You are not your self-image

A couple of weeks ago, in a piece called ‘Re-appropriate and release’, I wrote:

I'm going to be conscious of this and stop describing myself as a nerd to myself and others. Not because I don't identify with these people anymore, but because I do and I want things to move forward. Nerdiness to me is just attention to detail, passion and a little bit of awkwardness. None of those traits are shameful and no issues that occur as a result of these traits are unsolvable. This all might seem trivial but it is a first step.

When I re-read this piece and discussed it with a few friends, I realised what was missing: I didn’t outline what it was a ‘first step’ towards. It turns out that I’m glad I didn’t. In order to get to this question, we need to take a step back.

One of the reasons that people use stereotypes is that they make it far easier for us to categorise people, to process them and understand why they are behaving in a certain way. Traditionally we think of people doing this to others in a hostile way, but just as interesting and harmful is the way that a person might use stereotypes to understand themselves. That’s what I was talking about in the last piece: taking someone else’s insults and applying them to yourself in order to explain why you exhibit certain characteristics.

You might have already recognised that you’ve done this to yourself over the course of your life, I know I have. For you, it might have been ‘blonde’, ‘tradie’, ‘party girl’ or ‘stoner.’ We identify ourselves with something and we begin to think we are this fictional construct, which can help explain why we are behaving in a certain way. It helps us cope with our insecurities in that we can reassure ourselves that we were made to be like this. That we are just being what we are.

But we are not our self-image.

This is so important. Say it out loud.

I am not my self-image.

When we put ourselves into these boxes, we deny ourselves the agency we need to understand our own flaws and embrace the things that make us interesting, complex individuals. If you say to yourself that you are a ditzy blonde or an awkward nerd, you are giving yourself very little scope to take charge of the behaviour that might be inhibiting your growth or personal development.

I don’t advocate changing any behaviour that you enjoy or gain fulfilment from. I’m not telling people to throw out their comic books, hairspray or utes. Everybody needs to embrace the positive things that make them who they are. But any aspect of your life that frustrates you can be addressed through conscious decisions and effort. One of the first steps towards changing these things is coming to terms with the fact that you are not an idea of a person but that you are a complex, confusing and imperfect entity. Then you have to be prepared for the really hard work. Understand that you will feel vulnerable, because the longer you have been using your adopted identity as a shield, the less comfortable you’ll be without it.

In the beginning I was talking about the first step. One of the problems with that phrase is that it makes it sound like there's a destination that we eventually reach if only we could just get started. But there really isn't one. All that there can be is a journey that will help us find our more fulfilled selves. It may not be a destination but it sounds to me like a journey worth undertaking.