Well. You read the title. Answer the question – do you know who you are?
Yes? No? Sort of? You clicked this article because regardless of your answer, you recognise the importance of the question (or maybe it was the shitty clickbait title that got you here). At the least, you recognise its prominence as something that regularly rears its head into, well, your head.
This picture above is a collage of ‘cringe’ memories that once upon a time would make me die internally:
- Chubby me at year 10 formal with ACTUAL FOOD SLIME in the corner of my mouth.
- My face post sunstroke and falling off a bike in Vietnam; a trip I booked a few days before leaving in order to chase my FWB at the time (a juicy story for a future blog).
- My abysmal attempt at entering the fashion industry (my first attempt at adopting an entrepreneurial mindset) – I still have 50 of those shirts sitting on my shelf.
- A photo of demonically drunk me in the Gold Coast – the same night I openly bragged about my ‘Harry Styles hair’ to a girl I was interested in (she surprisingly responded poorly??!?).
Now? I find these moments in my past fucking hilarious. I treasure them. And I’m very open with myself about these points in my life and how I’ve grown and changed since.
After a spill through poor mental health and a huge overhaul of how I reflect on past me, I wanted to capture the importance of self reflection in an article.
I mean, I think about who I am all the time. I’ve had hours upon hours of commutes to uni/work to get lost in my mind. To try and define the sack of flesh I call me.
I did a lot of reading. It’s not a difficult topic to find info on. A multitude of authors, philosophers and psychologists provide a library of wealth and wisdom on human self-reflection.
The crux of their reflection always echoes that core question:
‘Who are you? What are you?’ – Leo Tolstoy.
Jacob Needleman in his book I am not I gives scope into the profound human experiences that illuminate our existence: ‘joy, love, hope, wonder, astonishment, transcendence.’ Not a bad answer. Generalised and pretty lame imo. Still, not bad.
I much prefer his other proposal, that the answer to ‘Who am I?’ can be answered as simply as ‘I am.’ These two notions, he says, run parallel over the course of a lifetime.
But do they ever converge? Why is it so hard to look at ourselves and give that simple answer – ‘I am’?
Honestly, probably because most of us can’t help but hate ourselves sometimes. Pessimism regularly plagues our minds and we can’t help but wince and cringe at our decisions.
And how do we react in these circumstances?
Me? Well, sometimes I’ll cocoon into a bed burrito and strap in for intense ideological ping pong between myself and I. Other times I’ll laugh uncomfortably with friends as their banter tip toes on my nerves.
I mean, tbh, it’s hard to avoid cringing at past decisions.
What we said, what we wore, our career choices, friendship choices. How ‘basic’ or ‘lame’ we were. How embarrassed we get when those 2012 photos resurface on Facebook. Hell, that time a goddess I met at a festival went for a hug and I put my hand out for handshake (why).
When else? Well, decision with partners no doubt. Breakups are inevitably an intense impetus to existential crises. Times of overreaction, misunderstanding, ‘was it me?’, ‘was it the right choice?’ It’s a recipe for mental torment.
And yet, this form of negative cringing occurs in every one of us.
It’s naive to overlook these contradictions in ourselves. These tendencies to question, criticize, perhaps even loathe who we are (she had her arms up for a hug ffs).
The skew between ‘Who am I’ and ‘I am’ seemingly extends and extends. How can we hope to ever bring them together if all we do is contradict and question ourselves?
The more I read, the more it became clear. It’s unavoidable. This contradiction IS who we are.
So what now?
Well, Alfred Lenzin offers the solution – we must EMBRACE CONTRADICTION. There is more to us than just the two opposing truths of Who am I / I am – the whole truth encompasses a third element called reconciliation.
The willingness to sit with our self contradiction is the core of self knowledge and human existence. And, he says, there’s a way to go about it:
‘we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.’
We’ve all done some absolute cringe shit. But, significant growth comes with an approach of grace, warmth and appreciation towards the imperfect, impatient and often times idiotic decisions that we’ve made – years, days or minutes ago.
It is only then, in that moment, that we’re really given a glimpse of who we are. That raw moment is human and that raw moment is you.
So … keep this in mind the next time you question yourself. When you have that identity crisis. When you fall into the trap of self mulling and criticising.
You’ll respond in one way or another, probably sporadically if you’re anything like me. Maybe a new style, hobby, outlook, persona, anything really.
Importantly, when you do – you should do so in appreciation and recognition of your former self, not a means of fixing the disaster that once was. Otherwise, you’ll set yourself up for a cyclical journey through self-torment.
You will never bridge the gap b/w ‘Who am I?’ and ‘I am.’ And this uncertainty can either trap or liberate you.
When you ask yourself ‘actually, who am I?’ – you are already answering the question.
Self contradiction and reflection approached with warmth and appreciation leads to self knowledge and meaningful existence.
You’re a human being. You’re uncertain as fuck. Embrace it.
In rounding this off, I think it’s important to recognise the universality of this struggle (though inevitably varying in complexity and amplitude from person to person).
This struggle in understanding ourselves should not lie beneath a mask. We need to discuss it. Seek connections with people who will provide the support, contemplation and mental stimulation you need.
Someone needs to ask who you are. And you need to struggle to come up with an answer.
As Needleman puts, ‘This is the law of love, which rules the universe.’