Learning Who You Are

We reveal ourselves to ourselves by our actions more than our words. That is, if we choose to observe. Not all of us do and none of us look all the time. Instead, we disguise ourselves to ourselves, perhaps as much or more than we do with others.

Maya Angelou said, “When someone (else) shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Yet we often fail to accept the behavioral evidence of our essence. The reality is there, waiting in plain sight, waiting as long as we take.

A dream summoned such a truth-telling college moment not thought of in decades. My grandson’s recent fascination with battling dinosaurs served as a backdrop, too; the kind of metaphorical identification a man my age discovers in those extinct beasts.

Evanston, Illinois, around 1967.

My buddy Alan invited me to join him at a friend’s apartment. Alan knew M fairly well. The latter would create the circumstances for revelation.

He lived in a modest abode typical of university students. Unmatched furniture, well-worn area rugs, a clean but not spotless space. M, himself, was more imposing: perhaps six-feet-tall, strapping arms hanging from broad chest and shoulders. Overall an impression of hearty, radiating physical strength, but also apparent good cheer.

The clock did not threaten. No school the next day. The three of us laughed a lot and we drank. This small group formed a rough triangle sitting on the floor a few feet from each other.

I do not recall what brought me M’s displeasure. An idle comment? No matter, he was pissed. The M of robust build. The M who overmatched me by maybe 40 lbs. of muscle and loads of menacing intensity.

The formerly amiable fellow wanted my apology, demanded it.

I tried to explain what I meant by the unfortunate utterance, misaligned with the meaning M took from my words.

M insisted again, fueled by his liberal ingestion of alcohol, he more than me.

I repeated the attempt to find the right nuance, the right cover; terms reflective of what I intended, not what he understood from my language. Back and forth, back and forth we went.

M warned of the cost of my continued failure to give him satisfaction. My teeth were now in danger of disassembly, rearrangement, and extraction by a non-licensed dentist of sorts — who was out of sorts. A man whose fisted hands resembled mallet heads, like crude surgical instruments powered by entwined steel cables extending from his shoulders.

Now you recognize why my grandson’s recent fascination with smashing toy dinosaurs together evoked this memory.

Being a reasonable young man, knowing myself no match for M in brawn and recklessness, you might imagine I capitulated: gave him the confession he stipulated in whatever words the bloke preferred.

You’d think so.

I didn’t.

I could tell you my intransigence was a matter of pure principle, since I want to think myself a principled person.

I could say I was brave, but a lofty philosophical stance and courage don’t explain my noncompliance.

Rather, I couldn’t do what he asked. It wasn’t in me.

This is the way I am made. I take no extravagant credit for it most of the time. It’s kind of similar to being almost 5’9″ — my height then and now — an unchangeable thing. Like the length of my human fabric, the behavior was fixed. I wasn’t made to apologize for a statement I didn’t regret.

If my child’s life were at risk, I’d have been flexible. My children were then not even a twinkle in my eye.

Fighting for a principle over nothing of importance is, I might argue, foolish. Masochistic, too. No careful reasoning prepared me for the moment, nor did time permit.

Longtime friends witnessed many changes in me, qualities I worked to alter, insecurities and fears among them. Not everything is amenable to transformation, however. In fairness, I never wished to lose the capacity just described once I found it. While this peculiar talent can manifest in the ill-advised form presented here, it appealed enough to my self-concept to retain it, consistent with who I wanted to be.

Thus, in a situation recommending a different way of being I revealed to myself who I was. But two other players took part in the drama, don’t forget. They also disclosed themselves, one in a manner far more commendable than anything I did or didn’t do.

Let’s go first to my antagonist, M. The host betrayed himself as a belligerent drunk. To fact-check this, a few days ago I talked with Alan (my companion in this adventure) and Harmon, someone who knew M longer than Alan; also a precious old friend to me, but not present at the drink-a-thon. By graduation neither one wanted anything to do with M because of his growing addiction and the anger it stoked.

On to Alan. The final member of our ill-matched triumvirate showed an admirable quality as rare as it was necessary to me.

As M’s rage moved toward climax, Alan said something to him designed to stay the impending explosion.

Alan was not M’s physical equal. Though the tallest fellow in the room, my friend is slight and unathletic; a man at home with books and Bach, not fist fights.

The back and forth shifted in Alan’s direction. At some point one of them hit the other, on the shoulder I’m guessing since I can no longer remember, and the other returned the blow.

To my surprise and relief the rising column of red in M’s eyes, like a thermometer’s mercury, started to fall. We left soon after, with all our body parts still attached. I’m pretty sure I thanked Alan as I drove him back to his place, but did so again this week. M could have dismantled him instead of me.

This comrade of more than 50-years told me he recalled feeling responsible for putting me in the situation. Not everyone risks his own body as he did.

Alan revealed himself.

Had my ally not intervened, whatever number of teeth I put under my pillow at day’s end would not have earned compensation from the Tooth Fairy.

She, I’m sure, doesn’t reward anyone of college age who should have known better.


The top reproduction is Paul Klee’s The Bounds of Intellect. The next three are Egon Schiele’s Self-portrait (1916), the Seated Boy, and his Self-portrait in a Shirt. Finally, Paul Klee’s Battle Scene from the Comic, Fantastic Opera, “The Seafarer” and Joan Miro’s The Escape Ladder.

28 thoughts on “Learning Who You Are

  1. Ouch! Was that typical of the late 60s? Drinking with an angry drunk is no fun. Glad you stuck to your principles and avoided a physical fight.

    I once had a friend who got angry at me for not calling her back within a few hours of her message. She insisted that I was mad at her, which I was not. She was no drunk, but she sure got angry for something I did not do. Unfortunately, I caved and apologized. But that pattern of hers grew worse and worse the more I tried to befriend her. Inevitably, I had to block her from calling me, and I moved. She frightened me like a horror show would. I thought an abusive ex was bad, but what she did to me was pure psychological warfare in my eyes. No matter what efforts I made, it led to her nearly stalking and demanding my time. Thankfully, it has been about 15 years since that happened. I am now leery about certain personality types or scenarios. And I have learned to stand my ground and state my boundaries. Still, I tend to cave when I truly care for the person. But repeated abuse lets me know that I waited too long to assert my boundaries, and that I should not cave in anymore. I am a sucker for those who need sympathy, empathy, mirroring, and dare I say narcissistic supply. I am sick of being the narcissistic supply for someone else. I want and desire true reciprocal friendships or at least well respected acquaintences. I have found plenty of friends, some close and some surface. But there were a few toxic ones in the midst.

    I am no angel, as I have my own flaws to work on, but I will admit my flaws. I cannot say that everyone can.

    I am glad you had a friend who recalled that experiene of M. It sounds like it was a tough time back then. Thank you for sharing, Dr. S.


    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, GLB. My story could have been told in terms of M’s need for narcissistic supply or emphasized my own foolish obstinance more than I did, but it was indeed a time of discovery of a quality, until that episode, I didn’t know I had. And learned what a good and brave friend I had. As to stating your boundaries, they will be tested even by little children, so what we do counts for more than what we say we will do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is great that you see the positive in that hard time: the discovery of a quality. I think I see more of my flaws than I do my qualities. I may complain about narcissistic supplying, but there have been times when I can be quite narcissistic. I know this, I try to work on that, but sometimes I become too consumed to want to change at that moment. Sometimes I am too afraid to admit or apologize when it is mixed with misunderstanding and a fear of retaliation or persecution. I recently demanded an apology from someone I once admired, though I was not drunk. I was deeply hurt and knew from role playing in therapy recently that the man did cause emotional harm to me, both intentional and unintentional. I wished this was not true, as I wanted to believe the good. But years went by as I allowed the abuse to continue. I believed in a lie – his lie. I should have just left. But I stayed in hopes that he could understand me, and that I could understand him. I hoped for longevity of sorts, even from a distance. And this was not even a romantic relationship. I emailed a lot, in hopes of answers, perhaps unconsciously wanting to fulfill my own narcissistic need after having given him his narcissistic supply without any reciprocity. It became all about him and less about me; I felt as if I were being used, and as if I were his target for projective revenge against someone else from his past. I have often wondered if narcissistic abuse in any stage of life brings about narcissism in victims, thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse, or confirming the victim-turned-offender theory.

        Anyway, it is good to know that we can learn about ourselves in the present or while looking at the past. What a coming of age, and a rediscovery.

        I say a lot but have difficulty living up to my words. I can admit that. I have no clue about being a parent, even though I am a birthmom who will always love my daughter. I hipe I can say and do right for her, even if I was too crippled to raise her. I will never minimize her loss, at least that is my intent, but my actions have to reflect that. I hope she knows I am sorry when I profusely tell her. And I hope she knows that I would do anything to make sure she is happy, healthy, and safe. I think about that on Mother’s Day. And I consider all my flaws.

        I have no idea how children test you, but I can imagine.


      • Hmm. I wonder what you would be like as a Marine, Dr. S. You do have excellent judgment, and you were brave.


      • drgeraldstein

        I am sure I would be the world’s most unlikely Marine! While I appreciate your kudos, I was never drawn in that direction and, I’m sure, the Marines have been better off for it. Hat’s off, though, to you, the real soldier here.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am not a real soldier. I never served in combat, and I am only service-connected disabled because of military sexual trauma. I was in for only 10 months, not having served any tours, though they did put me to work on administrative duties. My MOS was supposed to be air traffic control or some other version of air support (not a pilot, but support only). I also had a broken pelvic bone, which prevented me to this day from ever running or jogging long distances, though I can walk (with pain). I truly believe, however, that I would have fought bravely had I not been betrayed by my own Marine brothers. How can one serve amicably and courageously when they cannot even trust their own military family? I was willing to fight to the death, if need be. It was not the same as suicidal ideation or a death wish, but rather a patriotic stance and military readiness that, like police training, help soldiers to fight for our country while also trying to make it home to tell the tale. You are prepared to fight for the lives of others in our country, and the core (also Corps’) values include standing up for principles we were trained to believe in and honor to the day we inevitably die. Suicide should never be an option, but service to do whatever it takes to fight heroically for something that you believe in is well worth the risk to your own safety when you consider the safety you will be providing to others. Healthy narcissistic pride wins over unhealthy and selfish narcissistic supply requests. And even then, for civilians, it is their right to be safe, leave a situation that is unsafe, because those who are fit and ready for duty (in service or in law enforcement) are there to offer you that safety and stand up for common principles. Your friend was brave, but so, too, were you. When the odds of losing a physical fight pale in comparison to winning a fight based on principles, safety becomes only an altruistic issue for the loved ones you are protecting. However, even then, those who are wise enough to know when to fight another day and in a different (perhaps non-physical) way because your own safety means you have more to offer this world in terms of positive change or even defense (such as those who choose helping professions like psychology). Even then, selecting your own safety over the risk of losing it is brave because you yourself are as valuable as every other person. There are some who are called to risky yet heroic jobs, but there are others who are not. Those who are not risky (those who protect their own safety) are equally as important as those who are soldiers or police officers. The problem of cowardice only occurs when your inactions harm others, but even then, there are exceptions to the rule, such as when a wife is battered but she has lost all mental and physical capacities to protect her children from the father’s abuse (a highly controversial scenario that varies across jurisdictions). You were brave to stick to your principles and learn more about yourself and others in the process. I am sure that and other life experiences helped you to be a very great psychologist, another heroic position in this world.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. drgeraldstein

    Yes, I think a narcissistic parent, in particular, serves both as a model and creates (by not satisfying the child’s emotional needs) a thirst in the child to search for someone who can.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Joan Chandler

    I think your grandson recognizes that there is some dinosaur in all of us. Or, maybe he understands that he’s better off if he lets them do the fighting.


  4. I do love that quote – about believing people when they show us who they are. It’s a constant learning curve for me though because I default to being apologetic for my existence and presuming everyone is more worthy than me. I want to change and am working on that. Constantly bringing my attention back, with curiosity, to what people’s behaviour and actions actually tell me about who they are rather than what my mind tells me I want them to be. I enjoyed reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Much appreciated, Lucy. Sounds like you are hanging in there. The game isn’t over.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I do the same thing, Lucy; I tend to be apologetic for my existence. I also tend to take the blame when certain things are not my fault. I try to compensate for those things whenever I use positive affirmations, but then I run the perceived risk of becoming narcissistic. I have no idea what the answer is, but it seems that Dr. Stein’s example provides a solution – to be curious about who we are in certain circumstances, and to be curious about the other person involved in that circumstance. I, too, want to change and am in the process. I also want to make better choices concerning relationships: finding people who are healthy and balanced and limiting my time with those who are not (or, if truly toxic, severing the relationship). A relationship is about give and take, understanding one another and the self. We must work hard at giving to ourselves that which we also give to others, such as understanding that our existence, lives, and health are important. In a toxic situation, the other will want to be in power all the time, or demand things that are not aligned with your core values. We can have differences in values without demanding that the other change, but it becomes unhealthy when those differences include bad behaviors like addiction, illegal activity, unethical behavior, or downright violent. As a survivor, it is challenging for me to trust not only others but myself. It is sometines difficult to discern who we are and who the other person is.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. drgeraldstein

    Yes, there is much wisdom in your second sentence! I got lucky. Thanks, Joan.


  6. You displayed a physical courage you did not know you possessed of which you are justly proud. I am reminded of a story of Sigmund Freud. While walking Freud’s father was confronted by an anti-Semite who demanded he, as a Jew, walk in the gutter, rather than on the sidewalk. His father, to Freud’s everlasting shame, complied. An example of cowardice? Probably. Or if his father knew he would be beaten, maybe survival was the better part of valor?
    Another interesting, thought provoking piece. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      You are welcome Harvey and thank you! As I think I’ve written before, you are on a very short list of people I’d go to if I wanted to make a press release. Thanks, too, for the Freud anecdote. In such situations as his father faced, a “right” answer perhaps does not exist.


  7. Your opening statement is so true, Dr. Stein: “We reveal ourselves to ourselves by our actions more than our words.” Just yesterday, my son brought to my attention one of my habitual actions. Without making excuses or dismissing his remarks, I considered my behavior. Should I change a character trait that makes up who I am because others may perceive it as a weakness?

    As you’ve demonstrated by your encounter with M back in 1967, there are aspects of our behavior that could, under some circumstances, compromise our personal safety. I suppose, it remains up to each individual to decide what accepted principles serve us as individuals within our given space in society. We also have to consider the risk we pose to others–as in your case with your friend Alan–in standing firm to our principles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Rosaliene. With respect to your question about whether to change a character trait, it is at least interesting to look at both what we “get” out of such traits and, what it “costs us.” That said, some traits are like those walls in a house that, if removed, cause the entire structure to collapse.


  8. I really need to think about this, thank you…..I believe so few people, about me, apart from the negative internalised voice I shouldn’t believe….I don’t really know how to be persuaded, but I need to find a way……thank you for writing so thought provokingly…..


  9. drgeraldstein

    More questions to consider. Why do those people who like you actually like you? Is every one being kind or diplomatic? Are they all lying?

    Liked by 1 person

    • They could be deluding themselves 😉 no, I know that’s not true….it’s just that I have a related, fundamental problem – being able to allow my own true perception, or others’ to carry more weight than that other. voice. It is enormously powerful programming – that voice that said no one would ever care about me in the way she claimed to . I don’t know how to overcome it


      • drgeraldstein

        You’ve probably discussed this with your therapist, but here is another thought. What would your life be like if you didn’t reject your own value? Would you have to make radical and dangerous changes? Would you have major regret or rage at having waited and suffered until now and at those who diminished you? No need to answer or even consider these questions.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I am glad you are still blogging. I enjoy reading your articles.


  11. I have difficulty with belligerent drunks….dealt with many in my own personal life and on the job. From my own work experience I learned to become stoic, not argue, redirect, and extricate myself from the situation, but it took a lot of experience, which is something a 20 year old does not have. Glad you survived the menacing bully.


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