Getting Real: Can Our Survival Roles Help Us Find Our True Selves?

By Christina Enevoldsen, Penny Smith & Bethany

I live close to Beverly Hills, the plastic surgery Mecca, where the question is, “Are they real?” I’m also a few blocks from where the Academy Awards and many film premieres are held, where celebrities smile for the cameras and wave confidently to the fans, yet we know many of them are shy, quiet and prefer solitude. It’s not always easy to determine what’s real and what’s not. Bethany Ruck, Penny Smith and I sat down to try to sort out the real from the not-so-real in our own lives.

Christina: For as long as I can remember, I’ve faced the challenges in my life as someone else. I’ve worn an internal costume of someone stronger and more capable. One I used often was a pioneer woman, able to brave the many hardships of the American frontier. Channeling a pioneer spirit made me feel stronger and braver.

Penny: I’ve done the same thing since I was a little girl. I’d pretend I was a pioneer or an immigrant, especially an Irish immigrant because I have so much Irish in me and I was always reading about the hardships they went through. Or I was a slave girl, somehow enduring things that were too difficult or scary for me. Someone brave and strong.

Bethany: Mine was a tough girl, someone you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley— one that you wouldn’t mess with because you know she’s going to fight back. Even if I wasn’t wearing my leather jacket, boots and heavy eyeliner, I’d be a tough girl with my attitude, the way I’d strut down the street or hold myself or the way I’d talk. Even in social situations, when I didn’t feel comfortable I’d be reserved and act snotty in a way that kept people away from me and made me feel protected.

Penny: I can relate to the tough girl mask, too. I am quiet and mild-mannered most of the time but I acted tough even when I was crying inside. I used to use a mask when I had to walk through the ghetto of Oakland everyday to my bus stop. I was totally freaked out inside but outside I was all tough girl.

Christina: Another role I played was a captive in a prison camp. I’d play that role even though I wasn’t even in a dangerous situation. One of the main times was when I was facing deadlines in my business. It was exhausting work but I knew if I pretended to be in a life threatening situation with cruel guards pointing guns at me, ready to shoot anyone who showed signs of weakness, I could go on.

Penny: Yes, anytime something came up that I didn’t think I could do—like giving a report in front of the class—I would imagine myself as someone else who was comfortable with public speaking and could do it well.

Bethany: I always felt a fake though. When people would say, “Oh, my God, you’re so strong,” I didn’t understand how anyone could say that when I felt like everything I was doing to be strong was a facade. That was very confusing.

Penny: I felt like I was falling apart on the inside even though I had the appearance of strength.

Bethany: Wearing the tough girl for so long made me think I was really her. I put myself in some bad situations because I thought I would be safe. I was unrealistic about my own safety because I had a false sense of security. I was actually more vulnerable because I made unwise decisions.

Penny: It got me into some scary situations, too. After doing it a few times, I thought I really could handle those things. One time, I got off work late and instead of waiting for a ride, I took the bus and had to walk through this bad part of town where all the drug dealers were out. When I got home they told me I was crazy.

Bethany: What I faced was very similar. I saw how much the facade did not protect me. It hurt me because people thought I was a bitch. I was so closed off and unapproachable. That’s the only way I knew to protect myself. It’s like what I did to try to protect myself from the sexual abuse.

Christina: I relate it to my abuse, too. The abuse told me I was powerless and the effects showed me how weak I was. The shame trained me to put myself down so it was hard to recognize the good, strong qualities I have. I had to see them outside of me.

Bethany: One day I realized how much of a facade I presented to the world and I cried because hardly anyone knew the real me. I was hiding myself. Now, I’m finding my own confidence and strength to stand up for myself. As I’ve internalized that part of me and sorted through the parts of tough girl that I want, such as her ability to fight back. I can still access those things, yet filter them my through wisdom and discernment.

Christina: I’m finding my confidence and strength, too. I realized that the roles I’ve “put on” aren’t really external; they are internal and something I “pull out”. I drew from a strength I didn’t know I had. I admired it elsewhere, yet I only connected with it because it was something I already owned. Maybe it was undeveloped or unrecognized, but it was mine. I wore it like a lie, but it’s really the truth—it felt fake, but it showed me a part of who I really am.

Penny: It’s so true what you say that all these things are part of us…they’re facets of ourselves. We have these inner strengths and this is the way that we’ve drawn on them when we’ve had to. If it wasn’t ours to begin with, we wouldn’t be able to use it. No matter how developed of an imagination we may have, we can’t actually turn ourselves into something that we’re not. Maybe someplace deep inside of me I am a good public speaker. Lol.

I remember one winter in South Dakota as a teenager coming upon a terrible car wreck. My friends and I were the first ones on the scene and none of us knew what to do. I was so scared but something inside me took over. I sent someone for help. Then, I headed for the overturned car on its top in the snowy ditch. On my way, I found a man lying tangled in the barbwire fence that the car had gone through. He had been thrown out and I could tell was hurt quite badly. I stopped, spoke to him, called for the others to bring a blanket for him and continued to the car. The car was on its roof and there was a man trapped behind the steering wheel. He was struggling and I told him not to move. After leaving a couple of friends there with orders to keep him talking, still and to not let him fall asleep, I went back to the man in the fence. I managed to get him untangled, to tie jackets and whatever I could get to stop the bleeding, piled anything I could on him to keep him warm and kept him awake until help finally came. The ambulance personnel actually asked if I had been trained in emergency response.

I was the quietest, shyest one of the bunch, but when faced with trauma, I was the only one able to respond. I have often thought about that and wondered why. It was truly like I became someone else….someone competent and able…two things I never saw myself as. So, yes, it makes sense that we do have these unplumbed, undeveloped strengths inside of us that we’ve been able to call upon when needed.

Christina: The more I looked back on the things I accomplished while I was playing a role, the more I saw evidence in my own life that I actually did have those qualities. It wasn’t a pioneer woman who accomplished those things in my life. It was me. I saw what I was capable of. They were very real qualities I had, yet hadn’t recognized, acknowledged, or developed. Once I did start to see that, it started to feel natural and real, like me. It didn’t feel fake anymore. I didn’t have to put on those roles, they weren’t separate from me anymore; they were parts of me.

Penny: As I’m getting to know myself, I’m realizing that I need my coping mechanisms less and less. I see myself more as someone who can deal with things head-on rather than someone that has to hide behind a mask to survive. As I become more self-aware some of these things sort of take care of themselves. Maybe it’s because I am seeing more of my inner strength as belonging to me and not something that I have to “pretend” or “put on.” The roles are indications of who we really are, so that helps us to get to know ourselves better.

Christina:Once we see ourselves for who we really are, we don’t have to live in fantasy. The reality is that we do have power to do something about the things that we’re intimidated by. We can improve our public speaking skills, we can take self defense courses, we can say no to dangerous situations, we can improve our social skills. We aren’t vulnerable and helpless anymore. Acknowledging the power we have gives us other options so we don’t have to rely on facades.

Related Posts:
How Can I “Be Myself” If I Don’t Know Who That Is?

The Real Problem With Being Fake

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Getting Real: Can Our Survival Roles Help Us Find Our True Selves?
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