mostly edited, structured pieces of writing (in the process of migrating from Medium)

Breaking out of the stories we tell about ourselves

on having stockholm syndrome towards the narrative I have of myself

I’ve been running consecutively for 29 days now. I have been trying to run on-off for more than a decade, and this is the first time it has gotten some legs. My previous streak was just 4 days, so this feels like a quantum leap for me.

I think we all have stories we tell ourselves. I told myself I’ll never be a runner because I hate running, so I believed it. People told me stories about me, and I unconsciously moulded myself to their stories. I couldn’t tell which stories were theirs or mine anymore. How much of my personality is constructed to perform an acceptable narrative to people?

That’s how I have been living all my life. Trying to be a part of a coherent story so that people can find me coherent. I wanted to be on my own heroine’s journey: the little misunderstood child who went through a difficult childhood, ended up quitting school (and a lot of jobs) but through a tumultuous journey she finally found success and herself proving everyone who criticised her choices wrong.

For such a long part of my life I believed that story. I desperately wanted to prove my detractors wrong, to cure the wounds they have dug into me. In order to do that I had to dig some wounds into myself, to put myself through so much just to hold out for the ending. I made myself tougher in ways I could, berated myself for the ways I couldn’t.

One day, on top of a mountain I had tried so hard to climb up, I had finally felt the elation I had been waiting for all my life.

But it only lasted for a few moments.

Then I felt empty. So I did the next best thing. I tried to shrug away the emptiness, choosing to believe there was something wrong with me. I had what I’ve worked so hard for, why am I still so unhappy?

It took me another two years to get to a point where I was pushed to rethink my emptiness due to circumstances out of my control. Yes, I didn’t become aware on my own, I had to be forced into a corner to recontemplate the life I had led so far.

In trying to prove my detractors wrong, I have ended up living the version of the story they wanted for me. I had been pursuing their version of success so I could feel validated by them. I was seeking validation from people who have hurt and rejected me.

What a waste of my life, my emotions, my self.

We often talk about the sunk cost fallacy when we talk about businesses and careers. We don’t talk about it when it comes to our selves, the stories of ourselves we have spent so much time and effort to craft and protect. Some of us have given so much, including chunks of our integrity and authenticity to be able to protect the integrity of the story.

We do not want to change the story because we have spent so much on it.

I had spent almost 20 years building my career as a designer. I had quit school, disappointing everyone I knew (back then designers were pariahs because the ROI was so low), put up with 20-hour days, endured horrible bosses, earned a very small paycheck for a very long time because “passion was more important than money”, put up with terrible clients (and there were wonderful ones too), screwed up my health many times over, tolerated unhealthy power dynamics and unequal treatment, got my heart broken over and over, got used to constant disparagement — to build my fucking career.

How could I have thrown it all away?

So I didn’t. Until it sucked all the life out of me and I had to give it up because my head hurt all the time and my eyes can no longer produce tears. I was very depressed because I thought I could no longer return to my work.

It took me another couple of years for me to see that I had the stockholm syndrome towards my own story.

I could no longer discern whether I truly loved being a designer or I was forced to think I loved it because it was the only thing that I seemed to be good at and also the only thing that gave me a chance to seek validation. Even on my supposed sabbatical I was still trying to validate myself.

We say that a huge part of Apple’s success is its willingness to cannibalise itself. How many of us are willing to cannibalise ourselves, our own stories? It often seems much easier to carry on living a lie, or ignore the growing consciousness that it is a lie.

I held on to my lie for as long as I could, because it was so familiar, so comforting, so validating. I knew what it was like to be in demand — people coveted and admired my skills and experience. Designers are no longer pariahs but superstars, I could finally enjoy the fruits of my labour. Perhaps I could see myself living on that way, had I been healthier and suffered no life-changing symptoms. I want to say that I would have built up the same amount of courage to quit the lie anyway even if I had not fallen ill. But that would be a lie itself too.

So I can only make the best out of it. I know I was forced to write a new story for myself but I am nevertheless grateful for the opportunity. I don’t even know what I want to write and it can be paralysing and confusing. Who am I? What do I truly want to do? What will I do if I no longer had to live according to people’s expectations and validations? If nobody could see the outcome of my work, what would I choose to do?

I honestly have no answers. I only know that I want to be and feel fit. Or at least try. I had been operating on survival mode with 1% left in my tank for who knows how long, living within the bounds of other people’s and my own stories of myself. I want to know what it is like to be at ease with my own narrative for myself, not feeling like I have to fight to continue to live within it all the time. I want to be able to ignore the noise coming externally, even if it is from people I care about.

I want to know what it is like to be living for myself, to care enough to care for my own body. I want to know what does having 60% if not 100% in my tank feels like. I don’t think I have ever felt like I had more than 25% because I was always fighting against the grain.

Does anyone ever know how much energy it takes to want to live differently from the masses?

I am thankful for the privilege to be able to do this. To be in a place where I don’t have to face external threats for a while, I am not sure for how long because I am always expecting danger to arrive. But if I have the privilege to fix myself and I still don’t, I am squandering it away carelessly. More importantly, I think I have finally gathered enough courage, self-honesty and awareness to know that I’ll always be repeating my unhealthy patterns in any endeavour I choose to undertake unless I reprogram them successfully.

That, is the narrative I want to live in, a story that is meaningfully and consciously unfolding with as much self-direction as possible, not a story strategically narrated by those who have every incentive to see us living without agency.