Feeling Myself: Wrestling with Self-Image and Mental Illness
A personal essay by NYC-based writer and actor, Sirena He.
In elementary school, my most special possession was a hot pink, glittery diary with a functioning lock and key. I carried it around with me everywhere and wrote in it during recess. One of my friends pointed out once that the first page was blank. It was the page with a questionnaire on it, listing out hard hitting questions for young minds like ‘my favorite color is…” and “my favorite song is…”
My friend asked me why I didn’t answer any of them. I told her that the answers might change in a month. If I wrote down pink and next month the answer was red, I would have to scratch it out and rewrite it over and over again. It was just easier to leave it blank. The blank questionnaire represented endless possibility for change, but really I felt scared of answering and losing some part of myself by abiding by that answer. Now I regret not filling it out, because looking back I don’t know what my favorite song or color was when I was writing in that diary, and I wish I did.
So many factors contribute to personality: race, gender, up bringing, and experiences. Like pixels they come together to form a picture of a person. Some think that we don’t ever know ourselves, Albert Camus said in Notebooks 1935-1942, “ We continue to shape our personality all our life. If we knew ourselves perfectly, we should die.”
Feeling unknown to myself has made life difficult in so many ways. Being a woman in the world implies certain expectations. Being a woman pursuing acting, my whole life mission seems tied to my image and perceived personality. But I’ve always felt that my personality was an extremely fragile thing, as if it could fall apart under the slightest pressure or change.
Speaking to my therapist recently, I recounted a panic attack was triggered from feeling like I was losing some aspect of myself. All of my qualities and my interests feel as if they were on the edge of slipping into a deep swamp never to be recovered again. If I didn’t tell a joke for one day that would mean that I’m not a funny person, and that I never will be again, and maybe I never was. If I fought with a friend and was accused of being selfish, then maybe I was selfish, and I’ve always been selfish, and all other positive qualities become impossible to recall or confirm. These qualities that a person could pride themselves on and build their lives around could be so easily scattered and lost.
Sometimes I try to evaluate my physical body to see if I can distill some semblance of a persona in my appearance. I inspect myself physically, but I can’t even view my own body without distortion. Are my arms too short? Is my hair too thin? Are my calves too thick? There’s a hundred ways to scrutinize every pore on my body. The closer I examine myself, the more twisted every part of me looks.
All of these micro-dissections are so exasperating it must be narcissistic. Yet I’ve never been able to hold any consistent perception of myself. I’m desperate for some concrete notion of self to cling onto, a self-expression that feels real and genuine. What do I really look like? Who am I really? This turmoil isn’t just the hyper critical thoughts of a woman over-exposed to impossibly polished images in pop culture. It exists somewhere in the cross sections of white imperialist beauty standards, past traumas, and a fracturing mental illness.
Years ago in college, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Although one doesn’t need a diagnosis to feel mentally unhealthy, learning more about this disorder helped me understand myself and opened a path for me to heal from past trauma and years of self-destructive thoughts that have shredded my self-image.
According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), one of the symptoms of BPD is identity disturbance: a markedly or persistently unstable self-image or sense of self. Contrary to the description, learning about this symptom made things a bit clearer to me. I’ve always felt that my identity was intangible. It’s complicated by constant extreme mood swings, and a host of compulsive self-destructive habits. It’s difficult to hold a wholesome image of oneself, when self-mutilation is the only form of consolation one has for any kind of emotional turmoil.
Some days I feel like an open, compassionate, loving person with many charming qualities, and other days I feel like a void of nothing, a rotting black hole of self-hatred. But one thing is constant, I don't feel like I know myself. The way I feel about myself catapults back and forth and all over the place everyday. Many mental illnesses have a degrading effect on a person’s self-image and self-esteem, whether it be depression, anxiety, PTSD, or an eating disorder, they all take a wrecking ball to our self-perception.
When I look at other people I can see that they’re thoughtful, funny, or beautiful through their actions and words. But when I look at myself I don’t see anything. Without having a stable sense of identity, I can’t even begin to build a healthy self-esteem.
Joan Didion wrote in her essay “On Self Respect,”, “to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”
I’ve spent most of my life not showing up for myself, letting life and other people propel me with their whims. When one is unable to hold onto any internal values or self-regard, the world can be especially cruel and lonely, and shame becomes one’s religion. Any setback feels like an echo of that internal worthlessness, and so the wounds deepen.
I want to feel sexy, empowered by my body and my accomplishments, but these invasive thoughts are relentless. They have been with me for so long that it can so hard to parse what is a harmful thought and what is reality. The way I’ve fought back through the slog of self-destructive thoughts and the feeling of being hopelessly lost is to be kind and honest with myself. It seems like common sense, but it’s difficult, painful work. To hold onto any stable self-image I have had to confront the trauma I’ve experienced and be honest about how it’s shaped me. I have to acknowledge the full spectrum of consequences those past experiences and my self-harming habits have had on my self-image.
Expressing myself creatively has helped alleviate these feelings, whether it be dancing, acting, or painting. These physically demanding performative acts take one outside of one’s head and into a space where one exists outside of the self, a space that’s immersive and freeing. Acting and being seen in a public sphere has forced me to deal with these harmful thoughts. When I’m performing, I have to engross myself in the act. There’s no room for doubt or fear, and the connection I have myself, my body, my mind, my spirit, becomes a pure vessel for expression. Building a strong bond with myself and a healthy relationship with all my thoughts, whether they’re positive or negative has been immensely helpful.
Next time crippling thoughts start to dig into your mind, start writing down things in life you’re grateful for, or situations that you thought you’d never survive, but you did, and write down qualities about yourself that you like and appreciate. Or if like me, you can’t handle grappling with qualities that exist in you, write down who you’d like to be… I want to be forgiving, brave, careful, loving…
Write down these reminders for yourself, even if they don’t feel true yet, and read them over and over again until they can at least match the harmful things you tell yourself, and let yourself feel every scary, sad, angry, and joyful feeling, because they all exist in you, and they all have a right and reason to exist. You’re not one extreme or another. You encompass whole worlds of emotions, ideas, and possibilities. Let them all be a reminder that you exist, and your existence can be a powerful, positive force.
Love and miss you Sirena. <3