Puzzle Me

Where do I end? Where does the “outside of me” begin? These questions seem simple at first and evoke answers involving epidermis, but I am discovering that my boundary has little to do with molecular structures. Rather, I perceive my boundary in the social context, in relation to others around me. Such boundaries tend to be rather ill-defined and ambiguous. As a result, I often experience the boundary crises: the mismatches in my understanding of where the boundary actually lies. To help me make sense of these crises, I have a fun metaphor.

In this metaphor, I am a puzzle. There are many pieces of feelings, needs, identities, fears and aspirations in me-as-puzzle. This puzzle is quite unusual in that it’s near-infinitely complex and–ever so slightly–constantly changing. No matter how much I work on assembling the puzzle, it always seems like I barely started. But this puzzle is how I define my Self, so am steadily compelled to keep working on it, consciously or not. Some pieces fit just right. Some I still haven’t figured out where they belong. Some look curiously out of place.

Other people are puzzles, too. They have their own bits and pieces that they are fitting together. It’s a lot of puzzles.

Sometimes, I get confused and decide that pieces of other people’s puzzles are mine. In such cases, my imagined design of a puzzle creates a boundary crisis of insufficiency. Because I view these foreign puzzle bits as requirements for completing my Self, I am doomed to suffer: these pieces will never be fully mine, and I will never feel sufficient. I will never feel like I am good enough or at peace with who I am.

My impostor syndrome is a good example here. It’s that underlying belief that my accomplishments define my worthiness. That is, I define my self-worth by how others value what I’d done. I crave that missing puzzle piece of others’ approval. I can’t fathom how my puzzle could be complete without it, and yet I can never own it.

The opposite also happens. I may decide that my puzzle pieces are necessary for completing other people’s puzzles. This creates the boundary crisis of overwhelment. Seeing bits of my Self as critical in others’ lives, I am also doomed to suffer: I will always feel overwhelmed trying to co-assemble multiple puzzles, rather than just focusing on mine.

For example, when I avoid giving a colleague unpleasant feedback because I am overcome with anxiety that they will take it poorly, I assuming responsibility for how they would receive that news. All of the workarounds and clever techniques that follow are me trying to complete their puzzle with my pieces.

Now, I have plenty of cases of both. I have been putting this puzzle together all my life, and doing so mostly unconsciously. I grabbed others’ pieces and tried jamming them in, and I took plenty of responsibility for others’ puzzles. My puzzle is a mess, with tons of opportunities for suffering.

To reduce this suffering, I systematically examine me-as-puzzle, remove foreign pieces, and take back the pieces that are mine. It sounds easy, but given the decades of lodged pieces in this massive, unique collage that is me, it is quite challenging. Remove a piece, and whole swaths of the puzzle suddenly become unmoored, world temporarily seizing to making sense. It’s a high-risk proposition. If I am not that puzzle that I was before, then who am I? Where do others end? Where do I begin?

The Illusion of Injured Identity

Throughout my live, I accumulate identities: a father, a husband, a software engineer, an occasional blogger. These identities are curious constructs, because they link me to other objects or concepts. Each turns two separate things–me and something else–into one, fusing us. Suppose I view myself as a hockey fan. Put differently, a “hockey fan” is one of my identities. Bizarrely, when someone says something disparaging about hockey fans, I have an emotional response. I feel irritated or defensive. What’s happening here?

What I am experiencing is truly a wondrous thing: the link to identity rings the power of the negative comment about hockey fans into me–bzzzt!–like an electrical current, and I feel something akin to physical pain. Sometimes this pain is mild (I am not that big of a hockey fan), and sometimes it’s not. The stronger the link–that is, the stronger I am fused with the object of my identity–the more intense the pain. Back in the Shadow DOM days, I quit Twitter because I simply couldn’t handle the excruciating hurt of comments that I would even remotely perceive as negative toward Web components. The identity link was so strong that in my mind, I was Web components.

In such cases, I am feeling the effect of injured identity. I am acting as the designated receiver of pain of an injury to an object. This injury is not real. Objects can’t feel pain. But through the magic of fused identity, I am here to take on that responsibility.

How did I end up fused with my identities? Best I can tell, it’s a habit that I developed to become a functioning member of society. As I was growing up, I was bombarded with calls to become a “responsible adult”, “good neighbor”, “trustworthy friend” or even a “rebellious, out-of-the-box thinker”. The societal system around me applied its unyielding pressure to adopt the identities that were necessary to be socially accepted. At school, at home, around friends, various identities were held out and incentivized. A “good student” gets goods grades. A “cool kid” gets respect from his buddies. A “weird kid” gets bullied.

At that age, I only knew of one way to adopt an identity: to assume it, to become it, to make it part of myself. So I became a whole web of identities. Some of them I considered desirable and some I desperately did not want.

Though this habit had helped me make sense of my life early on, as the mental demands of the modern life increased, I began to find the effects distracting and counter-productive. When I feel the pain of injured identity, I immediately move to protect myself. My sympathetic system mobilizes to cope with a physical threat. My heart rate goes up. My perspective narrows, zeroed in on the threat. My contrast knob goes to 11. No shades of gray here. I spin the stress response roulette: fight, flight, or freeze.

Since there’s no actual physical threat here, my response is usually directed at another person, whom I perceive to have injured me. Will I be my best self interacting with this person? Nope. Will I regret this interaction later or stew on it for hours/days/months? Yup. Will I have a nagging feeling that I wasted a ton of energy? Definitely. Maybe even have another stress response to feeling terrible about the waste and beat myself up? Oh, I have totally done that. Have I mentioned that I myself could be the target of my threat response?

I want to change this habit.

For me, the change begins with learning to detect an injured identity. After I cringe as someone comments about me not writing any code lately, I take time to reflect on what’s going on. I trace the pain back to the “software engineer” identity and examine my linkage with it. Just being able to observe this process rather than being driven by it has been immensely helpful for me. In doing so, I begin to gently separate myself from from the identity. I start seeing it as something that I have, rather than something that I am.

I am not defined by my identities. They are just tokens of the society’s currency, and though valuable, they–just like coins in my pocket–do not determine my worthiness. My self-worth comes from something deeper. Staying focused on this distinction, patiently struggling to see through the illusion of injured identity is how I gradually turn these random pangs of pain and automatic reactions into a deeper, more centered life.