How do we lose ourselves? The process is long and grim. But it’s not impossible to find ourselves again. Here, we learn how.
By Hengtee Lim
When I was a child, I was somewhat absentminded — math and social studies were all well and good, but they didn’t match the daydreams built from hero fantasies and secret crushes. When my teacher told my mother my grades were good, but I was quiet and aloof, I learned to look like I was paying attention.
And I hid those dreams somewhere no one could find them.
When I entered high school, I watched Greek and Aboriginal kids get bullied, and hurt, and angry, and ultimately defeated. I watched, and I thought, and I wondered if my heritage would ever put me in the crosshairs, and I learned to look like I fit in.
When I worked up the courage to tell a girl I liked her, she responded with an awkwardness that burned itself into my memory. As I left her there confused, and pondered my list of imperfections, I learned to look like I was okay with the things that broke my heart.
When drinking became something of a rite of passage, I learned to look sober, regardless of whether I was drunk. I learned to take part in completely serious discussions, and give solid relationship advice I would not remember the following day.
When I’d had enough of the hangovers, and the hijinks, and the perennially empty wallet, I simply learned to look drunk, regardless of whether I was sober.
When I met a girl who was so pretty, and so smart that I didn’t want her to know how stupid I was, I asked questions and limited my output. When she kissed me, and said it was because I cared and I listened, I learned to look like I was listening.
When she later broke up with me because she realized other people were better listeners, I learned to smile and say, ‘I’m good thanks, how are you?’
When I got my first real job, and met a bitchy superior who expected the impossible, and suffered through passive-aggressive wars waged one-sided and in complete silence, I learned to look like it didn’t matter. I learned to look like a genuine, caring person. I learned to shut my brain down. I learned to switch off.
I learned to look like I believed in what I didn’t. I learned to look like I knew what I was doing. I learned to look like I knew what I was talking about. I learned to look like I was happy and satisfied. I learned to look like I had chosen a career path, and I was walking it.
I learned to look like a professional.
I learned to ask the right questions and hide my agenda behind simple suggestions. I learned that with a warm smile and a few well-placed words I could make people do what I wanted. I learned to manipulate. I learned to use the truth to construct convincing lies.
I learned to look like an adult.
But somewhere in all of this, who I was — who I really was — got buried under the layers and colors and shades of who I had created to survive. To get by. To get through.
To run away.
And when I reached in under all those layers, and worked through all the colors, and shined a light on the darkness, I found a dusty collection of dreams I’d held as long as I’d had conscious thought. They felt like they belonged to someone else, and yet I knew that they were mine.
After all, they had my name on them.
So I decided I’d try to look like me. I decided I’d try look like the real me — the guy who sometimes poked his head out of his shell like a frightened turtle, and sometimes left the safety of his cave to dance in the sunlight — and I realized I didn’t like looking like something I wasn’t.
I realized I liked looking like me.
I realized I liked being me.
I realized I wanted to keep being me, and to hell with the people who expected me to be what I wasn’t.
And those daydreams I had?
I realized they were worth making reality.
I realized I owed myself that shot at them.
And I realized that they weren’t that far away after all.
About the author: Hengtee Lim is a writer of Snippets on Medium.