It IS a phase, Mom!

Part meme, part plea, “It’s not a phase, Mom!” has circulated around the internet for over a decade and circulated around our culture for even longer. We all know the drill: any embarrassing past haircuts, any questionable fashion decisions, any cringeworthy photos or outdated taste in music and books must be relegated in due time to the shameful “phase” dumpster. No exceptions.
We’re all taught to treat such fleeting states of being with that light humorous contempt. Parents, when their child suddenly becomes obsessed with a new look or piece of media, always take pains to remind the child that they’re in a phase. Friends are expected to do the same for their friends, romantic partners for one another, and so on.
“I like this new thing,” somebody says to us.
“Sure,” we must reply, “but don’t forget that nothing lasts forever, and for that you should feel ashamed.”
It’s quite the conundrum we find ourselves in: we are aware that there are impermanent states of self, but at the same time are unable to embrace the impermanence. Bottom line: as a culture we’re so mortified by any sign that our personalities or interests have evolved that we bury them deep under layers of sarcasm and shame.
What’s so wrong with phases that we can’t look them in the eye? Sure, the haircut might not suit our current aesthetic, the clothes may be outdated or the music might no longer be to our taste, but so often we look fondly on the past and its little idiosyncrasies. Why, when it comes to what we love and where we choose to direct our affections, does our kindness for ourselves always fall short?
Inevitably, this has something to do with our societal allergy to change. It’s an aversion that grows ever stronger: culturally, we leave very little room for people to grow and move forward without intense scrutiny and ridicule. A bad person cannot do good things and a good person cannot do bad things. Everybody must stick to the labels we give them and we do not know how to process anything that stretches outside of the boundaries we delineate.
To call something a “phase” is to be dismissive of your past self and your own contentment. It is to pull a police line around your past, to deny any credit to the things that made you who you are today. When you were in that phase — emo phase, dance phase, Hemingway phase, baking phase, whatever — did it not bring you fulfillment in that moment? Did you not learn something new about yourself and how you want to live?
Even if a phase was a bona fide mistake — a futile attempt to please a crush or a deeply unflattering new look — there is, to me, no shame in owning it. In a world of Instagram filters, influencers and the commoditization of personalities, we write our own histories. Too often we choose — or are encouraged — to wipe our slates clean and present ourselves unblemished to the world, free of any missteps. We want to believe that we moved on a smooth linear path from where we were then to where we are now, implying that we will continue to do so. There are no speed bumps ahead of us. There are no potholes behind us. All is well in the land of make-believe.
There’s something deeper, something profoundly disturbing, in the way that we so viciously slash and burn our own pasts. It says something about our values, something about the way we approach life and teach others to do the same.
More often than not, I find myself lost in a well of embarrassment when I take a stroll through memory lane.It’s painful. It’s unhealthy. And if I can’t love — or at least accept — the person I was even two years ago, that is troubling indeed. It means that, two years from now, I will look back at my current self —a person I have actually come to like quite a bit — as nothing more than a phase, an embarrassment. It fills me with a sense of inescapable doom, the feeling that my read on myself is wrong. It makes me think that no matter how much progress I think I’ve made, I’ll always end up back here, groaning and blushing about my phases.
We are always changing into something new. We are not one thing, but a constantly-shifting being in a constantly-shifting vessel. Show me a permanent state of being. Show me anybody who has trod this earth without going through a single phase. It is nothing to be embarrassed about, and that is my new task: to take the phases as they come and appreciate each one.