Growing up, I spent a large portion of my youth experiencing life as a military child. My dad was in the Navy for 22 years and we moved to places like Spain and Sicily, just me and him. This meant I knew what it was like to have a parent in the military and how demanding it can be in every aspect of life. For example, my dad was deployed to Kuwait and Mali, and those months, or even an entire year, of not being able to see him were stressful and heartbreaking for me as a young child. It was hard to focus on school when I was missing my dad and worrying about his safety. When he returned, it often took a while before he felt at home again. Where did this leave me? I was a dependent, and this translated to depending on whatever the military decided.
Moving from place to place, or “PCSing” (Permanent Change of Station), is the norm for military life. As a kid, I learned how suddenly and quickly everything can change, sometimes with only a few weeks’ notice. I was expected to go along with it, and I remember feeling a sense of dread that I would have to move to a new school, a new house, and make new friends. What would it be like? Would the kids be mean? I’m moving in the middle of the year; will I fall behind in classes? I remember these questions floating around as we would pack up our things and say our goodbyes.
Honestly, moving to the overseas countries of Spain and Sicily was nothing short of a blessing. I got to experience places and cultures I would have never been exposed to in my small, Midwestern hometown. It molded me into the open-minded, adaptive, and persevering person I am today. Nevertheless, moving overseas meant leaving my relatives back home and only visiting them for holidays and summers. It meant leaving my friends, my elementary school, my house, and everything I knew. Then, once you’ve spent three to four years in your established home, it’s time to pack up your things and move again. This made friendships challenging.
During this time, I was not a social butterfly. I would be dropped into my new school like a spawned Fortnite character, often in the middle of a semester, and expected to pick up my pencil and work. Though most of us went through the same process, my school would still have cliques and friend groups that had already been established. I was the new kid – what’s her story? Is she cool enough?
Looking back on this time of my life, I noticed how much I camouflaged into whoever I was spending time with. This looked like changing the way I made jokes, how I dressed, the words I used, and the activities I engaged in. Why? This could have been my strong desire to fit in, and fit in fast, to feel like I was part of something in this new environment. This could have also been my own way of trying out different identities as I tried to figure out my own. But with all this change, stress, and pressure, I ended up losing those years of forming my own identity.
After my dad retired from the military, my identity would continue to change around different groups of people and I would learn the best ways to fit in and be accepted. In college, I would act dominant and assertive around my radio club organization but shift into agreeable and bubbly around my boyfriend. Then, I’d be goofy and wild around my close friends, but tame and polite around my family. These personalities took a lot of work to maintain. I often feared the different parts of my life would come together and call me a phony.
It wasn’t until I openly acknowledged my tendency to shift my personality that I started to actively work on figuring out who I really was, beneath all the people-pleasing and desire to fit in. This meant going to therapy and understanding where my identity came from and all the factors that nurtured it. Gaining that understanding of my why and how was crucial in finding myself. This also meant embracing what made me happy, what I liked, and standing up for what I believed in, despite how others reacted.
If you resonate with my experience, I strongly encourage you to figure out who you really are, underneath all those masks. I spent so much of my life adjusting myself so others would like me or love me, and it’s still a work in progress. You and I won’t be accepted or liked by everyone, and that is just a part of life that we need to accept, but that makes others’ acceptance for who we really are that much sweeter and more authentic. Growing up, we camouflaged to the environment as a way of survival, changing our colors from place to place like a chameleon. Now, it’s time to find our own color and thrive in our unique identity.
Here are some suggestions on how to start the process of figuring out who you really are. One way would be to define your core values and beliefs. This will help you build a strong foundation of who you are and what you stand for. Another way is to overcome your possibly limited thinking patterns about how the world is or how you operate. Some common limited thinking patterns include all-or-nothing thinking (e.g., I’m a massive success or I’m a failure), focusing on the negative, overgeneralization (e.g., you fail a test so you’ll never understand the material), mind reading (e.g., “They think I’m dumb!”), and catastrophizing. When you have these thought patterns, it can keep us from reaching our goals, or once we do, lead us to self-sabotage our success. However, once you’ve worked on identifying these patterns, you can begin working to counteract and challenge them with more realistic thoughts about yourself, others, and the world.
Do these alternative and more realistic thoughts challenge your core values and beliefs? Oftentimes we identify ourselves with the beliefs we were raised in. Investigate this, dig a little deeper - you’re getting closer… Lastly, embrace yourself as you grow, evolve, and change. Figuring out who you are can be scary, exhilarating, and immensely rewarding, all at the same time. Others will begin appreciating you for your authentic self, and that genuine acceptance is a feeling like no other.