“Who here has spent time thinking about the question ‘who am I?'” my professor asked the class.
Most of us, myself included, raised our hands at once.
“Well, I suppose I’m going to get a biased sample because you’re all in this class.”
The class was Personality Psychology, and this was in my first or second year of university. I remember my bewilderment as she went on to explain that there are people who don’t really think about those kinds of questions much, if at all. Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the point of it all?
But then, I was the one majoring in psychology and fascinated by the philosophy classes that were a core requirement for my Bachelors degree.
Who Am I?
This past year, I’ve been focusing a lot on the question ‘who am I?’ as I try to both discover and rebuild my identity after a couple years in what I’m slowly realizing was an incredibly toxic situation. It left me fearful and broken, completely unable to trust my own judgement, wondering if I was horrendously defective or even monstrous. Wondering if I’d deserved everything that had happened and was too dishonest to admit it.
I was unmoored and couldn’t remember who I was. Things I used to trust in and took implicitly as true about myself seemed so so far away I couldn’t even think of what they were when I tried.
Even still, that question that led me to take a personality psychology class, hoping to find answers, never stopped attracting my thoughts, challenging me to keep digging, to keep discovering.
I learned that I’m gay. I learned that I’m autistic.
And in this past year, I got my official autism diagnosis. I figured out and learned to accept that I’m not cis. Even more, as I processed what I went through, I started to remember those details about who I am that I used to take for granted. Each one was a bright gem appearing as though flashing in the sun and suddenly all those memories were back in the places they’d always been, accessible and real and true.
I’ve been, one brick at a time, feeling out my foundation, seeing it all for the first time.
Remembering who I always was, who I still am.
The World Is More Than We Will Ever Comprehend
Sometimes I think about how to explain the kind of introspection LGBTQ+ and undiagnosed neurodiverse people have to go through to people who have never really had to think about their sexuality, gender, or how their brain works. We live in a world full of people who want things to make sense, who are afraid of the unknown, and who try to live with the wounds of their past. And who, in trying to cope with a universe vaster and more varied than any of us will ever be able to comprehend, draw lines that make shapes we recognize and try to colour within them, because that makes us feel safe. Makes the world feel manageable, knowable.
I say we here because we all do this. We’re all human beings faced with an incomprehensibly vast universe no matter where we look. Whether we focus only on what is natural, or on what is human-made. Whether we focus on one culture, or on one place or thing. Whether we focus on one person.
No matter what we do, we will never be able to fully understand what we’re looking at. We’re limited. That’s part of the human condition, and the cause of both tremendous beauty and tremendous pain.
And when the lines that we’ve drawn and the colours we’ve chosen are what we hold onto for the world to make sense, to feel safe, to feel knowable, and it has to be that way or else what’s the point of it all, we inevitably feel endangered when we find out that other people have drawn completely different things.
When someone says that your body and your gender don’t always correspond.
When someone says that you can be attracted to people whose gender is the same as yours (or to no one at all or to genders other than “man” and “woman”).
When someone says that your brain may not work the way most people say it does.
And maybe them saying it somewhere is fine. Maybe them thinking it privately is fine. So long as you don’t ever have to see those lines they’re drawing, you can pretend that it’s not really affecting anything because they’re keeping it private.
So long as everyone at least looks like they’re all colouring inside the same lines you are, then it’s okay, the world will stay working, and you will still be safe.
After all, if we all speak the same language, we’ll all understand each other and everything will be peaceful and normal, right?
But the universe is bigger than any of us. We are bigger than our understanding, even. There is so so much more in existence than we will ever see in our lifetimes.
Which is exciting!
Which is, physiologically speaking, very similar to fear. (Bodies are fun.) And we all react to that differently.
Our Heart Is Fragile and Unknowingly Deep
Sometimes I wonder why people decide that other people are dangerous, despicable, terrible and the downfall of society simply because these other people have drawn different lines. And people can get so loud and vehement about how horrible these different lines supposedly are.
Like… saying that gay people are the cause of natural disasters (because them being gay makes God angry?)
Or saying that neurodiverse people’s brains are broken and need to be corrected, cured, prevented.
Or saying that trans people are predators, attacking women and lesbians and leading those poor broken autistic people astray.
But then I remember it’s a very human thing to try to control other people so that you feel safe, even if that means compromising the safety of others. Maybe even others that you genuinely love very much.
It’s wrong, yes. And also human.
Our hearts, our selves, you could say, are deep, huge, layered, complex. They’re hard to understand and often wrapped in multitudinous nuance of meaning that make it difficult to get any sort of clear truth. They’re fragile- beautiful and bleeding and trying so very hard to be seen, heard, and better than what hurt them.
Facing that slippery, hard to grasp and easy to damage universe within us is hard. Full stop. It’s vulnerable, scary, and also incredibly, incredibly brave. It takes a lifetime to look at ourselves and see what is really there without judgement, without fear, and even in a lifetime of looking we won’t have seen everything.
Asking yourself the question “who am I?” is, once you start, something that you will do until the day you die.
If Answers Add, Questions Multiply
I thought when I started university I would finally start to find answers to the questions I’d been wondering about for years, and what I ended up finding was more questions than I had known before to ask.
Part of the reason I ended up in that toxic situation was because I wanted so badly for certainty about the world, about people, about God, about myself. And I ended up trading my own dignity, integrity, and internal world for a set of lines that I could just colour in and feel safe about it. The problem is that colouring in the lines doesn’t actually make you feel safe. It just makes you think that you should be able to feel safe, which isn’t at all the same thing.
And even though I have a few answers now that I’ve been seeking my whole life prior (which is amazing), and even though I have learned so so so much in the pursuit of the questions that keep me up at night, the questions never stop multiplying. As the saying goes “the more I know, the less I understand.”
Here’s the thing, though: no one else but me has made a lifetime study of who I am.
I am, quite literally, the sole expert of me that exists or that ever will exist in the world.
Which means that no one but you has made a lifetime study of who you are.
Which means you are the sole expert of you that exists or that ever will exist in the world.
And so on for all of us human beings that exist, that have ever existed, and that will ever exist.
No matter how confused or questioning, no matter how many or how few answers they have, no matter what answers (or answers-in-progress) they’ve found for themselves, no matter everything, every person in the world knows themselves better than you do. That’s the simple, objective truth.
We can try to scare others and ourselves into drawing the lines that make us feel like we can be safe, or we can remember that everything we interact with, ourselves, is vaster than we will ever be able to fully comprehend.
Which means there is yet more out there to learn, be, and do than we can even imagine.
How amazing is that?