I ran across AnonymouslyAutistic (Anna)’s amazing post about multiple personas a long time ago (which, these days, is like five to six months). Up until that point, I had wrestled with a dichotomy….
On one hand, I thought that nobody else really experienced this Adoption of Different Personas or Having Multiple Personas thing. I wasn’t aware of anyone else trying on different personalities for size, or adopting a starkly different set of behaviors or thought processes or even identities in different environments. Like many other Aspie/autistic traits, I had simply chocked it up to “being ‘weird'” and that it was a mild curse that struck me, and me alone.
And yet, on the other hand…I figured everybody experienced something like this in one form or another, so I didn’t give it much thought. I figured it was just part of the human condition, I wasn’t that unique, and I put it out of my mind.
But something still nagged at me; I didn’t see anybody else having to put forth the effort I did. I didn’t see anyone else having to reinvent themselves every year or two. I was the only one I knew who did that.
Imagine my excitement and calming comfort when I found Anna’s post. Reading what she had to say was another game-changer. It inspired me to tell my own story.
I’ve always been a shapeshifter of sorts. I could twist and contort, moulding and melding myself into any parameters given to me. My goal was to fit in, and I was willing to do that at any (well, OK–most) costs. I found that I could sacrifice quite a bit of myself (up to a point) in order to do it. Being accepted and feeling “normal” ranked that high on my priority list.
I didn’t realize that I “had” to (for my own “good”) act like anyone else right away. I hadn’t realized that I “should” mask. So when I started Montessori school, I just let my natural self hang out, blowing (figuratively) naked in the wind.
Yeah…that didn’t work so well. I made enemies, and pretty quickly. I was weird. I was strange. I was different. I was bossy. I was stubborn. I was argumentative. And I didn’t like to share.
I wasn’t a monster. I wasn’t even a spoiled brat. I was just an only child, used to playing how I wanted to, used to doing things on my terms, and not used to having to consult anyone else about it or even consider them or take their desires/feelings into account.
It was all new to me, that’s all.
It didn’t take long before I felt I had to change things. I was (and still am) an introvert; I wasn’t stupid. I spent a great deal of time watching the other kids. Not all the time, but enough to know that they were all One Way, and I was Another Way (My Way). And I was the only one who was My Way.
At first, I didn’t really care about playing with them. I pretty much ignored them and they pretty much ignored me, and I was fine with that. But as I got older, the other kids didn’t ignore me so much anymore; they included me in the conversation whether I wanted to be included or not. And I don’t mean “include” in a heartwarming, accepted kind of way; I mean it as in, they paid attention to me, unwanted attention, attention that included making fun of me or asking me questions like “why do you do [x]?”, which were only cheaply-camouflaged implications that I was weird for “doing [x]”.
I didn’t want that attention. I thought about the situation (many times, and for extended periods of time), and reached the conclusion (early on) that I didn’t want to provide them with any material to use against me.
And thus, the masking and acting began.
I took on personas. Summer Vacation between school levels is a great time to do this; it gives you two to three months to assemble, cultivate, and practice something new. And you even have enough time to prepare–to research, think, decide, shop, rehearse, etc. And then when school started, presto!–introducing…the Whole New You.
My first persona was the Gentle Loner, the Nice Quiet Shy Girl. When I cried to my mom that I’d been made fun of (yet again), she would respond with what sounded like a fail-safe strategy: “just smile and be nice; say thank you; stand out as someone who’s nice”, to paraphrase. Who could argue with that? What could go wrong?
A lot, it turned out. That didn’t seem to work. That shocked me.
So when we moved, and I was starting out with a whole new group of kids, a fresh clean slate, I decided to sit back and watch. Those kids didn’t know me yet, so I was on neutral ground. I hadn’t messed anything up yet. Great! Who are the most popular kids? Who would I most like to emulate? I made my choice…
….and became the Witty, Trendy, Slightly-Snobby Extrovert. I was still nice enough, but with a slight “cool” “edge”. I became a slave to trends, designer clothes, with coveted brand-names. Anything less wasn’t good enough. I was slightly spoiled. Not too bad, but enough. I learned all the cool phrases. I smartened up and became aware of the world. I took risks (nothing too serious) and dares (again, nothing too self-deprecating) – just mild stuff. Having grown up sheltered and rural, the big city was already a good few steps outside my comfort zone, and I was slinking a bit further out yet. But I eventually made it! I “got in” with the popular kids, the A-group; I hit the big-time. I got invited to all the birthday parties. I sold part of my soul to do it, though; the previously bullied (me) became part of the bullies. I am not in any way proud of this. I haven’t forgiven myself completely, even though it was 27 years ago.
It was fun (kinda; actually, it turned out to be overrated)…and stressful. Having to keep up. Having to stay “edgy”. Having to so carefully select a perfectly-matched and tightrope-walking (between not trendy enough and trying too hard). It was both a bore and a chore. I realized that although fashion was kind of fun, it wasn’t that fun. Not important enough in my world to have to give such serious thought to every day. I wanted to relax a little.
After a short while (a matter of less than a school year), I voluntarily parted ways with the “in-crowd” (and surprisingly, on good terms). I became the Tomboy Me and I went my own way, cultivating a (much) smaller group of kids (all male) to play with, and we played four-square and catch and whatnot. We weren’t interested in organized sports, nor did we partake in any meanness, bullying, or gossip. I felt safe with those three guys (two were in my grade, the other a year younger). They weren’t the big buff type, nor were they even particularly assertive, but at least there was strength in numbers; I was no longer alone; I had people who liked me for me. The pressure had evaporated, and so had my stress.
Once we got into junior high school (now known as middle school), we were all split up into separate classes, and we had joined up with kids who’d gone to one other local elementary/primary school, so I had to start again. I didn’t see the two same-aged guys much; they weren’t even assigned to the same lunch period. So I met up with a group of girls. They were semi-nerd, semi-preppy, so I could at least half-identify with them. I was definitely still Tomboy Me at heart, but I couldn’t be too much so around them, because, well, they were cis-girls. I pretty much had no identity that year. Maybe half-Tomboy Me, but that was about it.
The following year, I had discovered and forced myself to like heavy metal (think Metallica, Megadeth, etc–the pre-grunge/pre-alternative glam rock of the late ’80s-early ’90s), a forced-“like” that turned into a “genuine-like”. I had discovered the more-alternative edge of harder rock, which included bands like Faith No More and Queensryche, and some run-of-the-mill good-ol’ rock like Def Leppard. Awesome. Why the emphasis on music? Well, because that created the next persona…. The Metal Me.
I already had the big hair (naturally thick and curly, much to my chagrin), which actually helped. I also found black pants, black T-shirts (usually with logos of bands or cool radio stations or what-have-you on them), and brighter-colored flannel shirts that I could wear over the black, to give it a kick of color. I found silver earrings and necklaces of chains, skulls, swords, eagles, and crosses to top off the ensemble. I was definitely heavy (metal) and edgy now. I looked tough. Nobody messed with me. Nobody saw the need to, really, except for a few really cognitively-dense people who who weren’t exactly very popular themselves, so I didn’t worry about them. I was relatively safe. I would’ve carried a switchblade if I could, but not because I felt a need to defend myself. But I was still kind of soft and sheltered underneath, and I didn’t want to get into trouble, so I didn’t.
I began to realize that my mood was becoming as dark as my clothing, so I figured that a change in wardrobe might be in order; perhaps that would help. The following year, I became The Agreeable Preppy Kid (predominantly female, but not too feminine); I wore clean jeans, button-down shirts of different muted-but-brightish colors, and everything was clean and kept. I even found scrunchies and barrettes for my hair, and highlighted my hair more. I found other earrings–still big and long–but this time with descending stars. It was pretty cool. I adopted a multicultural vibe, having gotten into karate and getting acupuncture treatments, listening to Yanni and Pearl Jam, and playing Streetfighter II.
This actually worked for more than a year at a time. It worked for two, and even after that, the changes were more subtle.
By Grade 11 (my junior year in high school), I became the Artistic Me. I started painting (abstract, colorful, acrylic, with an impressionist bent). I even started painting in my journals; they just appeared too boring as text-only. I had started studying astrology the previous year, so I continued that. I went to fabric stores and found prints of material that I liked, had them cut in 1.5-meter sheets, tied them at each end to make sleeve-holes, and wore them like a cape/shawl. Or I wore moccasins and a tie-dye shirt with light-blue stone-washed jeans. I usually piled on three or four different silver-themed necklaces, with Venus (female) signs, peace signs, and the whole works. I even found a natural-smelling vanilla perfume, which I wore conservatively. I was generally a blend of ’80s Madonna (think the early “Virgin Years”) and a slight ’90s-alternative hippie throwback. That was pretty fun, and it worked for the following year, too.
Once in college/university, the ’80s sheen/polish had worn off, leaving me with only a slight ’90s grunge (although not extremely grungy). Jeans and T-shirts still reigned, but the color darkened, usually to navy blue or something similar. The flannel shirts came back, thicker and with earthier tones, but were relegated mostly to my waist. I wanted, more than anything in the world, to look like Rae-Ann Graff of the mid-’90s American TV show “My So-Called Life”, so I impersonated her pretty heavily, complete with the tiny braid of hair in front, book-ended by baby barrettes. It was fun, but I was bummed that I was never fully successful at “installing” her into my operating system; it was a cheap “overlay”, as opposed to a complete disk-sweep-clean.
Looking at this post reveals to me just how all-over-the-map I truly was. So if the Shapeshifting phenomenon applies to you, too, just know that you’re not alone.
In case it comforts you further, my early adult years didn’t prove much more stable. Stay tuned for Part 2 🙂