How Can I Know Myself If I’m Constantly Changing?

The thing you didn't like about yourself as a kid but like now

Writer Ashley Ford recently posed a question to her Twitter followers:

The Tweet garnered nearly 2,000 responses, ranging from the humorous (“my eyebrows”) to the serious (“My fire. My passion. It alienated me from the other girls who wanted sameness. It saved my life later, when it counted.”) When I happened upon the conversation in my feed, I was in the process of writing my hair diary — in which I confess that I spent years — decades, even — loathing the curly hair that sprouted from my own head, and now? It’s one of the things I enjoy most about how I look, the subject of a transition so radical it almost feels mythical.

Regarding my physical appearance, I’ve always identified more with body neutrality than I have with the body positivity movement. While the former feels achievable to me, the latter seems far enough out of reach that I could conceivably spend my whole life chasing it without brushing up against it. But I understand the appeal of a true “before and after” when it comes to perception; the idea that something you hate about yourself can become something you not only stop hating but actually love — a flaw turned strength — strikes a compelling chord.

It’s hard not to sound sentimental when pondering the attainability of true emotional metamorphosis, so here is a sentimental question I’ve been asking myself lately: If at age 26, I marvel at the thought of what my 13-year-old self would say if she knew how I felt about my hair now, what might I marvel about in hindsight at age, say, 50? Will I rest my hands on my stomach and shake my head at all the years I spent disparaging it? Will I wrap myself in my own arms and feel a stunning relief that I like them just as they are? And what about my more philosophical obstacles, the narratives I spin about who I’m not and what I’m incapable of? Will I think about all the things I should have been doing instead of doubting my worth as a writer (writing more, perhaps?)? Will I find it incomprehensible that I was once so exhausted by social anxiety I had to leave a party and walk twice around the block?

I don’t know. The doubts that linger behind these questions filter through my mind often enough that they feel like part of my identity. But then again, so did hating my hair, which is why I’m trying to retrace my steps.

On the podcast Dear Sugars, co-host Steve Almond talks a lot about “bad stories” — a concept he defines as “the false narratives we tell ourselves that undermine our happiness.” These false narratives are not entirely of our own making, spun in part by everything from cultural mores to the people we spend time with to where and how we grew up. The way we perceive them, though, is far more personal, and ultimately boils down to two distinct perspectives: 1) that our bad stories, and their endings, are written indelibly or 2) that the way we think about our bad stories is subject to change, and therefore, so are their endings.

The first perspective is far easier to adopt. When we repeatedly tell a bad story about ourselves, it adheres to us like a label: too curly, too shy, not thin enough, not eloquent enough. Labels stick because they serve a purpose, helping us navigate ourselves and our worlds. The more we say something, the more convincing it feels, and that conviction pulls off a powerful kind of deception, sugarcoating bad stories in a soothing layer of familiarity. As long as a story can convince us that its ending is inevitable, that the course is set, that who we are is preconceived, it remains intact — and so do we.

Peeking under the label and questioning its validity is more challenging, which is why the second perspective isn’t as facile. It takes concentration, and intention, to perform the necessary steps involved in recalibrating how we feel about the building blocks of our own selves. It takes action that might be uncomfortable and curiosity that might not come naturally. It takes the ability to simultaneously accept the way we feel now and allow that, at some point, we may feel differently. It also takes the gumption to recognize when we actually do — because when and if that happens, it means that any story we tell ourselves, bad or good, can turn out to be untrue.

When I initially chose to start wearing my hair curly on a regular basis, I asked my boyfriend what he thought about it one night while we were having dinner together. “I’m just not used to it,” he said. I remember feeling stung, but only because it was exactly how I felt: like an imposter. Like someone else was looking back at me in the mirror every morning. It took at least a year before that wasn’t the case. A year of making the conscious decision to not straighten my hair, even though straightening it was historically such a comfort. A year of letting it be, until simply being was enough.

I understand why Ford’s Tweet went viral (it was even picked up by Twitter Moments). The chorus of reflections underneath are emotional catnip, resounding proof that the bad stories we tell about ourselves are subject to change, and therefore, so are their endings. And yet, in a small corner of my mind, I grapple with the anxiety that perspective can be so malleable. I feel a sense of mourning for what might (and probably does) lie ahead: the shedding of my former self, the introversion of my preconceived beliefs, the mounting awareness that who I am can somersault into something else entirely. If I accept that all of this is subject to change, how can I know what’s valid? What’s true and what’s not? What’s me and what isn’t?

I suppose that’s just it: I can’t. I won’t. Not yet, anyways. The sentimental question I posed earlier about what I might think or feel decades from now — about my body, about myself, about the world — is impossible to answer.

I recently wrote down Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poem, “What Is Now Will Soon Be Past,” and return to it often:

Just because you do it
doesn’t mean you always will.
Whether you’re dancing dust
or breathing light
you’re never exactly the same, twice.

I read it to acknowledge that any story I like to tell about myself, good or bad, is transient. I read it whenever I’m so consumed by a particular anxiety my reality becomes distorted. I read it to remember that just because I might doubt my worth as a writer today doesn’t mean I will tomorrow. Just because I rarely feel neutral about my body doesn’t mean I won’t inch closer to that understanding. Just because the pieces of who I am as a person are in flux doesn’t mean they won’t ultimately congeal into something that looks like growth. If we can breathe light and dance dust all in the same week and we’re never the same thing twice, then the only certainty is life’s greatest uncertainty: that nothing, not even the way we see ourselves, is permanent. A strangely powerful and deeply human comfort.

Illustration by Meredith Jensen.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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