When Do We Become Ourselves?

About a decade ago (when I was 14) I found the...
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A friend recently sent me a fifth-grade photo of himself, wondering if I could guess who he was.

It was pretty clear.

In my second-grade class photo, maybe third, I’m surrounded by a sea of perfectly composed little girls, their braids neat, hands folded on their laps, gleaming patent-leather Mary Janes, skirts, tight, bright smiles.

There I am, a happy mess — hair that desperately needs brushing, my front tooth missing, well-worn sneakers.

Except for the gap teeth, I’d say that’s still me. I’ve always been someone who — as early photos reveal — is often less worried about appearing perfect than having fun and being comfortable, the sort of kid whose worst tantrums erupted if my clothes felt constricting or I had to wear shoes I couldn’t run in.

In an early photo, taken in a London park, I’m wearing a lovely wool coat, holding a paper bag and looking a little anxious. It’s not clear if I am holding a cookie or about to feed some birds. But I recognize the mix of style (boiled wool double-breasted coat with nice sleeve details), anxiety, food.

These three themes, including feeling antsy if I can’t travel overseas every year or so, have remained consistent for me. I love great food and enjoy cooking and entertaining. I’m a worrier — my sweetie’s nickname for me is N-squared (for Nervous Nellie). And I do passionately love elegance and beauty.

I had my photo taken this week for an article about me in the local newspaper. What an agony of self-consciousness! What to wear? What decisions will people make about me when they see it? Will it make them want to buy my new book — or avoid it because of something in my demeanor, clothing, smile?

I was so fretful about how I would appear, not so much from vanity as…not sure. Fear of disdain? Of losing readers? (Surely my choice of clothing that day, a black blazer and softly draped cowlneck blouse, would also gain me some!)

I was badly bullied by a small gang of boys for three long years in high school, and have ever since felt terribly self-conscious about how I look, even though I know objectively I’m attractive and can dress stylishly, even on a budget.

It’s hard to shed that teenage persona, of fearfulness and judgment.

When did you realize who you were — and are you still OK with being that person today?

Did a photo reveal it to you?

14 thoughts on “When Do We Become Ourselves?

  1. I wrote a blog recently on being bullied in high school. It’s amazing how, even though the people fade away, the mental anguish never seems to go away. I was shy, nervous, and different from everyone I knew. I never really fit in and I think I became myself when I embraced those differences instead of trying to fit in. I still have those moments where I wish I could blend in with the crowd for a while but it never lasts.

    Good luck and I hope your photo turned out as good as you had hoped it would!

    1. Poor you! Being bullied really is tough, especially in high school when there is no escape until graduation! I have never quite felt like I fit — no kids, no pets, don’t own a house, don’t make a ton of cash, don’t care desperately about some of things women are meant to (my weight, whatever!) — so I hear you.

      I’ll see the picture on Sunday. Shriek. Fingers crossed.

  2. What an interesting topic. I love the description of you in your school picture.

    A picture of me that immediately comes to mind that I’m kinda embarrassed to say defines me even now:

    I’m two years old, standing in my grandparent’s back yard under a tree wearing a horizontally-striped blue and white bathingsuit – the kind with a little skirt. My mom had apparently just brushed my hair because it’s shiney and she topped it with a cute little white hat. I am mid-bite into an oreo cookie – exactly what I wanted – and I am bawling hysterically about it.

    The backstory to that – I’d asked for a cookie and mom had said no because we were about to eat lunch. The unfairness of not getting what I wanted, combined with my mom’s impatient tone, was entirey too much to bear so I erupted into crocodile tears. My grandmother sneaked me a cookie and sent me out the back door so we wouldn’t get in trouble. I was still so upset about the whole episode that I couldn’t stop crying even as I ate the forbidden cookie I’d wanted.

    1. What a story….I am so fascinated by the images we have and keep and value and what they say about us. My mother, only a few years ago showed me a portrait of her mother — two of them beaming – and told me her mother had slapped (!) her right before the photo was taken.

      One of my favorite photos is one of me at about six, in my bathrobe, waiting patiently for my very glam Mom to get off the phone….

  3. Great question. I don’t think I’d recognize the introverted and non-confident teen that I was in high school. For me, I think I became the person that I am today (more-or-less) when I went away to graduate school. Living on my own, in a strange place, trying to get by on a stipend, meeting people from all over — I was able to leave behind the things that bothered me when I was younger, because I realized the doubts weren’t real.

    1. Thanks for sharing this. I had a similar experience when I left Toronto — and dog, apartment, beau, friends, career — at 25 for a year in France on a fellowship. I experienced many of the challenges you did, and it changed me forever, and gave me as well, much greater confidence I could make new and lasting friendships, and do good work, far from my hometown.

  4. ladyberrington

    I might respond very much the same as you
    and might add that we do go through some tranformation in our lives at different time periods, in different situations and or with different people.
    How we see ourselves and how others see us is often different. It is difficult for us to see ourselves as others do…vanity…etc
    Have you ever heard of Johari’s Window? It is quite interesting and I encourage you to google it an check it out.


  5. Is it strange that I still don’t feel like I know “who I am” quite yet? I want to say that, yes, I’m the sum of all the experiences in my past; but things continue to happen to me now! With that understanding, is the definition of “me” still being created?

    On the other hand, there are certain truths about me that are evident and concrete. I’m shy at first. I make close friends, and there numbers are few and not many. I like to work and be busy. I do strive to keep my appearances up, but I realize it’s all a facade that changes from time to time.

    It’s all a process, and sometimes I’m happy with the current result and other times I’m not.

    But the evolution is always interesting!

    1. I am intrigued by what’s in there early….and stays. It’s been said we’re “us” by the age of seven or so, and change relatively little after that.

      I am also, like all of us, in flux, but I think we’re able to change as much as we see is useful or interesting. I think change — of habit or behavior or defense mechanism — is the challenge. My great challenge is becoming more trusting of others. And setting boundaries.

  6. I have finally realised that I am the sum of everything I was before, kind of an exponential experience thing. I have come through so many different stages of life, survived most and enjoyed a lot. It is this that has made me who I am and I try to remember that most of the bad stuff has been as transitory as the good. I will keep trying to have an adventure, and to not let my ghosts hold me back.


  7. Deborah the Closet Monster

    I realized this early on, although I didn’t really realize it until my mom told me she was jealous of me. I was so bemused by that, I couldn’t even think of anything to say. (If I’d been a little quicker, the question would have been, “Why?” My mom’s statement came out of the blue.)

    She continued, “I think a lot of people don’t really know who they are. You and your youngest sister, you know it. You don’t think about it or worry about it. You’re just . . . you.”

    I thought this was possibly the strangest of many strange things she’d ever said to me, but over time, I started to understand why she described this like it was a gift.

    Thank you for this fabulous opportunity to reflect, and remember a moment with my mom I might otherwise have forgotten. Each memory is a blessing, these days. šŸ™‚

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