“I Am Busy Trying To Become Who I Am”
by Ashley Eder, LPC
What is it that has fans of HBO’s new series GIRLS claiming that this show is the most relatable one on TV? Browse GIRLS’ discussion forums and you’ll see what appeals to many of the viewers: they’re still becoming who they really are too.
The theme of becoming yourself has been woven throughout the first season, and it’s a process each of the four main characters can relate to. Each seeks to resolve this quest in a different way, and in this each acts out a modern day trope of finding oneself.
Why do so many of us still relate to a show about not knowing who you are? Defining yourself and living in alignment with your true priorities isn’t simple. The search for clarity shows up differently for each of the four main characters, and many of their struggles comes from their misguided attempts at being true to themselves by actually trying to bypass the painful work of self-discovery.
If you don’t have an internal sense about what makes you you, there is more than one way to try and artificially plug the gap:
1. Ask others to tell you who you are (Hannah).
2. Rely on others’ to make you look good (Marnie).
3. Pretend you don’t care (Jessa).
4. Do what you think you’re supposed to do (Shoshanna).
Let’s look at these four manifestations of avoiding our real selves on the road to self-discovery and how our heroines fare using these approaches.
At first glance, it might appear that aspiring memoirist Hannah has a clear sense of who she is and where she is going. Scratch the surface though and you encounter someone who has little idea of who she is, and instead of looking inside herself for information, looks outside herself to the first person who will hold still long enough for her to ask what she should wear to the party or eat for dinner.
If you identify with Hannah, your internal dialogue might sound something like, “I don’t know who I am or what I want, but I definitely want something. Someone tell me what to do!” On the outside, this could sound like obsessively asking friends what to wear, who to date, how to act, and what they would do in your situation. People like Hannah might be accused of selfishness (certainly Hannah has been) because their lack of identity forces them to talk and think about themselves to the exclusion of others. It’s not that they don’t genuinely care about other people–they usually do. They lack the foundational sense of self required to maintain their identity without constant feedback.
For someone like Hannah to arrive at the self-understanding and self-esteem required to lead an authentic and inspiring life, she’ll need to get to know herself through introspection, exploration, and taking time to slow down and hear her own experience before she absorbs the ideas of others. Goals for her might look like learning to separate her parents’ and friends’ opinions from her own and working toward clarity on what feels nourishing in her life, whether that lines up with others’ career and family paths or not.
Hannah’s real task is to turn inward for her truth instead of seeking it externally. Often, someone in this situation feels an emptiness when they remove themselves from the cacophony of others’ input. Finding ways to fill that hole organically instead of temporarily plying it with the idea of a boyfriend, success, or short-term pleasure will lead to long-term gains in self-esteem and life satisfaction.
While Hannah’s approach is to openly seek others’ feedback and guidance, Marnie’s is more discreet. Marnie’s strategy for feeling comfortable and confident comes from comparing herself to those around her and enjoying the one-up-manship of being more financially solvent, better dressed, well-groomed, or simply wanted and admired. Marnie’s understanding of someone’s internal worth is based on external perceptions. To her, being admired is what makes someone valuable and desirable. She might wonder whether other people think she is a good person, good friend, or a good listener, but she is not often deeply involved in those practices.
The problem with this approach to life is that it makes being a lovable person into a moving target! When your value is based on others’ assessments of you, you can only be as valuable as the people who want you in that moment. This creates a painful cycle and the endless pursuit of the better boyfriend, job, or friendship in the hopes that it will supply the missing piece and create lasting happiness. The frustration that comes with looking better off than you feel is painful and lonely. Ironically, the more Marnie pursues status through having it all together, the more she will feel like it is all falling apart.
Oh, Jessa. You pretend not to care, but we know you do. Jessa’s bravado both keeps her from being hurt and keeps her from being known–by herself or others. While it might look like Jessa enjoys freedom and a carefree existence, she also suffers the consequences of not being able to engage in a meaningful career, romance, or even a relationship with her own passions and principles.
Jessa’s strategy of not-caring can come in the form of a free spirit or a hardened soul. Though it masquerades as selfishness and feels aloof, it protects a young woman so sensitive that she doesn’t want to risk loving or being loved back. We can only speculate at the origins of her self-reliance, but the end result is that her Lone Ranger lifestyle curtails her involvement in life, especially her own.
Opening to herself, others, and experience would be a slow and tender process. She would need to wisely choose the people she lets in as she risks more support. The long-term gains in intimacy and self-awareness for someone like Jessa would be significant.
The most actively anxious of the Girls, Shoshanna looks to cultural norms to tell her what she wants and how to get there. It’s a little bit like Hannah’s approach of asking others to describe the recipe for success, with a heavy dose of TV-influenced ideas about what to wear, how to act, and who to date. Shosh is interested in other people–way interested. She can recite the opinions, preferences, and habits of everyone around her. But could she do that for herself?
Mimicry has a built-in ceiling for true pleasure. After all, it’s based on doing what others find pleasurable, with little regard for what feels good to you. The outward focus that Shoshanna embodies gives her ample information about what other people like and practically none about her own desires. Though she works hard to portray just the right amount of interest in herself and others, she is actually blind to her real impulses for connection.
People like Shoshanna have a wealth of information about what they *should* want in a partner, education, career, sex life, appearance, social life, social status, and income. Whether that approximates something they actually enjoy is another thing entirely.
Slow down, Shosh. You have plenty of time to meet the man of your dreams, finish your education, get your dream job, have the perfect sexual experience, make some money, and get a hobby. You can relax–that experience alone will tell you more about yourself than the entire roster of cable channels (not to knock cable channels in this article, of course).