Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Who are you, really?

In my first blog post, I wrote about this painful thing that happens early in solitude (voluntary or pandemic-induced), when you confront your "shadow self," which contains all those parts of yourself you would prefer to pretend don't exist. These might be real weaknesses, or just aspects of your personality that don't match up with the person you wish you were. Maybe you're a quiet intellectual, but you idealize socially sparkling or charismatic people. Maybe you're a fantastic singer, but you feel like a fraud because you're not good at song-writing.

Now, I only took my first vows as a hermit a little less than a year ago, but I feel like I actually went through this radical revision of my self-concept the first time I retired, almost 13 years ago. That's when I first found out that being a "hermit" was a thing, in our time, and I knew it was for me. It didn't go well! I was so not ready. Thank God I found my way to a Benedictine monastery as a full-time cook, and there I had my formative semi-coenobitic experience (not that I lived there, it's a monastery of men, but I spent my days in their kitchen), and there, after a while, I started meeting with the Abbot for spiritual direction.

So anyway, yes, I confronted some important parts of my shadow self while running through my contract buy-out money and failing to find a way to the life of my dreams. The trouble was, that fantasy life starred a Fantasy Me. And as it turns out, Fantasy Me doesn't really have all that much in common with Real Me. For instance, Fantasy Me re-landscaped her whole half-acre suburban lot with fruit trees and vegetable gardens; but Real Me got deep into heirloom tomatoes, planted 64 different varieties of tomatoes (and nothing else but tomatoes), and then got so obsessed with trying to dig every strand of Bermuda grass out of the garden beds that (this is so embarrassing) I have been known to actually dig up the tomato plant out of the bed, fish all the grass out from among the roots, and then put the plant back in the ground. And not even finish by watering the poor shocked tomato. Seriously. That is not good gardening practice! And nor was it going to cut down on my grocery bill, still less turn into a stream of income. I think the technical term for that tendency to miss the garden for the weeds is "hyper-focus", and oh boy, has Real Me got it.

At some point, it dawned on me that I am an INFP, strong I (for Introvert) obviously, since I ended up as a hermit, but even stronger N (for iNtuitive, since "I" was already taken). The opposite of iNtuitive in the Myers-Briggs framework is Sensing, and I actually scored 0 (zero!) on that once.  What this means, for me, is that whereas Fantasy Me is both imaginative and actually capable of turning the things she imagines into things you can see and touch and taste, Real Me seems to somehow get lost between head and hands. I don't just lack hand-eye coordination, I lack mind-body coordination.

Now, I can wish all day long that I were an ISFP instead of an INFP, but wishing won't make it so. I am who I am. And here's the thing: INFP is a wonderful kind of person to be! And so is ISFP, and so are the other 14 types, with all the myriad gradations within the types. We're all wonderful, marvelous, and unique. But I had to grieve for the loss of that Fantasy Me. Facing, and eventually embracing, my shadow self meant saying good-bye to the fantasy self, and that was really painful. And it didn't happen all at once. The Myers-Briggs personality type realization was a "lightbulb" moment, but I still really had to go through stages of grieving for my lost Fantasy Me, and that took quite a while. And, of course, other self-image clashes have come since; the shadow self is not one single layer deep.

But here's the other thing: I've started a garden here at my hermitage. Accepting that I'm not Fantasy Me is no reason not to stretch myself in that direction. On the contrary, balance is an important monastic value, and an important human value in general, so I should push myself to strengthen my weaknesses. In fact, acceptance has paradoxically freed me to get closer to Fantasy Me than I thought, in the first flush of disillusionment, that I could ever really get. And this is how that works: a fantasy is a picture of an ideal state, it's where you wish you were. It has nothing to do with the process of getting from here to there, which, you know, depends on admitting that you are where you are to begin with. It's a form of that deadly disease, perfectionism. Once I accepted Real Me and learned to love her just as she is, it became OK for me to start small, to do things badly, to fail, to ask for help and advice -- in other words, to learn and to grow.

So here is my practical takeaway for those of you who might be grappling with your shadow selves in a new or newly intense way lately: try spending some time exploring the Real You. I like Myers-Briggs, some people prefer Enneagram or the Big 5. There are some frameworks that focus on a more limited area of life, but could give you really important insight, like the Five Love Languages for relationships, or What Color is Your Parachute? for career. I'm pretty sure there are online tests for all of these. If you find yourself resisting what they tell you about yourself, then really stop and think about that. Is it wrong? Does it not match Real You, or is it Fantasy You it doesn't match? Ask someone else who knows you well what they think. You might be surprised.

And again, I encourage you to start a journal (I use Penzu.com). To counteract the tendency to use your journal for unhealthy rumination when you're feeling the blues, try to end every entry (or every day) with a list of at least 3 things (the more the better) you're grateful for. If you do get into this search for Real You, you could end each session by either writing down, or looking in the mirror and telling yourself out loud, at least 3 things you LIKE about yourself. You really are a beautiful person, you know?

God bless you.

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