"We're All Scattered Messes:" Anne T. Donahue on Embracing Your Ever-Shifting Self

Getting wrapped up in the idea of “who you are” as some permanent state of being doesn’t allow for anything but fucking up

While puzzle pieces on a blue background

(Image: Getty)

I have a problem with forever. As in, I tend to assume that everything lasts that long.

This is because forever tends to connote a sense of completion: I feel like this, and this is how I’ll feel forever. I’m doing this, so I will do this thing forever. This is who I am right now, and this is who I’ll be forever. Which of course, isn’t true. Nothing is the only thing that lasts forever, and for that we should all be eternally grateful. We are who we need to be for a moment or for a purpose. But to assume we’ll be that way indefinitely is hugely limiting.

I’m working on dismantling forever. On days when I feel in control, driven, or able to zero in on a goal and get it done, I forget that down the road I’ll feel the opposite. That at some point I’ll feel sad or tired or weak or scared or anxious or any number of emotions or descriptors that send the best of us into those dark places that can be tricky to get out of. So that when those feelings hit, I’m caught off guard and trap myself all over again: suddenly sad (or tired or weak or scared or anxious), I believe it will last forever. And that I consist only one one feeling or personality trait and it’s what I’ll be stuck with until I die.

When I started going to therapy again this year, I sat across from my therapist and told her how I felt split in two. I liked who I was when I was working; when I asserted myself and could separate feelings from logic and could channel any negativity I was feeling into my work. And I hated the other version of me: the one who took things too personally, who got hurt by those careless with my feelings, and who couldn’t exist as an island alone. I explained that I felt pressured to personify (and publicize) one, and felt like a liar if I was experiencing the other. And while I acknowledged that we all may be the sum of our parts, I told her I’d rather not be. After all, what I felt like was supposed to last forever. I had to decide who I was going to be.

Of course, I won’t quote her directly (because I’m not about give you guys a behind-the-scenes glimpse into my therapy sessions) (at least not for free), but I was essentially told my notion was bullshit. Forever wasn’t a thing, and neither was being one or two-dimensional. We’re not American Girl dolls with a single trait or expression. We’re puzzles, consisting of countless parts.

She went to the whiteboard and had me run off a list of traits I identified with myself, and introduced to me the idea of being congruent; of being okay with stepping into the person you need to be for the moment. As in: sometimes you need to be assertive or angry or cold. And other times call for being soft or vulnerable or sad. And none of aforementioned will last forever. Within a day (or hour or handful of minutes), you’ll go on to channel another part of yourself that will help you cope with whatever you’re doing. One of the parts that make you whole will step up to get you through that work project or keep you focused on the bag of chips you’re eating in front of the 252th screening of Mrs. Maisel.

Which was a new concept to me. We tend to brand ourselves, describe ourselves, and align ourselves in finite terms, usually believing that the traits we parade the most are what we’re limited to. But fuck that: it’s exhausting to be only a few things; to label yourself in a way that means you can’t change, adapt or grow. I can watch Wild Wild Country and aspire to be more like Sheela (minus the attempted murder) just as much as I can cry at the commercial where the little boy inherits his dead grandfather’s glasses. (Have you seen it? It’s horrible.) I can, in the immortal words of South Park, do what I want. Provided none of it hurts anybody else, and I’m not on a path to self-destruction while I do it.

Which is where thinking in forever terms has usually led me. Getting wrapped up in forever—or even in the idea of “who I am” as some permanent state of being I have to stay true to—doesn’t allow for anything but fucking up. It makes me feel like I’ve failed when I feel or act differently or that I’m a liar because I operate in contradictions. But also, that’s what being a person is: a shit-ton of contradictions, an actual buffet of traits and behaviours and beliefs. On a normal day, I am driven, ambitious, psyched, sad, disappointed, annoyed, angry, less-angry, whatever-feeling-it-is-when-Princess-Margaret-dances-to-The-Flamingos and tired. I’m a puzzle who spilled all over the floor and gets put together in sections. And ironically, thinking of myself as a scattered mess makes me feel more whole than I ever felt when I kept myself contained.

More from Anne T. Donahue:
Why Positivity Can Go Fuck Itself
How to Use Professional Jealousy to Get What You *Really* Want
Dressing for How You’re Feeling—Even If How You’re Feeling Is Shit
Even Unf-ckwithable Women Need Help Sometimes