Which Pronouns Can We Use If We Have No Sense of Self?
For some of us, "be yourself" is an impossible command.
Posted January 28, 2021
When we face scary new things, well-wishers say "be yourself" or "you do you."
Which makes some of us scratch our heads and ask, in horror: Who?!
We are the ones who feel weird using first-person singular pronouns: I and me. We want to frame them with quotation marks—destabilizing, undefining, and unclaiming them. Just writing I, flat-out, feels like a lie for those of us who lack a stable, solid sense of self. This elemental mainframe of identity and personality feels to us shifty, risky, broken, forbidden.
"We," unframed—we—feels semi-OK because, as a crowd, we could conceivably, collectively exist, although a therapist once scolded "me" for using "we" in writings. She called it presumptuous to speak for others, deeming "my" experiences theirs.
We who have no senses of self talk, move, work, interact—while unsure how these things occur. Our words and actions often feel to us random or false, like shadowplay or auto-generated beeps. We manifest diplomas, mortgages, certificates, awards, yet lack the certainty of ever having chosen anything or being anywhere, particularly home.
What is a sense of self? Awareness of one's own traits, tastes, and skills. Starting in toddlerhood, it fuels decision-making, confidence, resilience. But trauma can halt this process neurobiologically, reducing connectivity between parts of the brain that process self-related thoughts and memories. Childhood trauma distorts the growth and function of those brain parts from the start.
We who lack strong senses of self feel amorphous, effectless. We are our own ghosts.
Self-recognition seems to us a luxury, a fantasy, as rich and alien as talking dogs or fruit-punch fountains. Yet the hordes take it for granted, flaunting their senses of self relentlessly in these look-at-me days.
Maybe you had a sense of self, way back when—I'm the one who loves to run!—but others deemed that self unlovable, ridiculous, obscene.
Maybe—scared, envious and/or sense-of-selfless themselves—they ridiculed your every tender mirror-gaze, silenced your every song.
Maybe they asked Who do you think you are? and, when you innocently answered, they scoffed No. You're not.
Or did they tell you that the crafting of your self was not your job but theirs, that only they could tell you what, whom, if you were?
Maybe they pulverized your sense of self such that you could or would not recognize it anymore as yours. Maybe you thought not just I am in danger but I am danger. Eject!
So now, asked what we want, we blankly stare. Asked to defend or define ourselves, we cannot. Be yourself and you do you are impossible commands, echoing hollowly and pinball-hard down sheer steel shafts.
And all around us, huge things happen: graduations, marriages, births, deaths. We see and hear these and even engage in some, yet hazily, as if rehearsing, reading scripts.
We beg others to tell us whom we are, like blind tourists beseeching sighted strangers at a zoo.
Ours is a special kind of separation: that of neither extrovert nor introvert and turning neither out- nor inwards—because, for us, neither yields reliable solace or strength—but instead always fleeing both, equipped with neither GPS nor passport.
We have selves. Maybe they formed, thus must function, around gnarled scars. Maybe they are part-scar. What's missing is our sense of them, not them. Whether we realize this or not, they wait, unperceived yet recording everything, like patient scribes.
Regaining or attaining literacy in ourselves, our true first tongue relearned, begins with asking where it went. Who hid it from us, snipped its circuits, when and why?
This is our first quiz: What do I love? When do I laugh? Not "I" but I.
No pass, no fail: only answers, each one true, each one a hot clue leading back to you.