I’m not sure when it happened. I can’t remember a ‘before’, but I know there must be one, a brief little pocket of time when my sense of myself was not divided into who I am and this other, outward facing ‘me’. Both a facade and an aspiration, this other ‘me’ is my representative to the outside world. She helps me navigate all the situations and interactions I must have in order to make my way through any given day. She smiles kindly when I don’t feel compassion, and She appears industrious when I am being lazy. She goes on five mile runs while I am eating spoonfuls of peanut butter, and She meditates while my mind races with anxiety.
I’ve not always thought of Her as separate from ‘me’. For most of my life I think I’ve assumed She was me, that the unkind, lazy, gluttonous, anxious me was the ‘other’ or even assumed those qualities were just little hiccups that were erased once I got back on track, back to the ‘real’ me. But the more I walk this path–one of cultivating mindfulness, of seeking to live an examined life–the harder it is to ignore the primacy of this shadow-me, the harder it is to reassure myself that, really, I am this compassionate, industrious, disciplined, awake ‘me’. It’s both a painful realization and a relief to openly contemplate the parts of myself that I have never been able to regard as acceptable. The picture is not pretty, which is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t take as much effort to maintain. I prefer the intensity of feeling over the numbness of avoidance.
All of that being said, one of the aspects of this journey towards acceptance which continues to be destabilizing has been realizing just how deeply interwoven She, my idealized self, is in the fabric of my life and relationships. I’ve now spent over thirty years living through her. Hers is the face that all of those most dear to me recognize as mine. I sometimes feel as though all of the love I am blessed enough to receive does not truly belong to me because it has actually been given to Her: She is who they love, not me. The result is a bewildering sense of untouchable loneliness at times. I know that I am loved–not to recognize that would be to carelessly dismiss the depth of generosity and goodness that dwells in my dear ones–and yet, so much of the time I don’t feel as though I can claim it as mine, can’t feel the love so graciously given. If they could really see me, an insidious voice whispers in my ear, they’d see I don’t deserve their esteem.
Of course, just as real as my experience of shame and isolation are moments of genuine, authentic connection with dear ones who give me a brief glimpse of myself through their eyes. And in those moments, I have to wonder if they are seeing something I can’t see that’s just as true as all the weakness and muck I am terrified to reveal to them. Yes, the self is far more rich and complex than the polarized extremes of thinking I’ve been indulging in, both in life and in this post. Who I am encompasses both my shadow-self and my aspirational self, and they flow into one another, shifting and changing constantly. I suspect that the more I am able to accept who I am, both the shadow-me and the idealized me, the easier it will be to embody my aspirations, and the less I will feel myself an imposter in my own life.
However, for the first time, I am beginning to understand I’ll never be able to erase my shadow-self, that this isn’t even the goal. Rather, I can aspire to develop a fluid acceptance which both contains and integrates these solid selves into a constant flow such that all the toxic solidity of my beliefs break down. Perhaps the most limiting of the many toxic, solidifying beliefs about myself I have spent my life feeding is the one that I am the only one who feels this way, that I am completely and utterly alone in my alienation from myself and others. I almost hope that I am, but I know that I’m not.