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

on self-cannibalising my identity

how our identity can imprison us and what it means to be free from it

Status-signalling is deemed to be so important in society today that someone wrote a super-long essay on it that went viral on twitter. We signal with what we wear, our jobs, our networks, even the social work we do. The biggest obstacle to overcome since I started on my personal experimentation journey a few years ago wasn’t the actual tangible adjustments or suffering that might have come along with changing my income and lifestyle, but the fear of how people would look at me.

I was known for what I did in my career, and I had friends from high places. I had value and social capital. I could justify my lifestyle and decisions with the word sabbatical, but being on my sabbatical made me realise the sabbatical I was on was the life I truly wanted. I didn’t want to return to where I was, no matter how familiar, how safe, how esteemed it made me feel – temporarily. Yes, all of the safety, that pride, that esteem felt temporary, they felt hollow. I would be incredibly proud of what I have done, only to return to a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness I was unable to shake off. I felt disconnected from life, and if having everything was still making me feel suicidal, then perhaps everything wasn’t what I wanted.

Is that possible? To have everything anyone could have wished for, and then decide that was not for me?

It turns out that gaining power doesn’t make us whole. I can argue it does the opposite, it magnifies where we are hollow. I felt like an over-charged electrical appliance, always waiting for a short circuit anytime. Power doesn’t take away all those wounds we have acquired through our lifetime. Maybe they create more of them, if we are unable to manage it well.

It was a very lonely, depressing time. There wasn’t anyone who understood, there wasn’t any role model alive I could follow. I knew what everybody seem to want is not what I want, then what is it that I wanted?

I can’t say I know for sure, even now. But I know for a start, I wanted to feel free. People associate freedom with financial independence, and no I am not going to say money is not everything. Money is important to reduce the stress of surviving day to day, but after a certain threshold, it doesn’t cover the pain of existence. If not careful, money is a very easy prison to fall into. We seem to always want more: more money, more power. But my secret theory is that people often think they want power, but in fact what they want is simply admiration, which is just a lousy abstraction of something much more fundamental – love. We pursue status like revenge, for all the love we didn’t have or believe we didn’t have.

After a long while of playing this game, I just had to admit that all the power in the world is not going to unbreak me where I was broken. Yes I could have gone on further in my career, if I wanted to I could still make several strategic moves to place me higher on that ladder. I was chronically in pain, but I could push myself on to survive on painkillers just like everyone else. I could go into public service or social impact work if I was sick of capitalism. There was a particular fork in the road where the choice was particularly seductive. I loved the work, the pride, the recognition that came with it, and the knowing that I am of service to the greater whole.

But I was just really tired and broken. If I had pushed on, more parts of me would break, some other parts would die in order to avoid the stress I was putting myself under, and I may have survived, but I would become a very different person.

And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become that person. I didn’t want to continue living in a way that would have required me to continue signalling, continue stacking up those achievements on top of my brokenness. Nobody would know how much I hurt if I didn’t tell anyone – because I am so good at being highly functional – but I myself knew.

There were other reasons. I became painfully aware of how our behaviour and actions can have wide rippling effects on other people. I was a highly efficient and functional worker, but I struggled to communicate my needs and boundaries. I took everything personally. Everything hurt. The thing is, when we hurt, the pain finds ways to express itself unconsciously. A lot of times, we end up perpetuating the pain onto others without being aware of it. We could become like the people who hurt us, because these models of behaviour are hard wired into our subconscious. In order to prevent myself from becoming a monster, I chose to let people hurt me. But I have gradually learned, being “nice” and/or disempowered can create unnecessary burden and pressure to the people around us (another essay I guess).

When we have an image of ourselves we want to uphold, it becomes a prison, too. We deprive ourselves of the choices we could have made if we could accept that our identity will change. The more precious our identity is, the narrower the choices become.

I didn’t like being trapped in a story I no longer felt I belonged to, and I knew if I had stayed on out of fear everything that would come along with it would feel hollow and inauthentic. It is like wearing very beautiful clothes that we secretly hate. Maybe we just like wearing tattered clothes.

So I wanted to break out everything I stood for. I knew people would leave but I wanted people who would accept me no matter who I would become. Else, what is the point? What is the point of developing another persona so that people would love that persona? I stopped doing work that brought me recognition, gradually I stopped involving myself in things that would make me feel useful and needed. It was a difficult addiction to break. I wanted to find a way of living that is true: in my own definition that means being able to appreciate life and what comes with it without resorting to making myself an attractive signboard. I wanted to become ordinary, so that I will know what will stay when everything else fades.

I had no role models I know who is alive, but I read a ton of books on ancient hermits, philosophers, and artists. It turns out turning away from the world isn’t as uncommon as I believed to be. It is just not in vogue now.

For the past few months or so, I have felt freer that I have ever felt. It is liberating once people’s perceptions no longer mattered to me. I had to get over the feelings of shame and anxiety, but I knew intellectually those feelings were unwarranted. I wasn’t sure if my primal brain would ever catch up with my intellect, but it did. I am lucky because I have the support of the one person who actually mattered – my partner. She didn’t blink an eye when I told her I didn’t want to exist as a “useful” person anymore, neither did she panic when I told her I will not go back to normal modes of work again. She tells me she loves me precisely because of my desire to search for my inner truth. What else could I have asked for?

This is what that matters to me, at this point in time. Love, time to love, time to contemplate, study, create. When I know I have these in hand, status as a concept just pales drastically in comparison. What can I do what that status? Any positive feelings that come with that conjured image isn’t real to me, because it is dependent on me having capital in various forms.

I reject that. I want to rebel against it. I want to learn how to find intrinsic meaning in existence, to live in a way I believe how life should be lived. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in fear of my circumstances changing because when circumstances change they may threaten the precarious identity that I was building. Civilisations fall, economies fail, accidents happen, tragedies occur. I want to be rooted in the self I am and be capable of adapting when shit (or joy) happens.

Because you know. Shit happens. I don’t want to be a person feeling like there is no room to manoeuvre when in reality there could be a plethora of options ahead of me, but I was too blinded by the boundaries of my own fragile image to see them.

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