Understanding the Smaller Parts of the Self

Even though identity is an allusive and ever-changing reality, identifying and categorizing our identity is one helpful way to learn who we are.

May 03, 2023

Understanding the Smaller Parts of the Self

Sometimes I’m caught off-guard by the moments I surprise myself. During a sudden bout of panic or an unexpectedly intense moment of hurt, I begin to question if I even know myself at all. In these moments, I often find myself thinking about Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Eleven.” A story published the year I was born, yet still incredibly relevant. Cisneros’ short story was one of the first, and what came to be my favorite, metaphors for understanding the layers of who I am that I continue to reflect on today: Identity as a mash-up of all the ages we’ve been and the corresponding experiences, knowledge, and changes we’ve undergone. Each of these elements and others I’ve learned over the years coalescing to form the person I am today.

Instead of melding and forming into one wholly solid structure, each portion of our identity is pieced together like a conglomerate rock (appropriately also my favorite type of rock). I love the idea that identity is an assortment of experiences, values, roles, and connections that has caused traumas, joys, sadnesses, anxieties, and other formational and foundational moments. In psychology, “compartmentalization” is a negative coping mechanism where one ignores or tries to forget certain events, thoughts or beliefs to avoid mental or emotional discomfort. Compartmentalization is pretty common; it’s often the things we choose not to think about, such as trying not to think about work after hours or the painful argument you had with your partner. However, like some writers use outlines to write and revise their novels, I see self-compartmentalization as a method to break down the overwhelming and allusive tome of the self into smaller, manageable pieces. Ultimately, identifying and sorting my identity helps me better understand who I am as a whole. 

There are many examples of this form of self-compartmentalization. In Cisneros’ short story “Eleven,” identity is categorized by the main character Rachel’s age. In Luiz Schwarcz’s memoir, The Absent Moon, it is the way those around him see Luiz. Whether it’s Luizinho (Little Luiz), Luizão (Big Luiz), or just Luiz, his identity is formed by the perception others have of him, and these perceptions have instilled certain behaviors and beliefs about himself. In the Pixar movie, Inside Out, the main character Riley’s identity is compartmentalized by the effects of her emotions. In life coaching, many coaches begin by identifying priorities based on social roles, like personal, family, work, and others. Depending on the lens we’re using to dissect and analyze our identity, we can discover or understand ourselves in subtlety or drastically different lights.

My default lens to dissect who I am is momentous experiences. The moments in my life that have changed me significantly. I frequently reflect on how these moments altered me so severely there is a distinct line between who I was before and who I became after. One of these moments is the death of my dad. There is a substantial difference between Allyson B.D. (before my father’s death) and Allyson A.D. (after my father’s death). Sometimes I’m not sure whether I became an entirely different person or if my dad’s death helped me become more myself. There’s this ever-present tension between my thankfulness for who I’ve become and the fact I am who I am today because my father’s gone. Even though I would give anything to have my dad back for even a paltry 20 minutes, I wouldn’t change who I am—but I am constantly trying to be better than I was, which is another conflicting identity space.

Although our identity begins to stabilize as adults, we continue to grow and change. There is less variance in the change our identities undergo as we get older, yet there is flux nonetheless. Self-discovery is an endless process, and I’m thankful for the writers I’ve read and for the writers I will read who give me language to understand who I am. 

Sandra Cisneros’ novel The House on Mango Street, another incredibly influential book in my life, and so many other titles are on banned and challenged book lists. There is nothing quite as powerful or enduring as stories. If a book has changed your life, advocate for those and every other book because you never know what story will help someone better understand who they are, see themselves for the first time, overcome a challenging moment in their life, and possibly save their life.