When You First Know You’re You
The moment arrives for all of us. On an ordinary day, something extraordinary happens. An insight stirs us to wakefulness as insistently as an alarm clock, and we know consciously what had been only an intimation before: I am myself and can only be myself. Following behind is its corollary: I am absolutely different from every other creature in the world. “I remember at a very young age looking at my hands and being struck that I existed,” says psychologist Alexandra Bloom, describing her moment of awakening.
For most of us, such an insight usually occurs by the time we are nine or ten, though the timing is different for different girls. On a continuum of development that begins at birth, this revelatory moment marks the start of what Jung called individuation, the ongoing process by which each of us becomes distinctly ourselves. The drive toward selfhood progresses through childhood and adolescence until it reaches that elusive state known as adulthood. But if childhood experience is characterized by immediacy, “in-the-momentness,” when we are still relatively free of the self-consciousness that begins to plague us by the time we reach adolescence and continues to plague us in one way or another into adulthood, then this moment is remarkable because it marks the beginning of active self-awareness. It is as if the blurred outline of self suddenly grows sharp and clear, illuminating with unerring accuracy the knowledge that we are unique. Natalie described her moment of recognition at age ten or eleven this way:
“It was a hot summer afternoon and I was lying on the floor of my room, legs propped up on the side of the bed. I may have been reading; more likely, I was daydreaming. I was wearing shorts, and I remember so clearly looking at my legs as if seeing them for the first time. I studied the shape of my calves, feeling cautiously pleased. They aren’t so bad, I thought, already aware that to have thin, shapely legs was considered ‘good’ and made one attractive to boys and that fat, chunky legs were ‘bad.’ Then I undid that perception by reminding myself that they looked wider when I stood up. Still, I remember my fascination, as if getting to know the shape of my calves was a way of getting to know me. My calves didn’t look like the calves of any of my friends; they were mine.”
It is in such moments that we first intuit the meaning of privacy. “I thought of my mother,” says Natalie, “and knew somehow that these thoughts weren’t something to share with her, even though we were close. I think I understood then that there would always be things about me that were mine and mine alone, utterly private.” Nor does the realization last. “Looking back, it seems clear that it was then that I began to develop an inner life,” she continues. “But I underwent no obvious transformation. I’m quite sure that just minutes later, I ran outside to join my brother’s softball game and didn’t give it a second thought. Still, some ineffable presence called ‘me’ took up residence inside my being. It was as if my Self, planted in infancy and taking root in childhood, had sent up its first tender young shoot.”
Not surprisingly, such awakenings usually happen when we are alone. Mine took place on early spring afternoon as I was walking home from school. There was a maple tree on my block. I passed it everyday, but on this day, it caught my attention more than usual, and I reached up to grab one of its leaves. Turning it in my hands, I suddenly noticed the contrast between its shape, texture, and vivid green color and every other thing around it – the spindly brown branch from which it emerged, the pale, smooth concrete sidewalk below my hand, and most of all, the soft, pink flesh of myself. I remember feeling the leaf’s aliveness, and suddenly feeling alive to myself as I never had before, part of some great, mysterious energy that also animated whoever “I” was. Of course, I could not have articulated any of these ideas at the time. Still, the impact of that moment endured as a memory, one that retained the sweet trace of promise—of the self I would become.
From my countless discussions and interviews with women, I have come to believe that in this moment of awareness—our intuition that the kernel of our potentiality lies within—is one of childhood’s greatest offerings. It is a moment of pure communion with our private, true self that may not come again for a long time. The world closes around us again all too quickly for this experience to last.
THIS REVELATION DOES not arrive without some anxiety. For all the joyousness in Alexandra Bloom’s newfound awareness, she also remembers “feeling different from the other kids.” It was as if graced by specialness one moment, Alexandra feels herself fall from grace the next. The collaboration between sameness and difference—first with our parents and then with other people—continues throughout our lives. Our perception of difference is inevitably followed by a stern reminder of our inherent separation from all other beings: Yes I am me. And yet, the moment I celebrate my uniqueness, I feel my separation from others: I am reminded that not only am I in relationship with others, I am also alone.