When thinking of our personal growth, it is important to realize that no one ever really changes who they are. At best, we simply learn to mitigate our extremes and soften the rougher edges. If anything, as we age and learn more about ourselves, by concentrating on healing and living a life that is right for us, we can become more who we are. Self discovery, not self improvement, should be the ultimate goal; for with it, the improvements come all by themselves.
My late teens and early twenties were particularly difficult for me in terms of identity and social anxiety. At that age there is a strong internal drive to declare definitively to the world: “I am here! This is who I am!” But at the same time, we are not yet sure who we are. We have been living an identity that has mostly been constructed for us by others: stuck with all the labels and perceptions of the people who have known us for our whole lives. In getting out in the world, we make new friends, who form their own notions of who we are, and this often clashes with the notions of folks who have known us longer. Often the people themselves then clash, leaving us stuck in the middle of conflicts that also represent an internal conflict of personal identity.
It is tempting to embrace these new people’s version of you, because they are usually responding to what you consciously presented as a new identity. At this stage of life it is useful and fun to try on different personas; to experiment with your identity. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it is important to remember that none of this is really, truly who you are. Your inner core, your true being, is still buried, trapped in all the layers of culture, upbringing, social convention, and trauma that you carry within you like sedimentary layers.
You will find people and groups that feel so right, so you, and then, suddenly it will all turn to shit as you realize everything was an illusion; that you were all play-acting a fantasy together. Don’t take this personally, it is all part of the process.
Then there’s the closeted gay boys at your new job who befriend you with creepy intensity before behaving like a clingy, fifteen-year-old girlfriend and getting in our face with vague condemnations like: “you aren’t being a good friend because I feel like you’re holding things back from me, even though I can’t say what things those are.” (It’s cock.) But we internalize this and search for those deficiencies in ourselves.
Oh, wait, that last bit’s not a universal experience? Sorry. However, you will be meeting people who get ignorant because they want to fuck you, don’t have the courage to come out and say it, disguise their needs and hopes as friendship, and then start blaming you for not reading their mind and making their dreams come true.
This is all relevant because as we age, we hopefully learn that the perceptions of others need not be our truth. People will develop notions of you based on your utility to them, and will more often than not resist any change in your behavior that doesn’t reinforce their own choices. Even when these notions are positive, they can be problematic for our personal growth. They may be flattering, certainly, but to build our identity out of them is an inherently dangerous enterprise. We then are stuck seeking out more and more validation from others and can get sucked into traps like consumerism, religion, and the false community of shared drug taking.
This all amplifies the noise that interferes with hearing the voice of our true selves, deep within us. There are times in our lives, especially when we are young, where it is of vital importance to unplug. Take a break from everything and everyone that has become normal to you and do your best to isolate yourself for a while. And when that anxiety takes over that makes you want to rush out to a club or put on a dumb movie or post pictures of yourself to social media so you can track the reactions for six hours, fight through it. You are anxious because you are leaving your comfort zone, and it is fighting through that anxiety that can take you to a place where you can start filling some of those holes within yourself.
There can be very real consequences to not taking this time to examine ourselves.
In my case, I spent most of my twenties in a kind of emotionally catatonic fugue state. I just drifted, relying on a defense of humor, cynicism, and, at the extreme, explosive rage to keep people at bay. And in this state I did a lot of ignorant, hurtful shit.
I’m sorry for it.
The lesson is that I am not the coping strategies I adopted to manage life. I am not my rage. I am not what was done to me. I am not the music I like, the games I played, the cigarettes I smoked, or the booze I tried to kill myself with. Who I am has been altered by all these things, for how could I not have been? But I am not these things.
As I discard these crutches and identities I can shed the layers of sediment and, more and more all the time, become closer to myself.
That is the gift of aging and of (sometimes) taking our time doing it.