Our Lives, Our Selves: On Integrating Multiple Personas

Ten years ago, I departed from a different life, a different “me.”  Sometimes I am struck with a shock of dislocation and ask myself, who was that woman, that girl, living in a house in Hollywood, driving to pitch meetings, developing screenplays with my screenwriting partner who was also my husband, who I met in college – the only life I knew existed, and could exist. I was staying put. That was the path I had chosen, and for years, even towards the crumbling end, I held tightly to that plan, regardless of the inner voice, the quiet little knock of the soul that over time began to feel more like thousands of them, like an internal impending earthquake.

At the time, no new path had materialized, no “better” life or tempting option beckoned. I had no idea that ten years later, I would be remarried at 40, to the love of my life whom I had met under the most serendipitous and unexpected circumstances, and living in an apartment on the Upper West Side, working in sales in advertising. I couldn’t imagine then that I would have written a novel, even though I always sensed I had a book in me, somewhere. Maybe that story wasn’t ready to be birthed; that narrative of my comingled selves, until I broke away and made a choice to veer off onto another path, a frighteningly undefined one, to find myself standing at the intersection of my own what-if paths. My novel, which I’ve recently completed and secured the book agent of my dreams for, while it’s fiction, in a way it charts my own what-if paths. And perhaps replays some elements of my former path.

What if we could explore different paths, different selves in a lifetime? What if we had the time to try on different personas, live in different cities with different jobs and partners, and play out different outcomes; see where each one ends up, and then pick the most favorable one? I explore this in my book. My protagonist – well, she gets to, lucky her. She gets to be in other people’s shoes, and gain the wisdom only time and experience can provide. However, we, “in real life,” constrained by that thing called being a mortal human, cannot. But maybe, there is a way – maybe our souls, if we listen closely enough and make choices that are aligned with our authentic selves, get to figure it out before time runs out.forkinroad

I’m in my forties, soon to be in my mid-forties (I still round down, conveniently “forgetting”). I have friends who are also in their forties, who are struggling with making changes, struggling with identifying who it is they really are, what they really want, and what their lives could and should (oh shut up “should”) look like. Some are understandably buried in fear and paralyzed from it. They long to make radical changes but are mired in their routine, in the self they had worked hard to brand and cultivate, the self that others paint them as. To shatter that – to come out with a new self, a new identity, is terrifying, because of what we believe others will think, because the self that we externalize that is reinforced every day by our jobs, our families, our lifestyle, has defined us until that moment of crisis where we’ve ceased to know who we are.

And yet, there isn’t only one singular self that is alive within us. We have multiple interests, yearnings, conflicting beliefs, friends who we surround ourselves with whose common life stages and aspirations mirror ours, until we find ourselves with new friends, who reflect where we have arrived, or are headed to. Can’t all those selves be integrated and coexist within us, even though sometimes one is lying fallow, and surfaces depending on circumstances, and choice?

In the 1976 volume The Identities of Persons, Amelie Rorty writes: “It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person. Here the stage is set for identity crises, for wondering who one really is, behind the multifold variety of actions and roles. And the search for that core person is not a matter of curiosity; it is a search for the principles by which choices are to be made.”

But how? How do we manifest this, how do we exhume the self that drives our choices? Way easier said than done. And surely I’m not in the position to make actionable suggestions or lean on some cheesy maxim of “this worked for me, you should try it.” My ex-husband and I didn’t have children. When I left him, and that life, I was only 34ish (ish refers to the emotional gauntlet I went through for five more years). I had, I have, a close knit and supportive family which made the abyss I leapt into more shallow, with cozy crevices. Many people don’t have that kind of support system, and yet, some incredible women I’ve had the privilege of befriending have started over without a net. They’ve made choices to change their lives, to honor their true selves, and have come out the other side (fear, trauma, and pain included).

As many of you know (and I’ve written about it:  Is Your Work Who You Are?), integrating our various personas, or the new sides of ourselves that emerge, takes constant work to reconcile. In my outward, daily life, I wear the hat of a businesswoman, a sales person who can sell ice to eskimos, an extrovert who can socialize with a bar stool if she has to. It’s been difficult to integrate that persona with my reclusive writer self, the spacy needs alone time me; a path I doggedly pursue as a storyteller and novelist, that runs along side my professional one. Sometimes the paths dovetail nicely, but most of the time, they diverge so drastically that one of them disappears. When that happens, I’m struck with a debilitating anxiety – a which “self” am I quandary. Sometimes one of the paths strays so far from my vantage point that it is as if it’s gone forever and I can’t get it back.

Until I do. With the inherent cycle of time, of doing, of living. Both selves coexist. Both selves are part of who I am. Perhaps they can’t be integrated fully at the same time, at the same moment, but I’ve zigzagged enough times to know that eventually, both are true. Both are me.

There are still moments when my old self appears, when that girl I was resurfaces to say hello, and rather than feeling intruded upon, and pushing her away, I say hello back. She appears when friends from my past, or old contacts from Hollywood, my film life, my film self, get in touch, or take interest in my novel or my new trajectory, that brings that former self into view. Perhaps that experience, that path, has been quietly running along side me now too, waiting for the right opportunity to merge back, for when I’m ready to see and embrace her. She doesn’t feel scorned, because I don’t scorn her. I don’t regret her existence.

It took ten years for me to welcome her back, ten years for me to see that she too has matured, and is welcome into my new life, my new self, my now self. If I let her.