Shaping Identity: The Identity that Wasn’t

by Ann Marie Bausch

There is a famous family story about my husband as a little boy.  At a gathering, a relative asked one of the only questions adults can think to ask of children:  “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” Wes, five years old, looked puzzled, and then replied, “Me!”

What a positively Zen answer.  I say this as someone who practices meditation and has poked around the fringes of Buddhist psychology.  The story fills me with delight, though when I imagine how I might have responded at the same age, things get a bit darker.  More than likely, I would have ducked behind my mother and held onto her leg.

Some things have changed—others, not so much.  The adult version of that question, at least in the part of American culture where I’m planted, generally has to do with a person’s job.  “So what do you do?” I’m not much fonder of gatherings now than I was then, and I find the question a little irritating, even though I know people are using it to mask their anxiety.  Why must we define ourselves only by how we earn money? Always, for a split second, I consider answering the way I’d like: “I’m a beach lover.” “I’m a vegan.” “I’m a person who would rather be home on the sofa with her dogs.”  Or, in the ways I’ve learned through meditation: “I am more than the egoic self. I am the silent being who is listening. I am the ocean; these are the waves.”

But, I perform, as most of us do.  “Writer at heart,” I say with a brittle grin.  “Administrative assistant by day.” Insert eye roll here.

Anyone who grew up with an emotionally abusive parent has probably seen where this is going from the beginning.  Questions of identity poke at old bruises. From birth, and for decades afterward, my “job” was to please my father.  To ward off the next storm. I have a distinct memory of being seven years old, lying in bed at night, making a list by counting on my fingers:  “What else do I need to worry about?”

Seven.

That doesn’t leave much room for forming an identity of one’s own.  I understand now, as a psychotherapy veteran, that even infants can perceive that type of danger, that in its wake the neural connections responsible for social connection become severed—hence the dogs and the sofa and the hatred of gatherings.  And the overdeveloped talent for performance. Throughout my high school and college years, people described me as confident. When I became a supervisor at a past job, no one—save one member of my staff who became a close friend and in whom I confided—saw that I was constantly wracked with stress.  They saw smiles and well-executed plans and crisis management—all things at which the children of narcissists are expert.

As I wrote the first draft of this piece, I felt my whole body flooded with the old sensations—the rush of stress hormones, the limbic system gearing itself up for the old, familiar fight.  I had to employ a technique learned in therapy and which I use daily still. When exploring identity, I imagine that many people think fondly of childhood and say, in essence, “There’s no place like home.”  I do not click my heels. My job in these moments is not to transport myself somewhere else, but to ground firmly in the present. I pause, breathe, and say quietly, “Now is not then. Now is not then.”

But at its heart, this is not a diatribe against my father, who had his own pain.  (Fellow survivors: I am not excusing the behavior. I’m just addressing a different topic at the moment).  As I live the magic of turning 40 and looking forward into the second half of my life, I observe people who seem so sure of themselves with curiosity.  What are you hiding? I wonder. What aren’t you showing us?

The profession of certainty in our culture is out of control.  We only have to peruse social media for a few moments to understand this.  So often we define ourselves, and especially others, by one label, and one label alone.  Republican. Addict. Muslim. Immigrant. Liberal. And so on and so on. Often the terms aren’t so polite.  We don’t ask a second question. We don’t see the whole board. We don’t want to acknowledge that people can be more than one thing.  The current climate indulges, to our personal and societal detriment, the brokenness of the usually unconscious notion that if you don’t agree with my beliefs, you don’t agree with me.  And so those people, those labels, become “other”—whole groups of fellow humans we can aggress against and make wrong in an effort to erase, not comfort, our own inner quivering frightened child.

Those of us who have spent years swimming a sea of uncertainty often see things differently.  I may have never formed a true identity—I’m not even sure what that means.  But I am open to every possibility. I have friends across the political spectrum.  I feel deep in my gut how fragile and short this life really is. I see the ridiculousness of “supposed to” and “should.”  I am not a Democrat or a Republican or a Virginian or an Italian or any other categorical division. I am the ocean. These are the waves.  I am only “me.”

Ann Marie Bausch is a writer and dog mom from Norfolk, Virginia. In addition to Rock & Sling, her nonfiction has appeared on The Mighty, and her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine. Find her at seekingandspeaking.wordpress.com, on Twitter at @anniebausch, or on Instagram at @anniemb4.

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