Long before you’ve fully grasped that you end at your fingertips and a whole other world begins there, people have been looming over your cot persuading you that you’re a good girl/boy. By the time you are dimly aware of what this means you are probably also aware of the gap between their optimistic assertions and the reality as you understand it. Presumably nature is what determines whether you shrug and think ‘twits’, crawl into some internal dark hole or work your socks off to match the expectation. Although that expectation probably entails keeping your socks on, even if your feet are too hot and working your socks off is one of the few skills you’ve mastered.
I bought into several off the shelf good girl kits – you could get the whole deal from Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies, with general advice on sin and redemption from Tom’s experience and the correct model for perfect girlhood from Ellie. Enid Blyton helped a bit by widening the possibilities for a good girl – it was OK to not be an adorably helpless, Vaseline-lensed confection if you could jolly well take a joke (at your expense, naturally) and were prepared to at least have a go at whittling.
Gradually you accumulate more bolt-on bits of You. Rather like object oriented programming, you don’t have to write the whole script yourself, you just import the mini-programme you need. There are the fairly general ones (mostly prohibitions) that nearly all of us incorporate, like Don’t Be Rude. Then there are more specific ones for ‘knocking the corners off’ – ie, controlling you. I was force-fed Don’t Be Such A Clever Clogs and Don’t be a Cissy, so developed the knack of hiding both my light and my terror under bushels and other metaphorical crockery. Harder to deal with was the continued injunction from parents to be a Good Girl while my older brother urged me not to be such a Goody Goody, each on pain of withdrawal of approval.
That’s the nurture bit. Bastards.
We are all expected to import applets for special occasions – Interview Versatility, Party Sparkle, Funeral Gravitas perhaps – and we’re all victims of the media-cracy we have created. Everywhere we look we see that it is still a woman’s duty to be pretty and a man must be visibly potent. It is taken as read that you will strive towards these goals despite them being, to a great extent, beyond your control. Helpless non-conformism often provokes disapproval rather than sympathy – have you noticed the accusing way (even puny) men talk of plain women? And how (even plain) women sneer at puny men? Bastards.
So we’re supposed to construct ourselves in the image of the glossies on the outside, and for normal, workaday personality we’re encouraged to present ourselves as friendly, sincere (but not too earnest, please), anodynely good natured in a Radio 2 kind of way. And yet throughout all this we must, at all costs, still Be Ourselves. How we’re supposed to know who the hell that is beats me. Even if you think you know, you get nasty shocks quite frequently – catching yourself thinking or acting out of character or being described by someone else as quite other than you see yourself. Who is right? Or are they all facets of you?
Even though we share this society and these unwritten rules, we still mistake each other daily. If English (or Japanese, perhaps) is your first language then you will be aware that carefully cultivated (because demanded) self-control is often mistaken for indifference, a lack of emotion, even by those who similarly underplay their emotions. Slightly annoying for the misunderstood but, worse than this, each time mien or motives are questioned it sows a seed of doubt … am I genuinely lacking in feeling if I can hide it? Worse still, each time I manage to hold back potentially inappropriate effusion or tears, have I made myself slightly harder, less feeling?
And then there’s the whole mind-body, hormonal, emotional psychotropic shebang. So that what is true one day feels less so, or not at all, the next. Self sufficient, I will blithely call myself one day; happy in my own company, independent. The next, bereft, disconsolate, miserably kicking around the pebbles of my various pursuits in the echoing halls of a pointless existence (well, feeling a bit low ‘n’ lonely, anyway), I feel guiltily that I lied.
Like quantum spectating, observing people alters their behaviour … and, similarly, the internal self must be changed by the scrutiny of introspection. Finding yourself is not only a cliché but also an impossibility – you don’t exist as some immutable You under the layers of adaptation. You are the contradictory changes that have been wrought by experience and that you continue to work as you construct, interpret and present the most accurate version of you that you can manage.