Updated: Dec 23, 2021
"With every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story which we are certain to misunderstand." — G.K. Chesterton
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this yet, but you are living in a story.
It’s a story about you—what you’re like, where you come from, what has shaped you as a person, what you want to become. You might just think of this as your personal history, or the “facts” about who you are, but the truth is your story isn’t really all factual. A lot of it is just your interpretation. In fact, the heart of your story consists of the ways you have interpreted or “made meaning” out of the things that have happened to you. Add to that, a fair bit of your story doesn’t even come from you. It’s what your dad or your mom or your friends or “society” told you at some point about who you are, and you believed them. But just because they said it doesn’t mean it’s true. Besides, your own interpretations are equally suspect. You created most of the story of who you are when you were a kid; not exactly the height of your wisdom and intellectual prowess.
Psychologists and coaches call this story a Defining Narrative, and everybody has one. As I mentioned, most defining narratives are forged when we’re children, as our young, impressionable minds try to make sense of the big wide world and our place within it. We look for clues out there in the environment: How do people see me? How do my parents treat me? What do they say about me? How do my peers react to me? What do I notice about myself in comparison with others? In an ideal world, our environment would perfectly reflect back to us the deep truth of who are—our beauty and brilliance, our creativity and courage, our intelligence and compassion, our strength and vulnerability. Ideally, the world should be for us a pristine mirror, reflecting back an accurate, wholistic image of who are are, and who we are meant to be.
But, as you well know, the world is far from ideal. The mirrors we find in childhood aren't always accurate, and our interpretation of key events that happened to us is sometimes way off the mark…
The young boy whose parents divorce believe it’s because he is a disappointment.
The girl who stumbles once in the cafeteria gets labeled a klutz, and she believes it.
The young man whose shorter than his peers passes judgment on himself because of it. He’ll never measure up.
The young woman who doesn’t look like the models in the magazines decides she’s not attractive or desirable.
None of these interpretations are true, but if you’ve ever been in those shoes, you know how true they feel.
Once your Defining Narrative has been set deep in your bones, it's very difficult to for you to act "out of character”— that is, to be someone you don't believe you are. Our internal narrative becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The girl who believes she’s a klutz grows up feeling awkward and never at home in her own skin, and her behavior as an adult reflects this. The young man who believes he’ll never measure up goes to all manner of extremes to prove he does; but no matter how many trophies he wins, or how much money he makes, or how many women he beds, it’s never quite enough to convince him, because his defining narrative about himself says otherwise.
Even when your intellect can see the ways your defining narrative isn’t true, it’s still really hard to change the story. Why? Because for all its flaws, your defining narrative is like a life preserver, keeping you afloat on the open sea. Even if it doesn’t really support you like it’s supposed to, you’ll still cling to it—because to let it go feels like certain death.
Without our story, even if it’s a faulty story, we’d lose all sense of who we are.
Thankfully, there is a way to rewrite your story so that it more accurately reflects the truth of who you are. I’ll dive into that in the next two posts. But for now, here’s a few questions you might want to explore:
What is your Defining Narrative? What’s the story you tell yourself about who you are (and who you’re not)?
Is that story true? How did you come up with it? What do you base it on?
Do you ever feel saddened or “trapped” by your defining narrative? If so, in what way?
This is Part 1 in a series. You can find Part 2 here.