I’m a very introverted person, and for most of my life, I’ve put a lot of my personal alone time into thinking about identity, and all the things that make me… me. You’ve probably been able to tell that by now, since my posts often touch on the subject. A little while ago I made a post about the tiny things that can change how people see us and, as a result, who we are. I also wrote a few days ago about how quickly we adjust ourselves to different things, and redefine ourselves and what we see as normal depending on our environment.
Today’s post is even more abstract and perhaps might betray the slight identity crisis that is the undercurrent of my life.
I’ve reached the conclusion that I don’t exist for anyone else.
Sure, they know someone with my name (though some of them might use a name that is no longer mine) that looks like me and shares a lot of similarities, but that is not the same person.
What I mean, if course, is that other people cannot see or understand me the way I know or see myself. Leaving aside the whole transgender thing for now, which complicates this even more, it’s obvious that different people see me in different ways.
I’m very quiet when I’m a stranger in a large group, or when I’m an unfamiliar environment, but when people get to know me better they see how silly I can be, and how much I enjoy talking to other people.
Someone just meeting me would think of me as reserved and shy, maybe even aloof, while those who’ve been around me for a while see me as someone shy, but also funny and talkative. However, even those people might not know of my religious upbringing, or of my love for video games. Sometimes it’s little stuff, sometimes it’s larger stuff, but their view of me will always be skewed.
Even friends I’ve known for years and family who has been around me since I was born cannot understand me fully. They might see a version of me a lot closer to the way I see myself, but their own personality, opinions, and limited experience will naturally warp me a bit.
This applies to everyone, naturally. I have friends who I know very well, but the mental image I have of those friends might be unrecognisable to them.
Does that mean I don’t actually have friends, since I only care about a person that is in my mind, and not the actual person they are?
Well… this is where it gets complicated.
It’s a temptation to say that’s right, and that all the people we know don’t really exist the way we see them, but that’s not the way I look at it. From my point of view, we aren’t just one person. What I mean by that is that all the mental ideas we have of other people, as well as the ideas they have of us are valid. They might not be as accurate as we might like, but they are real to the people who hold them.
I had a friend who tearfully told me they would miss [dead name]. I initially felt heartbroken and betrayed, but the more I think about it, the more I think they had a right to be sad that they “lost him”.
The natural response I have when someone tells me they’re grieving for the guy I pretended to be is one of annoyance.
“I’m the same person! There’s no one to grieve for, I’m not dead yet.”
Except I am. See, the problem is one of empathy. Having always known of my struggles coming to term with my gender identity, I have seen myself as I am for a long time. Of course I’m going to get frustrated with people who think me revealing a part of myself changes me, when I’ve been that person all along.
Once I try to look at things from their point of view, though, I understand why they feel the way they do. The person they saw in their mind’s eye when they thought of me was a guy, maybe a bit reserved and odd, with a bizarre sense of humour and an obsession with football. That person isn’t just a delusion, as it would look to me; that person is real, insofar as I think of others as real people, despite also having limited and skewed images of them.
When I told people I was transgender, they lost someone they saw as an actual person, who actually meant something to them.
Just like I might judge someone’s actions differently depending on their personal sense of morality and whether they believe their actions are good, I also have to accept that we all have our own realities, and that other people’s are as real to them, as mine is to me.
I know Bogotá in a way that’s massively different from how the muggers who took my purse on Monday do. I see it as a wonderful place with lots of culture, beautiful parks, and comfort. Perhaps they know it as a series of hostile streets, full of others ready to take what little they have. I don’t know. However they see my city, it’s different from the way I see it. Does that mean neither I nor they really know Bogotá?
I think it just means we both know it in a different way, and that the city exists as a million different cities, one in the mind of every person who has lived here, or even heard of it.
I find it difficult to tell whether I’m explaining myself well. My main point so far is simply that the ideas we build of other people and places and things inside of our minds are something to be respected, despite the fact they’re naturally going to be limited.
However, simply accepting that is not enough. Once we understand others cannot see us as we are, and consequently we can’t see other people exactly as they are, it is our responsibility to decrease the differences between how we think of them, and how they think of themselves, or how they really are.
As the delightful John Green often says, we should “imagine people completely.” Back in 2014 when he was in the TIME 100, someone wrote this about him: “He treats every human he meets as their own planet, rather than simply one of his moons.”
That’s a beautiful sentiment, and in my opinion is one of the highest compliments someone can pay you.
I see that phrase about John as a personal challenge; I would like to look at others in that way. I don’t want to think of people simply in how they relate to me. I want to respect their identity and see them as the incredibly complex people they are, with their own concerns and worries and experiences.
This entails a couple of things: I have to remember that others have lived a million things I have no idea about, or will ever live myself, and I should also be careful in how I reach ideas or conclusions about other people.
The first point is a bit obvious. To use an easy example, growing up as a transgender person made childhood and adolescence much different for me than for other people. My cis (i.e. not trans) friends might try to understand, but they cannot, just as I cannot quite imagine what their experience was like growing up.
Since I started my transition some seven or eight months ago, I’ve understood much more about being a woman than I did ever before, even though I’d spent all my life trying to understand the experience. Having to listen to someone talk down to me in a way no one ever did before, or needing to hide in a store to hide from a guy following me because ‘I’m pretty’ is completely different than what I thought it would be. I’ve talked about this before.
What I’m trying to say is that no matter how hard you try to see things as others do, you never will unless you share their experiences. That’s something that’s very important to keep in mind. It’s easy to judge people, but much more important to remember we have not lived their lives, and respect the insight their personal experiences have taught them.
The second point here is also very important. The way we form our opinions of others is often faulty, and it is essential to be aware of this. Just like my initial shyness might give someone a misleading idea about how serious I am, we are often very quick to assume many things about someone from just one characteristic.
I’m going to keep talking about my experience as a transgender person since it’s a very easy way to demonstrate my point. Specifically, my experience coming out to people and having to be patient while they avoid me as they grieve for someone I never saw myself as.
Like I mentioned before, I have reached the conclusion that others have every right to do their mourning for [dead name], since he was as real to them as anyone could be, and that their feelings of loss are valid and worthy of respect.
However, that does not mean they were right to hold that view of me in the first place. How much do [dead name] and Lily really differ from each other?
We both love football and Arsenal, we are both silly with a weird sense of humour, we’re both sarcastic, smart, bookish, geeky, etc.
Sure, Lily wears dresses and makeup and earrings, she likes men, and loves to go shopping, while [dead name] wore baggy overgrown clothes, was awkward around girls, and didn’t really show any interest towards fashion, or shopping.
How much do any of those things actually say about someone, though? I obviously agree there is a general difference between men and women (otherwise how would my transition make sense?) but I think perhaps we give gender too much importance in how much it defines someone.
I have many friends who, like myself, are Third Culture Kids and grew up as part of two or more different cultures. This can be very lonely, since the culture or cultures someone grows up in can have a big say in how you develop as a person. I grew up in Colombia and in the US, and both countries have affected my personality. When I’m around other Colombians though, all the American things they won’t understand make me feel a little bit distant, and when I’m around people from the US, it’s also hard to ignore the stuff other Colombians have experienced that they haven’t.
It’s a complicated subject and probably worthy of its own post. For today though, I just want to highlight that when the country you grow up in can really shape your identity, so you’ll understand the context of what I’m about to share.
I have one friend in particular who I always assumed was Colombian American, like me. After a year of being friends, however, I learned she’d also grown up in Argentina, and considered herself Argentine in many ways. This meant there was a lot about her I just wouldn’t understand, and there was a way in which we couldn’t really relate.
I didn’t start to avoid her, or grieve over my mental image of her dying, and it being replaced by a more Argentine version. I doubt any of my friends or family would’ve reacted to a revelation like that the way they did to my gender identity. Why not, though? Or rather, why did they react that way about my gender?
It’s a complicated question, and I doubt I can come up with a clear and simple explanation, wrapped in a bow.
Here’s my best attempt at it:
People attach a lot of meaning and expectation to your gender that isn’t necessarily warranted. You think of a woman, and get all these ideas about motherhood and femininity that are nothing like what you would think about a man.
(The ‘you’ here, by the way, isn’t referencing YOU in particular, more a general you pointed at society.)
The issue isn’t just that having to adjust from [dead name] to Lily means getting used to looking at me as a woman rather than a man, it also involves changing the massive expectations and assumptions people had formed about [dead name]. In some cases, this also leads to people challenging why they even had those ideas about me in the first place, and that can be a difficult thing to go through.
I don’t mention this to cast shame on the people I know who had or are having trouble adjusting. I myself am guilty of the exact same thing. I form ideas about people based on their gender, profession, political opinions, religion, etc. In fact, forming false ideas about people in my head is something I kind of specialise in, and is one of my biggest character flaws.
To form these ideas is natural. The challenge I’ve put on myself, and present to you now, is to start letting go of them, or at the very least be aware of when you’re doing this.
In short, to me, imagining someone complexly means understanding I can never understand everything about someone the way they do, and to be careful in forming opinions and expectations towards someone based on just one of two of the million things that make up their identity.
Identity is a complicated thing. Maybe it was a bit too ambitious of me to try and gather all my thoughts about it in a limited post. I hope it makes for interesting, thoughtful reading, at least.
What do you think? Do you think people’s ideas of us should be respected, given that they are the only way we have to understand others? Any points or opinions expressed here that you agree or disagree with?
I’d love to hear what you think. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.