The Shape of Bravery

The facets that make up one’s identity can vary.

Recently, while discussing Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, my professor asserted that we are more ourselves when we go outside of ourselves. No one in the class seemed to know exactly what he meant by this, and the claim only became more confusing as my classmates pondered it. Nonetheless, the concept has stuck with me since then.

The concept of a static, unchanging identity, a way to say, “This is who I am,” to the world in a succinct and palatable manner has been on my mind pretty consistently since being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. I believed that if I could come up with a cookie-cutter statement to counter the “unstable sense of self,” I was told I had, then the diagnosis would be proven false. The psychiatrists who told me that I had BPD, in a way, gave me a new sense of identity, one that I had both rejected and relished at different times in my life: sick person, mental patient.

If you are someone who struggles with low self-esteem, you’ve probably been told, “You don’t see yourself accurately.” In a way, this statement proves my professor’s claim: using only my own judgment, I am not a good appraiser of who I am. According to me, I am a failure, I am crazy, and I am profoundly broken. Of course, these statements have little to nothing to do with reality, and while I can acknowledge and accept that, I cannot (yet) disbelieve it.

According to my mom, one single relationship cannot fulfill a person’s every need. This doesn’t necessarily refer to only romantic relationships. Friendships, too, need variety. For instance, my friend Alex is an incredibly talented artist with whom I have collaborated before. When I have a strange idea, I can bounce my thoughts off of Alex, I can trust him with half-baked, very personal content and know that within our friendship, I am safe. There are things I would send to him that I would never show to, say, my classmates, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get along with my classmates just the same. The things I say to my therapist, I may not repeat to my mom.

This doesn’t mean that I’m being disingenuous in any of these relationships. It means that (in contrast to my younger self who was an open book with anyone and everyone) that I have the ability to use discretion in my relationships. It means that sometimes I am the person who bags your groceries, and other times I am the person who creates a piece of art or writing that is worth being published, and other times I write fourteen introduction paragraphs and decide, “Ehh, it wasn’t that great a concept for a story anyway!”

The point I’m trying to illustrate here is twofold: Nobody, regardless of mental health status, is the same in all situations and environments. I’d behave differently at a rock concert than I would in a library. I also fluctuate throughout the day. The goal of the thousands of hours of therapy I’ve had isn’t to ensure that I never have a bad feeling or day again, but to equip me with the skills I need to not make those bad days worse. Because I spent a good deal of my formative years in therapy, I am only now learning that a lot of what I felt, thought, and did was relatively normal.

Secondly, identity is about balance. No, I do not see myself accurately, and therefore I may rely on other people to tell me who they think I am. But that does not mean I have to accept any role I am given just because I am invited to play the part. This is where bravery comes in, the ability to stand up to someone and say, “No, that’s not me.” You may even have to say this to yourself–I know I do!

Call it a “cognitive distortion,” call it a “negative core belief,” or just call it my brain being an asshole, but I probably tell myself I’m a failure every single day. As I mentioned in my last post, these lenses through which we view ourselves can become our reality if we are not careful. I can convince myself not to try something because I might fail, and then turn around and tell myself that I failed by not trying.

Take for example, the humble class discussion. I try to be a pretty good student; I do my readings, I come to class, I take decent notes when necessary. In so much of my college experience, there have been open-ended discussions, “Which Victorian poet was your favorite?” “How would you feel if you were the subject of [insert ode here]?” “What do you think Florens learned about herself by the end of the chapter?” At first, I was terrified to speak at all, and I cowered in the back of the classroom (or the Zoom call) and hoped I wouldn’t be called upon. Eventually, I was able to answer direct questions and my heart would only pound for about five minutes after I’d stopped speaking. Finally, I came to the obvious conclusion: No one is judging me as much as I’m judging myself.

Ultimately, I choose how to define myself using a mixture of how others see me and how I view myself. Whether it is Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” the Harry Potter series, or your own personal battle, themes of good and evil are everywhere. One of the reasons literature exists is to provide an escape, a place where the bad guys are easy to spot and put in their places. Real life, as you know, is not like that. There are grey areas, blurred lines, and inconclusive answers.

At the risk of revealing my humanness, I will admit, I haven’t been feeling like myself lately. More than just time management and looming deadlines are darkening my skies. I do not want to end my life or become a statistic. I only want this sourceless pain to stop. I ask myself what’s wrong and come up with no answers, save for a feeling of profound loneliness. It is important to me to be seen, to be acknowledged, heard, and understood. Yet I simultaneously feel like no one cares what I have to say, and I doubt if I even had the authority to say it.

The trauma said don’t write this poem
Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones
My bones said “Tyler Clementi dove into the Hudson River convinced he was entirely alone.”
My bones said “write the poem.”

–Andrea Gibson

I usually like to tie up these posts in a neat little bow, to tell the story of how I conquered mental illness again and again, how I continue to fight. But the reality is that the journey to relative mental wellness is unending. There will always be good days, followed by setbacks, followed by good days. What matters more, though, is that just as I choose how to define myself, I choose how to define bravery. It’s not always taking a risk. Sometimes the bravest thing I can do is continue to show up and try my best, even in the face of depression, fear, and self-loathing. This too shall pass.

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