I've always had a strong sense of self. I daresay that I had a level of self-awareness as a 5 year old that most people don't develop until they are in their 50s. Some would call being an "old soul" or wise beyond your years. It is generally considered to be a good thing. And from an outsiders point of view, I can recognize how that could appear to be the case. But, of course the reality is far more complex.
There is a certain level of of cognitive dissonance that occurs when you know what feels right to you, yet, lack the agency to move about the world as you wish. And not just due to poverty or other social conditions; although, these can surely play a large part. But I am speaking specifically about your sense of ipseity being so rebutted by others, that any action you make is perceived as a threat in the larger world. As an act of war. So, you avoid acting in ways that that you are certain would be in your own best interest. When you step out into the world and say, "This is who I am." But the world looks at you askance and shouts, "No actually, it is not. Be this instead."
For me this has manifested in different ways. As I child, I felt beholden on to my parents. Trapped in an invisible cloud of forced gratitude for the fact that I took breath. This gratitude was meant to overrule any sense of neglect I felt, or emotional abuse I suffered. Material gifts that I never asked for or need were provided to anesthetize any sense of disquiet I felt.
But there is no amount of material wealth that can make up for being fed someone else's guilt and frustration because life hadn't turned out the way they hoped. And from a young age, I was highly aware that anything given to me had to be paid back eventually triple-fold. Anything less would be a sign of ingratitude for all had been suffered to give me life. So, the more I acquired, the more helpless I became toward a debt that I could never pay back.
As an adolescent, I attended a boarding school and found myself underneath a new authoritative system that was less personal and more institutional. I never really rebelled the way others did, but I learned a harder, more difficult lesson instead. I learned what would happened to me in the larger world if I dared to speak my mind about what I perceived to be injustice. It was made clear to me that I was not truly welcome in this space as an equal. Instead I was there to give someone else a well-rounded experience. And in the meantime I was meant to be saved, rescued and reshaped into the image perceived as best by those at the helm.
But I had no interested in being saved or treated like some sort of project. I knew who I was. I liked who I was and I was highly resistant and even offended by the idea that I needed to change in order to be acceptable.
Being put again in a situation where I had little control of my life, cognitive dissonance gained an even stronger foothold. I had no agency to truly resist and challenge my detractors in any significant way. And my anger and frustration at being constantly told that something was wrong with me, led me to swallow my feelings. With the anger burning down my throat, I resisted in the only way that I could--by hurting myself. I destroyed myself so that there would be nothing else too fix, nothing left to critique, nothing left to be molded into someone else's image.
My early adulthood was shaped by this. Since I had effectively imploded, I was no use to anyone, least of all to myself. As a result, I spent my first year of college in New Orleans eating Swiss Rolls and sleeping.
Eventually, I made it out and began to make something of myself. This generally meant listening to myself, yet again and recognizing that the choices that I have made for myself haven't always been the "right" ones. But at the same time, I've never been the type to look back and regret that I had refused to take someone's advice. I have never had the thought that if I had "just listened to [insert authority figure] that my life would have been greatly improved.
In fact, I have had the exact opposite experience. The only regrets that I have had in my life were when betrayed my own sense of self. When I ignored my own internal awareness of who I was and how I fit into the world in order to appear non-threatening to someone else. When I allowed others to decide what was best for me in order to avoid taking personal responsibility for myself.
But luckily, as I've aged, grown older, become wiser, I have realized that the only thing you can ever know for sure in this life, is yourself. And the best thing you can do in order to live the fullest most fulfilling life possible is to learn who you are and to act in accordance with that. Audrey Lorde said it most succinctly with this quote:
“If I didn't define myself for myself,
I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me
and eaten alive.”