The Pain of Being You (That No One Sees)
I don't know who I am. I can get along really well with anybody, fit in almost anywhere. I am a chameleon.
I hear phrases like this from many of my clients struggling with a sense of who they are and asking why they feel so miserable when they are so good at fitting in with so many different people.
Identity forms in childhood and evolves throughout life. It changes and reacts to our experiences.
But what happens when something stops that identity from fully forming?
Sometimes, whether it be a trauma, a life-altering event, or parental relationships, something halts the natural development of identity. In the absence of an identity, we, as adaptable beings, adapt. We might find it easy to morph into whoever is around us, we can become experts in almost everything, or at least mimic our peers, and we become really good at pretending to be like others. Maybe they seem happy, successful, or whatever it is that we think we are lacking in our lives. And by mirroring, maybe we can achieve that too!
This process almost always begins in childhood, and that means we have years and years of experience in mimicry and pretending, and we probably pretend so well that we can even fool ourselves. So how do you know if this applies to you?
One thing that cannot pretend is our emotions. We can control our facial expression (to some degree), and control our behavior (to some degree), but emotions are not controllable, they react and bubble up without our consent ALL THE TIME. Now with decades of practice in pretending, what typically happens to the emotion is we put it away in neat little boxes, or in a big intertwined, confusing ball of emotion.
Neat Boxes: You might be able to notice the emotion of sadness or shame, but almost like you are looking at it outside of you. There it is over there, sadness, blargh. I'm going to move on from it right now and do something else. You put it away without looking at it push it as far down or away as you can.
Confusing Ball: Something happens that triggers a reaction inside of you, and you feel horrible, but can't identify which emotions are coming up. It is overwhelming, and it's almost like you feel all of them intensely.
With both methods of coping, sometimes you begin to feel nothing. Disconnected to the moment, to your body, from people around you. If possible you try as hard as you can to distract yourself to feel differently, using logic, using denial, alcohol, risky behavior, etc.
There will come a time when the chameleon is hurt, broken up with, criticized, left out, or overlooked. When this happens, you might cut ties abruptly and never look back. You have an ability to shut emotion off in these moments. It is a way to protect yourself from pain.
You might become overwhelmed, angry, sad, confused, afraid and lash out at someone. When we are in pain, and we can't cope with it, sometimes we want to make the other person feel that pain too. Afterwards another painful emotion may join, shame.
It might feel more comfortable to have shallower relationships. If someone gets too close, they can hurt us. If we don't allow them to get close, we can protect ourselves from the pain.
Or we might get close to people too easily in an effort to find comfort and love in relationships. We don't always screen well and get hurt in this process over and over again. We wonder, why does this keep happening? I don't want to feel this way anymore.
How to Break this Pattern:
Understand why you began coping this way
Feel connected to your body when feeling emotion by practicing mindfulness
Heal from trauma, difficult relationships and pain
Secure Attachments. Find secure relationships to process emotions, and feel safe.
Gently, slowly process emotion in a safe way, within secure relationships
Psychotherapy and EMDR can do all of the above if you need help