I Am a Puzzle of 527 Pieces (and Counting)

To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself——means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight——and never stop fighting.” E.E. Cummings

Identity crises are nothing new for me. I recently read through the journals I’ve kept for the past ten years and discovered countless questions about my identity, my purpose, and my true self. Who am I really? If I could release myself from fear, expectations, and my craving for approval, who would I discover at my core? Am I living authentically? If not, what’s stopping me and how do I remedy my propensity for pretending? Over and over and over again, I wrote questions such as these in my journals as I engaged in wrestling matches between my core self and my intense desire to meet expectations. Finally, within the past year or so, I seemed to have reached a place of overall peace with my identity. Most days, I felt pretty confident just being myself, warts and all, though I still struggled a bit with my identity as a writer. Then children entered my life and all the progress I’d made seemed to go out the front door at the same moment they walked through it.

The first weeks with the girls were filled with comparisons between our home and their previous foster home and our family and their previous foster family. To put it mildly, we are vastly different from what came before and the near-constant comparisons and judgment threw me off balance. Add the expectations of the girls to the expectations society, with all its subgroups, has for parents and the expectations I have for myself as a mother (and as a person who does not want to lose her identity to motherhood) and what resulted was a slightly neurotic me, suddenly at a loss for the clarity within my grasp just a few weeks before. Trying to integrate the parent facet of myself into the established whole was like trying to fit an additional 50 pieces into an already-completed puzzle. While there are probably healthier ways to go about such a project, I dumped the whole darn puzzle on the floor and sat amidst the pieces, completely overwhelmed and unable to see how anything fit anymore. For awhile there, I lost my self.

What I’ve learned from my recent foray into the world of the Enneagram is my emotional response to losing contact with core of my self is shame. The shame storm following the dumping of my authentic-Leah puzzle pieces onto the floor of life confirmed this truth. I felt unworthy as a parent, a writer, a friend, a person. All I could see, no matter where I looked, were all the ways I wasn’t enough. I was ashamed of me and I was ashamed of my shame. Reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, though, helped me see the truth that feelings of shame are a natural part of existence as a non-sociopath and offered me tools to cultivate shame-resilience, some of which I was already employing in my attempt to dig myself out of my shame and find my way back to worthiness.

Three weeks ago, I confessed to feeling unworthy, exhausted, and lost and committed to finding my way back to wholehearted. In the time that has passed, I’ve become more intentional in my practice of courage, compassion, and connection——what Brené Brown calls the gifts of imperfection. She writes, “Practicing courage, compassion, and connection in our daily lives is how we cultivate worthiness” (7). She’s right. Acts of ordinary courage, extending compassion to myself and others, and connecting with others has helped me begin the process of putting the puzzle of me back together again, this time with room for my role as a mother. I am not so arrogant to think I have arrived and will never go through another identity crisis in my life. After all, life is squirmy and ever-changing. But I’m breathing easier and feeling more whole and today it is enough.

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