“I can hardly recognize myself,” I thought this afternoon as I lay listless on my bed. I had no drive; nothing could light a spark inside of me. My face felt like heavy plaster hardened in non-expression. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. It’s a scary happening, losing oneself, but luckily it’s happened to me enough times that today I’m confident I can find myself once again. What causes oneself to go missing? Sometimes it’s an unhealthy romantic relationship. This, I believe, is the most common case. You may have noticed it in one of your friends. You’re sitting with her at dinner, and you’re talking, but you can’t seem to touch the core of the person who is your friend. Her humor is gone. Her preferences and beliefs are often altered. You can’t get out of her what you know is the truth, and her thoughts are clearly occupied with something else. She’s “a goner”. And most of time the person who is lost isn’t even aware of it until much later. Other things can cause yourself to slip away on you. Being in any new social or psychological situation in which you feel you must become someone else in order to achieve the results you want can cause you to temporarily lose yourself. The more times it happens to you, though, the more confidence you develop in the person who is really you, the person to which you can always return if you only stop and analyze the situation. This time I’ve lost myself in Marburg. They say it’s impossible to do, with Marburg being so small and all, but I’ve done it. I had anticipated this Germany experience for more than a year and had over idealized the wonderful kind of life I would lead here. I would speak fluent German, have lots of German friends, cook wonderful dishes on a pauper’s budget, eat ice cream in the park and be carefree, and submit meaningful research to prestigious scholarly journals. It would be the time in which I would do everything right. Because living in such a wonderful country and interacting with the local people, whose lifestyles are so clearly superior to my own, how could I not just become superbly cool? Well, it didn’t happen that way (never mind that I’ve only been here for four weeks!). I felt like I was failing in all areas of my life. I needed to be someone else and fast! And that’s how I lost myself. That’s why for the last four weeks I’ve been on a steepening slope of shame and have been working hard to try to hide it from everyone else. But now that I’ve realized it, I’m ready to come back empty-handed to my former self. I’m sure she couldn’t be happier to see me. What do you do when you’ve lost yourself? You mustn’t set out backpacking across Europe to “find yourself”. Those who have may know, you can easily do shots with complete strangers in every major European city without having any revelations about yourself. No, it takes a bit of introspection and analysis of your current situation. To find myself again, I quietly ask myself the following questions (which are based on Charlotte Kasl’s Traits of Differentiation) :
1) Are you being honest about the way you feel and about what you want in all of your relationships? Or have you been suppressing something in order to please someone?
2) Are you emotionally independent? Or have you become emotionally entangled in someone else’s problem? Do you feel responsible for something that is not your responsibility?
3) Do you know that your value is a given? Or have you linked your self-worth to certain achievements or goals (e.g. speaking fluent German, making tasty bok choy)?
4) Have you been trusting your internal wisdom? Or have you taken on the beliefs or trusted the judgement of some institution or person instead of your own?
5) Are you able to see different people, lifestyles, and beliefs without putting them down or envying them? Or are you trying to imitate something (e.g. the European lifestyle) because you see it as better than what you already have? Are you being judgmental of others because they make you feel insecure?
6) Are you able to recognize seduction, control, and manipulation by others and respond to it appropriately? Or do you trust blindly and hide behind “phony innocence”? Are you letting yourself be manipulated (and therefore your integrity be compromised) in order to keep some reward in your life?
7) Are you able to self-reflect and recognize the ways in which your actions have contributed to your current situation? Or are you blaming your unhappiness on outside circumstances?
8) Are you humble enough to ask others for help when you need it? Or do you think that you should be above human fallibility and the need for outside advice?
9) Do you give freely and easily? Or are you giving to receive something else in return, to feel needed, or to carry out a hidden agenda?
10) Are you able to get to know the people around you for who they are without categorizing them? Or do you create expectations for or preconceived beliefs about those people?
These questions are tough, but I feel that they really cut to the heart of the problem. They’re currently helping me to get back my old self. Losing yourself is one of the most formative things you could ever do. The process of finding yourself again is what cultivates integrity, the ability to be at peace with yourself and your decisions. As Charlotte Kasl puts it, “When we are able to take refuge in ourselves we can merge without fear because we feel whole no matter where we are.” Right now I’m on the other side of the world from everything I know to be normal, but fortunately to find myself I need not look far.