For a long, long time, I’ve felt like there have been two mes. One is a kind of persona; the other the expression of my internal life. We started talking about this in therapy yesterday, and it’s been on my mind. Why are there two? Is one more authentic than the other? Are these different sides to me that come out in different environments, or am I literally Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever?
The persona is exactly that: a social role played by an actor. I used to think that this was relegated to teaching, but the more we talked about it in my session yesterday, the more I realized that I’ve been cultivating and using this persona since high school. There are some things I really like about her: she’s confident, she’s no nonsense, she’s rebellious, she’s firm in her convictions, funny, sassy, she’s independent and at ease. And there are some things I don’t like about her: she’s rebellious, she’s brash, she speaks without thinking more often than I would like, and she’s not always the kindest person.
When you get right down to it, she’s a defense mechanism. I started being more vocal and dramatic in high school because at first, that was the only way to get noticed in a class of 17 who had all been together since kindergarten. And she served me well, truthfully. Because of her, my absolute terror at my first date with a boy I really liked (hey Tim) didn’t show, and we had a great time. She helped me deal with the fact that my sister was away at college and I was the only one at home. It was lonely and difficult in a lot of ways, and my persona helped me get through it because she had the drive and determination to get shit done so that I could graduate and be somewhere else. But she trapped me, too. Pulling that persona out all the time in order to survive the world I found myself in meant that that’s basically who I was to a lot of people. But that’s not who I really am, or at least, that’s not how I see myself.
The other me, the one that really only people I trust get to see, shares some qualities with her. At my heart I’m fiercely independent, I’m confident in who I am, I’m funny. And I’m other things, too: I’m loyal, I’m affectionate, I’m empathetic, I’m kind(mostly). I struggle to advocate for myself on a real level, but I’m learning. I have trouble being vulnerable, but I’m learning. I get scared and worried and can’t stop thinking, but I’m learning. I love the inner me, because she is trying to be all of the things that I value.
I guess what I’m saying is that while I know that I’m a blend of these two people, I feel like the persona has allowed me to hide the anxieties and the things that I struggle with. The problem with that is that I’ve done so much work the last couple of years on those parts of myself, and I’m proud of the changes that have happened, even though they’re subtle. I hate knowing that there are people out there who I love who think I’m just being dramatic when I’m actually trying to genuinely speak up for myself. It’s so frustrating to feel that I’m not heard, and especially to feel that I can only be heard if I’m behaving in a way that’s expected. And then when I do that, I’m not taken seriously. I feel like I can’t win. It’s so galling, because it’s so hard for me to speak up in the first place. I’ve worked, really worked, to be able to talk openly about when things bother me: I really have trouble with that, because the nice midwesterner in me doesn’t want anyone to feel like they’ve hurt my feelings and wants everybody to be ok all the time. But I’ve learned over the last couple of years that talking about it is the only way you can make a relationship better. You have to speak up, because the other person or people my not know that they’re hurting you, and so they’ll keep doing it if you don’t say something. It’s just really frustrating to be trying to say something and to not be taken seriously. And it makes it that much harder to be able to share what anxiety is like with people.
And now that I’m writing about it, I realize that’s the root of it: we don’t talk about anxiety because we all have public personas, and anxiety doesn’t fit into that. Or it completely takes over the persona and all of the other qualities people have get pushed to the background. Why can’t we be seen as the wonderfully faceted, complex, interesting people we are? Why do we put people who have some sort of “deficiency” in a box and label them as if they are that thing only, when that is really only a small part of who they are? When we define people by their mental illness, we are negating all of the other wonderful (and not so wonderful) things about who they are. And how is that ever ok?
The thing I’m figuring out – you’re literally reading my brain work – is that I have more work to do. I’ve got a pretty good handle on how to manage the anxiety I feel and how to talk about it, and I think that my next step is to really start advocating. It’s not enough to just sit there and know that I have lots of different parts to me and that if someone is around me long enough they’ll figure it out. It’s not enough to know that I’ve gone through a lot of changes and growth and to hope that other people see it. Because in all honestly, a lot of what I’ve gone through has been internal and I still seem the same to most people. I have to speak up. I have to talk to people and articulate what has happened, so that they can see part of the inner side of who I am, and not just the anxiety. Not just the persona. The anxiety doesn’t define me, even though it was/is a big part of my life. And the persona doesn’t define me. I’m the one whose responsibility it is to show the sides of myself that I want people to know about. If that means my defenses have to drop, then I have to work on that.
So I think that’s where I’m going from here, and I think that I can do it. It’s scary, but in that “this is terrifying but it’s going to be really great” kind of way.
This is terrifying. But it’s going to be really great.