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How Can I Be Myself if I Don't Know Who I Am?

A good woman with a hard past asked me, “Where do I get the tools to rewrite the story that’s been engraved upon my stone?”

I told her all she needed was some paper, a pen, and a whole lot of courage.

Cue Natasha Bedingfield singing “Unwritten”.

The hardest part is that we’re working from a story line that someone else created – quite literally. We didn’t ask to be born nor did we choose our childhood. No matter how long ago, the lessons we learned as children are the foundation our lives are built upon. Grow up in a healthy family and you’re all set. The rest of us are left wondering:

If you wouldn’t buy a house with a cracked foundation then why would you love someone like me?

What we believe about ourselves and the world around us feels like it was chiseled in stone – at the very core of who we are. Our earliest lessons are the basis of our self worth. As my friends in AA say, “What we lived with, we learned. What we learned, we become.”

“I am whatever you say I am.” – Eminem

A child who is too young to understand what self esteem is still has it.

Cruel words come from the lips of those I serve as they share what they were taught. The most common and painful of these are: “I’m a piece of shit.” Nothing has less value. “I’m a slut/There’s only one thing I’m good for.” Degraded and demeaned, we wear our shame as though it is deserved. “I’m stupid.” Children who are scared struggle to learn. “I’m crazy/neurotic/pathetic.” We were taught to doubt our own perception of what was real and blamed when we said things were wrong.

Then there’s the universal one: “I’m not good enough.” (For who?) We couldn’t make the sick and selfish people show us love, acceptance and pride in who we are and so we never came to know our worth. Children always blame themselves – it’s based in the necessary but false belief that they can have some control over whether their needs will be met. Some of us strive and some of us act out. It’s all the same – we were trying then to get what was denied and as adults, we still are.

Neglect a child and she learns that she is unimportant. Be violent with a child and she learns deservedness of pain. Molest or rape a child and she learns that her body is not her own. Regardless of what one says to a child, s/he will develop beliefs based on how we behave toward her. She will then set out to prove her family of origin/abuser(s) right or wrong, or both – often at the same time.

We feel confused but the truth is we’re torn. We want what we know to match up to what we feel. On a gut level, we know they were wrong. For far too many of us it still feels like they were right.

We give everything and ask nothing. We do amazing things but shoot down the appreciation that follows. We kill ourselves to prove our love and then distance ourselves from those who seek to love us. We explain away praise, recognition and compliments because it’s too uncomfortable to take in.

We long for so many good things while living with the fear that we’ll never have them. When you crawl across the barren landscape of surviving, you’re ravenous. When someone offers you sustenance, you either treat it like an oasis or devour it and beg for more. We’re never sure how to be.

Then our therapist and other well meaning people tell us to “just be yourself”… and we wonder, “Who is that exactly?”

In order to claim a new identity, we must move away from the lessons learned from the sick and selfish and incorporate the truth of good people. This is incredibly uncomfortable and it will feel selfish. It’s not. It’s a matter of drawing out that which was ingrained and replacing it. I offer my truth to others like me and I ask them to, “Just believe that I believe this.”

Sick people taught us that we are not enough. Good people believe we are worthy and loveable just as we are. This is a matter of faith – believing in something we see as unproven.

If we live our lives and treat ourselves as though the good people are right, we gradually and painstakingly come to find and accept that they are. We cannot wait to feel better or think better. We must live better and this requires being often in the company of good people. It’s the only thing that really fills the emptiness of what should have been.

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