A picture of nick nacks on a table

I gripped my No. 2 pencil. I rotated it in my adolescent hand, noticing how sharp the edges of the slick, bright yellow shape were. I loved shifting the pencil from edge to flat to edge. I was stalling. 

I checked and rechecked that the point was sharp. It wasn’t as sharp as I would have liked, but it would do. 

I nervously looked from side to side. Then, I remembered I wasn’t supposed to do that in moments like this. I didn’t want to appear as if I was looking on someone else’s paper. I checked the “No. 2” size marking on the pencil again. I always found it so reassuring to see that number, solace that I wouldn’t have to do a re-test for using the wrong type of pencil.

My paper was grayish white on my desk, almost the color of newspaper, and thin enough that I thought I might rip it if I pressed too hard with my pencil. I scanned the first pages again, the ones on where I was supposed to identify who I was by choosing a box. The pages on which I had to sum myself up and fit into just one category. I wondered why there were so few boxes for so many different humans.

My dad’s deep voice, with his Spanish accent and our mix of Spanish and English, rang through my little ears. He would say, “Choose ‘Other.’”

“Choose ‘Other” was something he would often tell us when it came to defining ourselves in these sorts of situations. It was important. It was imperative to not be limited by the options provided to define our identities if it didn’t feel congruent to who we were.

It was imperative to not be limited by the options provided to define our identities if it didn’t feel congruent to who we were.

But I was nervous. You see, I am a people pleaser in constant recovery. It felt scandalous to me to choose “Other” as a child. I felt as though when presented with the options to define myself, I should comply with one of the boxes with a name. It felt almost as if it would be rude not to comply with who people were telling me I could be or a list I could choose from.

Don’t we often consider more the people giving us the box rather than our own experience or identification within a box? 

Don’t we often consider more the people giving us the box rather than our own experience or identification within a box? 

I find myself as an adult still having to remind myself that I do not have to choose from the real or perceived boxes in my life. I don’t have to be a certain way because I am also a mother. I don’t have to check a certain box or behave in a prescribed way because I am a woman. I don’t have to identify with or even agree with the way I am told to express my faith or spirituality. 

People might try to box you in. You might feel the need to simplify yourself to one box or another, but we are rarely, if ever, that simple. All the boxes may fit, not just one. Perhaps, none of the boxes fit you. There may not be a box to check and that is a wonderful thing. 

I wonder if maybe you have ever felt like you needed to choose who you are based on other people’s definitions of you. I wonder if you have ever felt as if the choices they lay before youof who you are, who you can be and who you can becomeare in their hands, not yours. We so often learn about our identity by what is reflected back to us, by what we are told we can be or who we see. 

Sometimes, this is good, and sometimes, this is wrong or at the very least inaccurate. I can find myself wrestling with compliance when it comes to defining my cultural identity, when it comes to expressing my faith, when it comes to being a mom and even as a practicing therapist and a writer. 

We often create boxes based solely on what we see. If we have never seen it before, it can be tempting to think it shouldn’t exist. However, it is possible that the boxes for you have not been made yet. It is OK to choose “Other,” to choose none, to choose all or to make your own box. As you make your own category, you may find that your courage is making space for someone else who is watching you.

As you make your own category, you may find that your courage is making space for someone else who is watching you.

Back at that desk as a child with my No. 2 pencil, I checked and rechecked the box to make sure it was correct as my little stomach flipped with butterflies. Finally, I settled in. I settled in to choosing “Other,” and it felt really good. It felt really freeing.

Let yourself be surprised as you choose what is truly authentic for you. You don’t need to be what or who anyone expected you to be to call it good.

Have you ever felt limited by the boxes society has created? Why do you think boxes or categories are created for people?

Image via Chaunté Vaughn, Darling Issue No. 16

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