There’s a popular belief in the self-help world (and beyond) that in order to be happy we need to FIND OURSELVES. I don’t know how many times I’ve read inspirational quotes (see the above, for example) that have told me that I am on the brink of such self-discovery that will shake me so profoundly as to never make me doubt who I am again. Well, I am not so sure this is true for me. I know even in adulthood, some of us struggle with knowing much about ourselves, and it takes a while to get to the point where we can figure out things such us what our boundaries are, what our values are, what we like and don’t like. You know, basic building blocks of self…
I agree that as it says in Emily McDowell’s quote, one’s true self is buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, inaccurate conclusions and so on, but many of us have never developed a healthy sense of self in the first place, and therefore we cannot return to ourselves. We cannot find something that we haven’t technically ever lost. We need to develop healthy selves from the start—this has been my experience, at least as a person who was relinquished at a very young age and who has struggled with identity and substance use disorder to cover up my shame and feelings of being inadequate. I used my intelligence, my charm, and alcohol to “build” a persona that allowed me to become successful, but also survive in the world. I was great at my job, I got the girl I wanted to marry, I had some wealth, and I traveled the world. I had it made. But the feeling of emptiness prevailed. I just didn’t know why these feelings persisted, considering I’d had everything.
Even more baffling—once I got sober, I was still stuck with the feeling of not quite belonging. So it took me quite some time, research, and reflection to get to where I am, but at no point was I returning to myself (as it says in McDowell’s quote) because there was no self to return to. And that is totally okay! I want you to know that. Some of us might not have selves to return to. Some of us, like me, have never had a chance to develop a self that can, in the future, become some kind of oasis where we will land on after years of struggling and permanent confusion about our place in the world.
I think it’s okay to start with basics. For example, a person recovering from addiction might discover that she has never really been into her job, and the fast-paced environment of advertising and that the punk-rock concerts she’s attended were never her scene—she went because the boyfriend liked it and that’s where the drugs were. People in recovery have often changed jobs (and many had to change environments that made staying sober difficult), but further along the line, many have discovered new things about themselves such as aptitude for music or sports, or they might’ve discovered that they were never an extrovert and actually loved being at home on Friday nights, alone with a book.
I love growing and evolving in my own recovery and I know that as I go along, I am not finding myself, because I was never lost. I was always there. I just didn’t have the right materials and the instruction manual. Now that I do, it seems I am getting better and better at building myself. I wish the same for you—and stop looking if it seems like you haven’t lost yourself either. Maybe you just need to build it all from scratch.
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