I was numb and silent skating behind L. and her friend, both 11 years old. They were giggling, their sequined skating skirts flapping. I felt too heavy to smile, and I wasn’t thinking a thing—just lost in the rhythm, the concrete whizzing under my skates.
This inability to feel anything—this need to go very silent and keep an even keel—was different than the person I liked to think I was.
I recently got engaged to L.’s father, M., and M. and I have enjoyed a long stretch of togetherness that has felt more transformative than therapy. When we started dating, we were both pretty rigid (a divorced lawyer and a writer obsessed with her writing schedule). But together, we’ve gotten increasingly more comfortable in our skins, evolving into “laid back people,” as I often joke, because we’ve flourished in a mutually supportive routine, rooted in our Manhattan home. We like long meals in downtown restaurants with open-hearted talk, unplanned walks through the city that sometimes land us in shows in unknown theaters, an openness to all sorts of adventure.
Because M. has made me feel increasingly secure about what I have to offer, the relationship has helped nudge me out of the big need for attention that has at times dominated my life. My development has been apparent in little things: I don’t need to talk as much as I used to about my career ambitions. I am less possessive concerning my work schedule and space: We frequently go out to dinner with friends, and even if we’re feeling cranky, we don’t break our dates.
But while those parts of me have been growing (and I have felt like the little girl growing up), I’ve had a different experience in trying to build a relationship with L., his daughter. M. and I spend about a weekend a month outside of what I consider our comfort zone, doing activities with L.. Around L.—who’s as needy for attention as I was at 11, who needs me to be adult, not “a child becoming adult,” as my narrative comfortably sings in private—I have a hard time finding my groove. I’m cranky and uneven.
She’s creative; in turn, I get showy and critical about my art around her. (I grew up with a competitive sibling, and some of that gets sparked.) She’s more social than me, and that pushes buttons, too (“I was developing in precisely that way: getting ‘laid back’ and social!” I think. “Is she already better at it than me?” I feel jealous of how easily she smiles.).
Regression with L. sometimes happens in thoughts: “Take her out to dinner by yourself, M. I’m tired tonight.” Some of it happens in behavior: I protect my couch, frequently telling her to be careful eating on it. Some of it just happens in the body: It’s often hard for me to smile with her; for no reason I can articulate, my mind frequently goes blank in her presence.
What I experience with L. is probably what Philip Bromberg describes as dissociation, in his really good book Standing in the Spaces: Essays on Clinical Process Trauma and Dissociation. His book, or his later one Awakening the Dreamer, might be a bit technical for people not in the field of psychology, but if you do get into him, he could change your concept of your self. For now, Bromberg is helping me understand what goes on in my personality shifts, between being-with-M. and being-with-L.
Bromberg writes that while we like to consider ourselves relatively consistent, we are in fact a collage of radically diverse “self states.” I might call myself a grown woman in one context and a act like a petulant child in another. His argument was revolutionary for his refusal to say we ever will grow into consistent selves: Mental health, he said, doesn’t mean becoming admirably consistent; it just means being able to watch ourselves shift between different states and not get defensive about the deep contradictions. E.g.: Live with it: I’ll sometimes act like a child, but at least I can say this happens.
Bromberg says that while healthy minds surf gracefully between different self states, less healthy minds tend to be more jolting or aggressive in their relationships, because the selves are deeply partitioned; the person is doing a lot of unconscious scrambling to ignore different parts of his personality. For instance, you can tell a man who’s acting laid back that he was quite the opposite last weekend when with his brother-in-law, and he might deny that he contributed at all to that icy scene with the brother-in-law. He wasn’t rigid; it was all the other guy. He is laid-back. That is, he does not see the radical differences that contexts spark. In turn, perhaps to be “reflective” means to acknowledge our inconsistencies through different contexts, to admit that our favorite narrative of self has holes.
That said, it really is hard to accept division in selfhood: to know that this ideal self I wear during my routine with M. is not all of me, as I wish it were. Bromberg suggests that even my preference for one self over the other might indicate distortion: Health is going to be figuring out how to occupy the different selves more evenly. If I can see my “adult” and “indignant child” sides without so drastically idealizing one and debasing the other, I might see some ways in which the M. side of me is, say, sometimes too optimistic or self-congratulatory and could learn a good lesson from the L. side of me. The L. side of me might have lessons to teach that only pop so clearly in states of self-criticism. Movement towards health, Bromberg writes, “depends on…allowing each self to function optimally without foreclosing communication and negotiation between them.”
“Health,” he also writes, “is the ability to stand in the space between realities…to feel like one self while being many.”
I wonder if this makes any sense to you: Do you find yourself slipping out of your dominant role or narrative of self, and not knowing how and why? I think shifts in self states often happen for people around holiday time, when we have to sit at a table with family we don’t ordinary see. A return to old contexts can trigger regression, the appearance of an old self.
Have you read any other good books that address this sort of thing—that look at what happens for us when we confront our different styles with families, or step-families, or in gender-bending nightclubs, or in any other context encouraging alternative identities?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.