Updated: Dec 23, 2021
"You think you can find me? I'm dust. I'm the wind. I'm the darkness in your shadow...” — Tennessee Williams
We develop our own Defining Narrative quite unconsciously, fairly early in life, in a kind of interpretive dance with our circumstances and the people in our lives. The basic process goes something like this:
1. Something happens that has an impact on us. Maybe we fall on the playground and others belittle us for it, or we are told we are more attractive than other children, or we are abused in some way by an adult.
2. We interpret the event by creating a defining story about it. "Oh I'm the kind of person who is clumsier than everyone else," or "I am the person that other people love because I am beautiful," or "I'm the sort of person who is so unlovable that I deserve to be abused." We start creating a character and setting up a struggle (what we might call our “central conflict”), that will define our role in the world.
3. Over time, we coalesce these defining moments into a roughly cohesive story, and cast ourselves in the leading role. For example, "I am the one who is unworthy of love and my only value to others is how well I can perform for them or seduce them sexually. My quest in life is to see if anyone will love me even if I fail to perform well for them or please them sexually. I desperately want to prove I'm worthy of love after all, even though I don't really believe it myself."
You probably know someone with this defining narrative. No doubt you've seen her relive this storyline over and over in her life, trying to create the satisfying ending that she desperately wants, but never gets because it isn't who she believes she is.
Of course the problem with all of this is that the story she has told herself about who she is isn't true. It's a massive misinterpretation of the events of her early life. By crafting a defining narrative that simply isn't true, she has effectively stuffed the brilliant, beautiful glory of who she actually is into a small pathetic role that (to her) simultaneously never feels like it really fits her and yet feels more deeply true than anything else she has ever known.
So when the defining narrative we create for our lives falls far off the mark of the actual truth of who we are, what happens to our true selves? Where do those true things about us (that the defining narrative won't allow) go?
They go underground. Or as Jung might put it, the go into shadow. They become minimized, marginalized, disowned aspects of who we are. They are the things we think we are not, but secretly are.
The clumsy child is actually a gifted athlete.
The unlovable girl is actually a beautiful treasure, worthy not only of love but of honor and respect.
So how do you set free that which has been locked away in shadow? You change the Defining Narrative. You rewrite your story. That's a difficult thing to do—but, thankfully, far from impossible.
The first step is to get really clear about what your current Defining Narrative actually is. Here’s a tool to help you do that. It’s called a Life Map. It’s basically a timeline of your life that incorporates some key story elements like Highs & Lows, Turning Points, Life Chapters, and, most importantly, Defining Moments. Putting your life story down on paper in this way can help you see it more clearly—both the true bits, and the parts you’ve maybe misinterpreted along the way. I encourage you to give it a try, and see what you discover about your current Defining Narrative.
You'll also need These Instructions.