During my senior year in high school if you inquired about my ambitions I'd likely have said that I was going to be an artist. If you asked for specifics I'd have probably said I wanted to write and illustrate children's books. I might have said I wanted to be a poet. I may even have offered up the idea of being a travel writer since I liked the idea of adventure. Most people seemed to agree that all of these were things I was capable of doing. In fact it even seemed expected and I did nothing to make people think that I might want to do or be something else. I may even have encouraged the idea, since being a non-conformist, independent and adventurous artist was something I'd like to be seen as, and it certainly seemed better than being the timid, self-conscious and awkward person I felt myself to be inside.
Not that this image didn't have some basis in fact. I mean, was I creative? Yes. I'd been writing, doodling, crafting, composing and dancing as far back as I remembered. Was I independent? Sort of. I was always willing to take a stand for things I deeply believed in, but I also had a deep desire to be liked which meant that sometimes I went with the flow just as much as anyone. Adventurous? Perhaps. I was not afraid to sneak out of my bedroom window and spend a night wandering the woods near my house, and I never really had too much of an issue with making public spectacle of myself, but the idea of talking to a stranger, one on one, in broad daylight terrified me. So, yes the image mostly fit and so for most of my life, the independent, non-conformist, adventurous, creative type has been the character I have played.
I think this is something we all do. Whether created by our own minds or by the perceptions of others, or more likely both, we have a character that we present to the world. We hope that the character is also true to our deepest self but I think for many of us it is a somewhat uncomfortable mix between what we feel we should be and what we truly are. This character is influenced by all sort of things, who we are interacting with, the place we find ourselves, the way we view ourselves, our experiences. At any time we can add or take a way a layer - who we are at work or who we are at school or who we are when we date. We are daughter, mother, lover, teacher, supervisor, assistant, artist, dancer, goth, hippie, bookworm, activist, spinster...and we often act in a way that we think these characters should act under particular circumstances.
I don't believe that at it's core that this is a bad thing. It is human nature to name things, to define them and to give them shape. And in general these are not false characters, for many of us they are rooted in a part of ourselves that we are or we were or in some way desired to be. The danger of course comes when the character is no longer connected to ourselves in that way, yet we find ourselves clinging to it, keeping up the act because we don't know what else to do or be, or perhaps are afraid of disappointing others by not living up to that perception, or we don't believe we can be something else. This is perhaps the source of many a mid-life crisis.
Those of us who have "independent spirit" or "the one who has it all together" as part of that character may often find it difficult to ask for help when we need it most, after all we are supposed to have our shit together and be able to handle life on our own. The ones who "get things done" may find they can't say no to yet another project. Others who have the title of "expert" or "smart" may not be able to admit when they are in error. Those who see themselves as "not pretty" or "unloveable" may not ever take the risk of finding joyful human contact believing they are not worthy of it. And those who took on a role because it was what the world told them they were supposed to do...get married, have children, become a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, make something of your life...may find that what they thought they should be and who they actually are become very different things.
And so I look at myself. Yes, I am an independent, non-conformist, adventurous, creative person but I am also a woman who struggles at times with loneliness, who doesn't always have it as much together as the rest of the world thinks she does (or maybe as much as she thinks she does...what?), who goes on Magnum PI Netflix binges, who finds farts to be a source of hilarity, who often looks in the mirror and sees less-than-pretty but sometimes sees gorgeous, and who tries her best to appear confident even when afraid. I see someone who, in the past twenty plus years of adulthood has changed her views on many things, who through experience has learned hard lessons and yet has made many of the same mistakes over and over and over again...we are not static beings.
Perhaps the key is to take that look on a regular basis. To ask yourself, is what I am projecting out into the world something that is really me? The life I am living, is it mine or that of the character I want the world to see? Eventually, if we keep checking in, the character and our self will become one and the same or at least as closely aligned as we can hope them to be in a world where who we are and who we are expected to be are fluid concepts and often at odds.
(This post is the first of a series of posts that came out of a fireside chat during a festival weekend not so long ago. I am no expert in human psychology, these posts are my own musings and thoughts as inspired by that conversation. Up next: The characters we expect others to play.)