I never knew a person could have so much depth,
So I questioned if I was shallow.
I’ve swam to depths untouched by the yearning hands of light,
I forgot that, sank, and drowned.
(Will they come look for me?)
Holding my breath through the crushing pressure,
The coarse sand begs me to sink down with it.
But I wait patiently on the ocean floor,
For a sign to come up for air,
And curse myself for not trying to swim.
Shrouded in a current of doubt,
Now my attempts seem foolish.
Who am I kidding, is this even for me?
If I surface it won’t be my doing.
In a decade I might be lauding myself
For my strength through these changing tides
On my spirit for not being anchored
Like I am now.
I never once saw another person at that depth.
Maybe the darkness kept me apart,
From anyone else and from the place above water.
But I was there, in agony and rarity,
And I won’t let that float away from me.
My mom always told me she hated who I was when I was in a relationship. I come from a family who passionately believed I could (and can still) become something great, but along with that came a preconceived idea of who I am and what greatness should look like for me. Any time I strayed from that vision, I was a let down. As I got older, this began to change. It wasn’t just me who could be (reluctantly) blamed for straying from the prescribed ideal — my relationship status created a scapegoat for my family to criticize my changing personality.
As much as I refuted the concept that I had changed, words from the people I cared about echoed through my head. I began to question how many of the things I did, said, wore, and liked had to do with me, and me alone. I started to internalize the voice that I was an imposter, that I was a made up version of myself catered to someone else’s gaze.
My turmoil was further complicated by the fact that I had already thought so highly of the person I allegedly changed for. Falling in love flipped my world upside down. All of a sudden, there was someone in my life who could do no wrong, who had a power on my emotions so strong that I felt things I didn’t know existed. I wanted to know everything about them, and study them like a good book that I hoped would never end. The thought of losing them had me crying in public, every notification made my heart race with excitement, my mind became clouded in the sweetest way. This feeling was both thrilling, and excruciating– and I loved it. I still love it. Love overwhelmed me in such a way that the line marking where I ended and my partner began started to blur. Any questions I already had about my authenticity by virtue of my family became unbearable with the added weight of my fears about losing my individuality in a relationship.
The object of my affection seemed otherworldly to me, a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming kind of person. The intensity of this love didn’t just bring the fear of losing them, but brought the fear that I didn’t deserve them. I didn’t know a person could have so much depth, so I questioned if I was shallow. How many more books did I need to read, how many friends did I need to have, how much faster did I need to run, how much more eloquently did I need to write, how much bigger did my record collection need to become until I thought I was worthy of the love of someone so incredible? While I was experiencing the most all-consuming love I ever had, I was also going through a period of constant worry. I felt like I was disappointing my family with who I was becoming, and I felt like I was letting down my partner with everything I had yet to become.
I went to therapy, I worked on pinpointing my identity, I spent time alone, I picked up new hobbies. I readopted my childhood tendencies, hoping that I could return to the ‘purest’ version of myself. As a child, I was classically trained in piano, so I started that up again. Rather than make my family happy, my rediscovered interest in playing was seen as my trying to impress my new partner. From then on, practicing piano brought up too many questions, mostly from myself, so I stopped. Then came a time where I could no longer access the musical knowledge I had since it had been so long since I practiced. I was mortified when I had nothing to contribute to my partner who talked about things I should know, like music theory. I felt inadequate and unworthy again.
The question of identity came up again and again. No, I’m not special for this, I’m just in my 20s — but I couldn’t sever the ties my brain made between myself and my family’s ideas of me or their criticisms of my identity (or my lack of one) in a relationship . I couldn’t remember who I was. I constantly sought out reassurance from my partner. My grades became a placeholder for self-worth. I dropped everything to meet the demands of a club. Any negative comment from my family sent me into a spiral. All I wanted was their approval, but this hopeless chase became destructive. I resented my family, I put extreme pressure on my partner, and I felt trapped in the numbing anxiety of it all.
I had to accept the fact that I couldn’t live up to everyone’s standards– though I still falter on that lesson. I remind myself that love does not need to be earned, I do not need to check off criteria to gain affection and adoration. I promise you this isn’t as arrogant as it sounds, but you are entitled to be loved, and to welcome that love. I guess now is the time to give the disclaimer that my growth journey is not the gold standard you should follow. I can, however, offer my story to you as a reminder that you’re not alone in the often guilt-ridden struggle with identity and relationships. Guilt-ridden because these experiences of grief come from love – both loving and being loved – so there is a strain between wanting to feel grateful and acknowledging the hurt you feel from others’ well-intended love.
You are allowed to explore your identity through other people. This doesn’t mean using them solely for character development, but I believe we grow more when we interact with others than when we dwell on ourselves– but the dwelling helps a little, too. In my own introspection, I began to develop a better understanding of what made me feel most comfortable in my own body and mind. I learned that I had to communicate that to the people I loved most. The idea of setting boundaries comes up a lot these days. I think it’s nauseating, and I still have to do it all the time. From family to relationships, I see boundaries as a necessary evil. Boundaries are difficult, but setting them has been one of the hardest, most beneficial things I’ve done. I point out to my family the comments that trouble me. I carve out time for self-fulfilling activities so I don’t fall back into my people-pleasing ways. I may be someone who loves hard, but I need to be able to do that sustainably and because I want to– not because I feel I have something to prove.
I still feel the urge to run out the door as soon as they call me. After all, the overwhelming excitement and intoxicating feeling that my love brings me is what drew me to them in the first place. I still find myself placing my partner on a pedestal, but I remember that I fall in love even harder when I realize they’re human, too. I’m starting to hide less of my internal turmoil from my partner, because my hardships are who I am, too. I have depth, too — depth from what I’ve been through, the way I experience things, and the way I communicate my hurt. My identity is not a thing. It is abstract, it is not fixed in time and it belongs to no-one– not even myself. It is beautiful regardless of whether I believe that or not.
I’m nowhere near healed, but I don’t think anyone is meant to be healed. I think that our lives are lived beautifully in pain, in doubt, and through it we learn how to relate to one another’s ugly humanness. Even if you can never quite grasp the entirety of your identity – as ever changing as it is – your experiences are inalienable and shape who you are– for better or for worse. Self discovery can expose opposing forces that challenge even your most fundamental understandings of yourself. There could be pressure to conform to an outside perception of you, and you may go through spirals of self-doubt– but you’re alive and you’re living it, and that’s all you need to do right now. Nobody sees this world the same way as you do, and you offer something unique to everyone in your life– it’s up to them to accept that individuality, and see the beauty in it.