Most of us have read, and talked, and thought about the things that have stood in the way of discovering and being whatever we really are. Family and cultural expectations, fear, shame, loneliness–it’s natural for us to want to blend in (or at least refrain from standing out) enough to get some feelings of belonging. Some people manage this for most or all of our lives. In doing so, we face a choice on a conscious or subconscious level: do we live with the constant awareness that we are something besides what we are pretending to be, or do we convince ourselves that we are something closer to what began as a pretense?
Years ago, I was deeply affected by a story about someone who made an irrevocable version of the first choice. It was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Perfect Mate” spoilers ahead). I’m going to tell it because it still affects me.
A woman named Kamala is being sent to an arranged marriage with the leader of another planet. The marriage is meant to cement peace between the two worlds, and no other bride will do because she is the first female of her kind to be born in over a century. She is what they call a Metamorph. This is someone with a psychic quality of becoming whatever the male she is with desires, not physically but in personality.
An immature Metamorph responds to and changes for any male she is with. Kamala is in this state at the beginning of the story, but when she forms a full bond with a male her personality will be permanently “set” to respond only to what he wants. She’s expected to do this when she meets her future husband, of course.
There’s only one problem–she spends a lot of time with Captain Picard on the voyage. When “being” his ideal woman (and, of course, causing him a great deal of frustration) she is articulate, thoughtful, independent, loves reading and intellectual pursuits–and she realizes she really likes this version of herself. She also knows that the woman she will become after bonding bears little resemblance to this one.
On the night before her wedding, Kamala makes a choice. She bonds with Captain Picard, a man she knows she cannot have, and marries the man she has a duty to marry. She is still an empath and knows she can play the role, but on the inside she will always be something else.
Her situation was unique, but I still resonated with the idea: how important is it to me to be whatever it is I am? If I had her choice (which I don’t) to become, fully, someone who would be comfortable and natural in my circumstances, would I turn my back on a version of myself I found precious? Have I, unsuccessfully in the end, done that during parts of my life? Would I do it again if I had the ability?
How often did Kamala weep in her future life? Did she regret her choice, or did she think her secret inner life was worth it all? Did she find friends to whom she could show her secret self?
When we grow and change, those around us might stay the same. Or they might be growing, but in different directions. We become alien to them, and there’s a reaction on both sides. There’s a reason that recovery, or any big change, can destabilize marriages and family dynamics. Surveys of couples in which a chronically overweight person lost a lot of weight, for instance, report increased turbulence and insecurity in the marriage even if the weight had been a cause of dissatisfaction and both members had thought the marriage would get better with the change.
I’ve been a Metamorph for most of my life. Whether it was being a quiet kid, a tigress in bed or a compliant employee, I was almost always acting a role even if I didn’t know it. Some of this is inevitable; human communities will always have expectations and some of them are necessary for the survival of the community. If my “true self” were someone who found the deepest fulfillment in harming others, I’d probably be well advised to convince myself I’m another person.
But, for better or worse, me growing up seems to involve getting closer to a version of myself I can like when alone in my head. I find that there are serious consequences to trying to go the other direction–I can see, in concrete terms, how my anxiety and behavior fluctuate based on how authentic I am being. It’s pretty cut and dried for me these days: if I don’t want to go back to the pills, or go back up to 300 pounds, or join our dear ones who took their own lives in a more direct way, I have to face the potential judgment and rejection I fear. I have to live with loneliness, a loneliness my depression tries to tell me will be permanent.