Knowing Myself from Within and Without

Philosopher M.M. Bahktin wrote, “Fragments of my outward expressedness in being become part of me only through inner experiences that correspond to them.”

Bahktin goes on to say, “Any fragment of my body given from the outside must be experienced or ‘lived through’ by me from within myself, and it is only through this experiencing from within that it can be rendered part of myself, part of my once occurrent unity.”

I am not sure if I can explain this as to someone who may or may not have actually experienced it, because I had no real comprehension of it in realizing a memory or my identity as in two parts, so to speak, until the year before last.

I come from a physically, psychologically, and sexually abusive family with which I lived a very secluded life. When you grow up in that sort of situation from within the core family, it is even more so than usual that as Bahktin says parents shape a child’s “inner sensation of himself, giving it a form and a name in which, for the first time, he finds himself and becomes aware of himself as something.” My parents shaped my inner awareness by making the life I lived at home under those conditions my norm and by making me merely an object of no value except what they could gain from me my norm. Early on I started down a path I still have trouble veering from that I am only as valuable as what I can do or produce. This is my original identity—the lens through which I saw life except, by God’s grace, a tendency to think of others in ways I could help and not hurt.

The sexual abuse in particular I compartmentalized. There was the action done to me, and locked away until a couple years ago was the experience, the feeling(s) of it. Bahktin writes, “Any fragment of my body given from outside must be experienced or ‘lived through’ by me from within myself, and it is only through this experiencing rendered part of myself, part of my once occurrent unity.”

When I was 23, I pressed charges against my father, and when I wrote my statement it was very neat and tidy and very factual, and when severe depression forced me at age 30 to face the abuse acted on me, I continued, unaware that I was compartmentalizing, to remain either quiet or factual about it. For about eleven years I was in therapy most of that time without much headway it seemed. My relaying the abuse was as Bahktin writes, “mere play or degenerates into mere gesture” (46). It wasn’t until in giving myself over to a healthy grieving for what I had gone through that I had the breakthrough in which the horror, revulsion, and other inward expressions of my memory that even as a child I protected myself unawares impressed themselves upon me. That I was realizing a part of myself that I denied was evidence by for the first time in my life experiencing PTSD.

Compartmentalizing myself from that inward expression also affected my identity in other areas of my life. Compartmentalizing or shutting out the feeling and feelings is my go to for traumatic experiences. One example among many is when December 4, 2017, as I walked from class, I stumbled on a curb and broke both ankles and a leg. In one sense I knew it hurt like the dickens, pretty much at the top with most painful things to occur to me, but instead of realizing this was a traumatic event that called for extraordinary help, I didn’t cry or cry out for that matter or become upset in any way. I continued to not really realize or internalize what all of it really meant to me as I calmly set up appointments for x-rays, etc. and drove myself to these appointments.

Truly, as Bahktin writes, “Focusing on one’s exterior in performing an action may even prove to be fatal: a force that destroys the action” (44). What I should have done is acknowledge the pain and the problem internally, so that I could make the right decision of being taken to the emergency room (in fact my first surgery was held up because I didn’t go to the emergency room, making my surgery elective! to them) and so it wouldn’t eventually manifest itself in depression.

So by compartmentalizing or only focusing on the outward action, so the “characterization of an external action … are never actualized in the action-performer’s consciousness, nor do they ever coincide with the inner truth of an action—its truth in respect to purpose and meaning” (Bahktin).

I lost the purpose and meaning of the abuse and the accident until I merged my inward experience with the outward action. I was like a compass without a magnetic north, spinning without a direction that could help resolve this split in my identity.

One of my professors said, “Much of identity is tied up with memory, and memory is not always reliable. There is this thing called denial, and this other thing called the unconscious. If we should ‘know ourselves,’ how do we do that?”

By compartmentalizing, I “deny” part of my identity, and I don’t fully know myself. As I sit here thinking about that, I think that probably everybody could do with some counseling of sorts from someone, that other person or perspective to have someone else help you explore your identity to find its whole. Bahktin writes, “My right to the loving acceptance or recognition descends upon me from others like a gift, like grace, which is incapable of being understood and founded from within myself” (49). It has taken counseling to help me work on decompartmentalizing parts of myself, to realize the things that make up my identity to have come from the trauma. I could not bring the two together, because I could not see myself from within. I didn’t know myself.

That same professor wrote, “If we are writing about the self in personal essays and memoir, if part of our ethics is to tell the truth, what are the issues related to telling the truth about our own identity?”

One of the issues I find from my own experience with trauma, is that we may not realize the whole truth of a memory. I realized the facts of my abuse and I realized the facts of breaking my ankles and leg, but I did not realize the true inward experience beyond the “gesture” or “action.” I sketched in pencil an outline of the picture, but I did not complete it by painting in the color and texture of it. I only tell part of the story of myself if I do not “know myself.”

Another issue is that by not completing some individual pictures, by not knowing myself, I tend to do so with other pictures or memories of myself. And from that grows a denial of part of who I am, the things that have shaped me overall, long term—the reasoning that leads me to see my value only in what I can do. Reasoning like this then shapes how other memories are formed or what memories I place value on. The ethics of this becomes how I cherry-pick which memories I include in a memoir—how I present myself to an audience. What is truly valuable in “knowing myself” is different from what I perceive as valuable if I do not “know myself.”

It is knowing when you actually do “know yourself” enough or in such a way that you can tell the truth about yourself and your memories.

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