Last semester, I took a course on personal branding that re-introduced me to the term gestalt. According to Merriam Webster, gestalt is defined as “something that is made of many parts, yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts.” As confusing as that sounds, it deeply hit home. Taking a course on personal branding was the first step to understanding that I needed to make a change in the way I represented myself to others.
Throughout my life, I resisted the idea of merging different parts of my life. I had school friends, ballet friends, neighbors, cousins, aunts, uncles, teachers, etc. Rarely did these groups overlap, and to be honest, I liked it that way. Actually, I loved it. To be able to compartmentalize my life whenever I saw fit was a great way of balancing its many aspects.
My family dynamic differed from those of many of my peers at school. I had a young, single mother. There was no traditional “mom” and “dad” scenario. However, my maternal grandparents played a tremendous role in raising me, so it was almost as if I had two married parents. And I had two maternal grandmothers—one is my mother’s mother and the other is my mother’s step-mother. You see how this gets confusing?
From a young age, I remember explaining my family situation countless times to my peers. It was exhausting, especially when the majority of them could not relate at all. I also remember not wanting anyone to pity me because of my familial situation. I was taken care of, and that’s what mattered. I never wanted anyone to attribute my accomplishments or failures to that aspect of my life, or to be easier on me because I was a minority with less privilege. Although attending a private all-girls Catholic school was in my best interest academically, it did not expose me to many others like myself. Most of my classmates came from upper-middle class families with two parents. As children, these differences were not as apparent, but they became more obvious with age.
Growing up as a black girl surrounded by white peers, my biggest fear was falling into a stereotype. The media depicts the stereotypical black family as a single-mother who is usually heavily assisted by the grandmother. In my head, my situation was extremely similar, and the last thing I wanted was to be a statistic. I believe this is a large part of why I separated my family life from my friends. That way, there was very little information for people to make assumptions about me. I could shape how people saw me, rather than allowing them to view me differently based on superficial factors like my race. There is also something intriguing about people knowing very little about me.
The most important and, possibly, unfortunate, part of my former lifestyle is that there were many things my friends knew about me that my family did not, which became frustrating. It’s all fun and games when your friends find you mysterious, but when your family doesn’t know the key qualities that make you who you are, it is alarming. Home is where you are supposed to feel the safest and the most comfortable, but it was often the opposite for me. At times, I felt like I was walking on eggshells, making sure I didn’t mention something I did that might be considered “bad,” not speaking the way I usually spoke because it was “not like me,” or limiting conversation in fear that parts of my “other” personality might show. Around my family, I was very reserved and quick to hold my tongue. Around my friends, I was quite the opposite.
As the years passed, it became more difficult to separate my life in the way I previously did. It was fun in the beginning. I had the reserved, quiet Jenna at home while the outgoing, talkative, might-hurt-your-feelings-because-I-am-honest Jenna reigned among her friends. It was great. But slowly, I started allowing bits of myself overlap into other areas. My mother’s wedding in the summer of 2016 was the turning point. Surrounded by good music, food, and a dance floor, I couldn’t resist showing my more outgoing side. Soon enough, I was in the middle of the floor, slightly embarrassing myself, while my family members encircled me in awe. I remember my uncle saying: “Jenna done went to college and…” Although I don’t remember his exact words, I remember it was funny to me. He really believed I was acting that way because of college when that was far from the truth. I was acting that way because it was me. It was a part of who I am—a side that I had hidden from them for far too long.
Coming to Cornell, a place where no one knew me, I had the chance to stop this cycle. Therefore, I came solely as the Jenna that my friends from home knew: talkative, happy, and always ready to have fun. Because I was so far from home and my family, I had forgotten about the double life I usually lived. I no longer worried about the possible crossover of friends and family. It was blissful. My friendships at Cornell developed based off the side of myself that I considered my “true” self. Cornell was my eggshell-free home where I felt most comfortable.
Then, something changed. Whether it was a priority shift, changes within my friend group, or stress, I became exhausted with the person I came to Cornell as. I became withdrawn, shy, and disinterested in things I previously enjoyed. I rarely went out, disconnected from friendships, and even started going out of my way to avoid speaking to or seeing people I knew. I no longer recognized this version of myself, and neither did my friends.
I realized that shift was a result of the lack of balance between my two lives. Maintaining what I believed was my “true self” became burdensome because it missed important aspects of my other self, which addressed more personal issues. My Cornell friends knew the basics of my life, but they didn’t know many things that explain the reasoning behind my actions. Like, why I am never excited to go home, because I love my newfound freedom at school. Or why I am so attached to my friends, because they are the siblings I never had. Or why I am easily annoyed, because I am used to having my own space as an only child. The list goes on. The benefits of my double lifestyle were quickly dwindling.
After returning home this winter break, the signs were still there. During a long drive with my grandmother, there was a moment of silence. It was broken by a question she asked me—a question I had not asked myself since my first revelation at Cornell. She said, “Jenna, you smile a lot, but are you really happy?” At that moment, I knew I had lost the ability to separate my two selves. Not only has this façade caused unnecessary stress, but I no longer have the desire to maintain it. My friends and family both noticed a difference in me. Something needed to change.
Undoubtedly, my double life served me well in my childhood and even up to high school. However, the mental and emotional effort it takes for me to hide things about myself could’ve been put towards being open with my loved ones. I want my family to know my friends and vice versa. But most importantly, I want my friends and family to know me. Not what I want them to know about me, but me and all the quirks that come with knowing me. It won’t be easy, and there will be some drawbacks, especially from being open with my family. Moving forward, I challenge myself to embrace my two sides and to become a transparent friend, daughter, niece, and more: a person that I should have been years ago.
Cornell University '19