection called me “special”. I felt that I existed somewhere between tragically flawed and full of potential. After a while, I built up defenses against “different”. After all, I could be “special” instead, and people are more willing to accept different when it can be explained away with special. So I tried to live up to special while defending myself from “different”— by embracing the “fucked-up, emotionless, bad-girl that can’t be hurt because she’s smarter than you” character. 

 

I pursued everything I was told I had a talent for. I convinced myself I wanted those things because the praise felt good. But I was unhappy, unfulfilled, and unmotivated. I thought that if I generally enjoyed it and I was good at it, that I was supposed to pursue it— terrified by the idea of being trapped in a boring, meaningless life, or of losing what made me “special”. I knew I would one day have to take care of myself, and the thought petrified me. But if I was special enough, and if I followed all the rules, maybe I could live an exciting life that took care of itself. And so I tried to fit into every role for which I was told I had a “gift”, and I felt helpless when I found that I didn’t want any of them— that they all led eventually to the same gray labyrinth of monotonous doing, and that there are no rules for turning those things into a career anyway. I was angry for having been told there are rules for the right way to live. I was angry that I had played along for so many years. Because here I was, having followed the rules, but they didn’t take me where they said they would. But I continued to push away the me that felt natural because I thought there was something wrong with her— that she was “different”. I thought if someone else could love me it would give my life meaning, but navigating rejection was a constant game of “which me do they like and how do I be more of that”. And because I believed there was something wrong with me, I found evidence for it everywhere. 

 

I could sit here and tell you about how I started to cut myself at 13 to take control of my emotions— I could explain how I used it to prove that nobody could hurt me. I could go into detail about the bullying, the rumors, the loss of nearly all my friendships at 13 and again at 22. I could explain the depression, the weight loss, the hopelessness, the rejection. I could write about being in the hospital, or how I developed my worst symptoms while there. I could go into detail about the eating disorder that gave me some semblance of control and secretly ruled my life for much longer than I want to admit. I could write about pretending to enjoy sex for years out of desperation for the feeling of connection and soothing it could temporarily provide, or tell you about the time I took a bottle of Ritalin one night but woke up anyway— unable to move. I could tell you about the long distance friendship with the boy who saved my life and then died when I was 15, or how I didn’t want to keep living without him. I could tell you all about the anxiety I felt going to school or the panic attacks that took me over every time someone misunderstood or lied about me. I could tell you about the time I texted “goodbye” to my then-future boyfriend and slit my arm, deep and lengthwise, and sat in the shower hoping he would come find me before I bled out. I could tell you how suicide is the last feeling of power left in the hopeless dark, or that I’ve put my hands together and prayed for death more times than I can remember. I could tell you about how the sadness creeps up out of absolutely nowhere, and that my greatest struggle is against the feeling that I’m letting everyone down— that I’m not living up to “special”. Perhaps I could tell you about how desperately I always wanted someone to save me from my loneliness and fear—to tell me who I was supposed to be. But from where I currently stand, that story has fallen away. And it disappeared in the most ironic of moments. 

 

Painting by Daniel Galieote

Painting by Daniel Galieote

One dark winter night I lay in bed, writing, in my mind, my hundredth suicide note. I thought of the fastest way to go, and how to make it the least dramatic I could. I didn’t want to traumatize anyone; I just wanted to leave. I looked at the spiritual truth that had once seemed so shiny and undeniable, and though it was still there, it had inverted— it was a sad and lonely truth. It was like “God” had turned his back to reveal the face of “Satan”. I ran back through the past several years of every beautiful, life-changing, blissful spiritual epiphany I had had, grasping for one that might save me, but the life it would restore didn’t seem worth it, so I let them go.  I thought of how too many days I awoke in fear of failure, and dressed in fear of failure, and ate in fear of failure. I thought of how I  was living a desperate search for the conditions that would make me happy— for the life that would make everyone proud. Then I let myself drift into the place where no one comes to save you. And then I drifted some more. 

 

I looked into that darkness with no net, with no one to save me, and with no desire to be found. And from somewhere, like the feeling of a child who has awoken from her death in a game of pretend, I suddenly remembered there was nothing to be afraid of. I had stumbled upon a second choice out there in the dark— either be no one and do nothing, or be anyone and do exactly as I please. I was free. The part attached to “different” and “special” was no longer my responsibility to reconcile or to fit. The part of me that was afraid to do as I wish and be the person I wanted fell away. I recognized my power to tell a different story and let go of the old one— that the past matters only for the knowledge, skill, and strength it gives you to navigate the present— not for its ability to construct a future. Because it is this singular moment that is the architect of the future, not our past, and it demands nothing of us but our attention to it. We roll our eyes at these realizations that are so often repeated that they have become cliche. We accept them as known truths and convince ourselves we already live that life. Or we write them off as fairy-tales told by the weak and irrational who will someday be disillusioned by “the real world”. But every once in a while, when you stop fighting, and walk to the edge of it all, and give up everything you think you know, the void will stare back. And you will laugh. 

 

I now see the trap of living by someone else’s definition— whether good or bad.

And I recognize the silliness of seeking permission to be as I am. I refuse to walk within the imaginary walls we are meant to accept as “the way things are”, or to live less than the life I wanted when I still remembered what I wanted. I no longer feel like I owe anybody an explanation for my behaviors, or fear that I’m wandering out so far that my tether to reality will snap. It is not that I believe I won’t feel the downs, I just no longer fear the downs, because they have always led me into the beauty of the next understanding. It is all an endlessly expanding, constantly shifting, remarkably perfect game.  But somewhere along the way, we forgot we were playing. There is no image you are meant to live up to, and no person you are supposed to be. So I no longer want to be understood by everyone, or to save the world. I want to understand me, and for the world to save itself. Because, ultimately, no one has the power to save the world; you can only love the world, and save yourself. But I will stand among the legions as we learn, and play, and destroy, and rebuild our long journey home. 

Written by Kelsey Rae Hartzell