A while ago I wrote a post under the title 'The Real Me', in which I posited that I wanted to lead what I guess I would term a more authentic or honest life. I also discussed how easy it is to even subconsciously create a public image/personality, and how we structure this to protect ourselves or project an ideal of what we want to be.
Further to that, something I've been thinking about lately is a phrase I've had thrown at me at various points in life, and have definitely heard levelled at others around me: 'that's not you'. From a throwaway comment in the fitting rooms to a statement of surprise in response to an outburst, it's an immediate contradiction that often comes from those closest to us, if it comes at all.
I distinctly remember a number of occasions upon which this little phrase, or words to that effect, caused me to question myself or to feel uncertain. A few times it was wardrobe-related, as inevitably teenage self-expression led to some unusual outfit choices. I would swan into the room in something bright or fitted only to be greeted with a quizzical look and a 'hmmm... that's just not you', quickly followed by me sloping off deflated to get changed. Chances are the people in question felt they were doing me a favour by preventing me from being ridiculous, but I always felt like I had been denied a moment of bravery, and I needed to fit back into whatever mould 'me' was actually supposed to take.
As I got older I learned that women used 'that's not you' as code for a lot of things - when they really meant, 'that's not flattering'; 'that's not appropriate'; 'that's too outlandish', they would couch their judgements in the softer tones of 'I don't know, it's just not you, you know?'. I worked in a women's fashion store for two years on and off while I was a student and I saw it so many times, always with the same look of disappointment on the face of the woman in question. Now I'm not saying that it wasn't well-meant or indeed helpful at times, but the primary thing it taught me was, your body doesn't fit, and you can't wear this or this because of it. And if my body didn't fit, then what else about me was in error? How else was I expressing 'me' incorrectly?
'That's not you' isn't just a body-related phenomenon. I was probably more affected by a letter I received just before I got married, from an old friend with whom I had fallen out of touch. They wrote to me out of the blue and I can't recall the full content, but what cut me deeply was this little sentence: 'you're not really that sophisticated, are you?'. I had no idea what they meant. Was I pretending to be sophisticated? Was I coming off as acting out my life, rather than actually living it? I didn't understand.
I had no concept of pretence in the way I carried myself at that time; I had developed more confidence and made some different friends, but I hadn't abandoned old friends or principles. Here was this person whom I had known so well and trusted for so long, back in my life after a hiatus in which clearly we had both changed, and their first thought was basically to say to me: 'that's not you.' I didn't get it and I certainly didn't know how to turn around and say, 'actually, yes it is.'
Who decides what is or isn't us? What defines it? Those who know us best ought to be able to tell what is 'normal' for us; when something abnormal happens, the person's behaviour is often described as 'out of character' - it's not a recognisable part of their usual modus operandi. It's been helpful for me at times to be gently contradicted when I've been getting carried away with some behaviour that's actually destructive for me or for those I care about. But on the day-to-day, is there no room for movement, for change? For those of us who sometimes feel like we have to justify or explain any new development in ourselves, it can be exhausting and frankly not always feel worthwhile.
I therefore find myself asking, why do these things get said? It could be just that people find it hard to countenance the new in contrast to the familiar, and that projects itself onto their friends and family as well as their surroundings. Personally I think it's a deeper issue, and it has to do with how we define self in the modern world. In this society we are increasingly free to make wider choices, and the emphasis is so much more on the individual than on community that our understanding of how we function together and inter-relate is constantly tested.
I often find myself unsure whether it's right in a given situation to pursue my own good or subdue it for the good of someone else or of a group, when historically a community mindset was the only way civilisations grew and survived. Is it any wonder that when self can be so fluid and so many decisions justified that in the past would have been considered self-indulgent, we face a challenge to who we are? Because it's often easier and clearer to be defined by our differences than by more complex qualities, but those differences can make people uncomfortable.
For me, I know I'm still finding out who I am. It's probably a life-long journey. Some aspects will always be the same and others will change, and I'll do my best to find a balance and hold to the life principles I believe to be important. But when the 'that's not you' challenge gets thrown up and I feel threatened, how do I counter it? Hopefully, with enough grace to keep my friends but enough confidence to keep my individuality.