On the stories we tell ourselves

Do you subscribe to Lenny Letter? If not, you should. Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s weekly newsletter compiles personal essays, interviews, illustrations and creative writing, and covers topics including politics, health, friendship and sex – usually with a feminist angle. It’s always engaging, informative and surprising.

Recently, Nicole Richie (yes, that Nicole Richie) contributed a piece about the impact of fame on her personal identity.

screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-13-56-50From Nicole Richie’s essay in Lenny Letter

Her words sparked a memory. A few years ago, I had a conversation with an athletic friend about a recent injury he’d sustained that left his future sporting career in doubt. “The problem is”, he told me, “I’ve always thought of myself as the ‘sporty guy’. Now that’s been taken away, I don’t know what my story is any more.” His phrasing stuck with me. As a writer and consummate dreamer, I’m constantly telling stories – about myself, my loved ones, the characters in my head. My mantra is the classic Nora Ephron-ism: ‘Everything is copy”. But recently I’ve started to wonder if the stories we tell about ourselves sometimes do more harm than good.

When I talk about personal stories, I mean the statements we make – or allow others to make – about our essential personality, characteristics or skill set. These might be positive – ‘I’m an aspiring writer’; ‘I’m independent’; ‘I love to take care of others’ – or negative -‘I’m rubbish at DIY’; ‘I’m not good with money’; ‘I can’t stand being alone’.

These stories may have originated in a particular experience (‘I’m rubbish at DIY’, for example, is the kind of thought that gets internalised after a flat-pack disaster), or they may have taken root quietly, the product of years of offhand comments and loaded memories.

We tick along happily with these stories, hardly noticing their existence, until we come up against someone, or something, that challenges them. This often happens with ‘big fish, small pond’ syndrome. At school, I was defined by my academia. I was the girl who always did her homework, who was rarely late to class and who often came top in exams. When I started university, however, I was surrounded by people exactly like me – people who, for their entire upbringing, had been defined by their academic achievements. What’s more, all of us suddenly had to face brutal critiques of our work that left us floundering. If we could no longer define ourselves as ‘the clever one’, who exactly were we?

While it’s painful to have your personal story called into question, often it’s far worse to feel that someone is writing your story for you.

The people closest to us are usually the most guilty of this.

Family members, especially siblings, are often assigned a ‘role’: the sensible one; the wild child; the funny one. Our families grow up alongside us, witnessing our proudest triumphs and our most embarrassing mistakes. The spectrum of your childhood experience becomes labels that stick to you, resisting the passing of time.

It’s rare to stop and question the identities strapped onto us when we were 5, 12, 20 years old. After all, our families so often know us better than anyone else. Why would you think to contradict them?

Yet, by blindly accepting these miniature stories, we give ourselves an excuse to stop trying, growing, adapting.

As usual, Cheryl Strayed puts it far more concisely than I can:

“Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.”
Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

Millennials are all about fluidity. We refuse to pin ourselves down to a particular address, job, sexuality or gender. Yet, when it comes to these personal ‘stories’, we have a tendency to become static, hiding behind simplistic labels and sealing ourselves into boxes.

Stories used to be fluid; performed around a roaring fire, passed down from generation to generation, each teller weaving a new detail into the oral tapestry. It’s time we learned to approach our personal stories with the same flexibility.


4 thoughts on “On the stories we tell ourselves

  1. Can so relate to this – we millennials are so about bucking the trend and finding our identity, but you get told you’re shitty at hand-eye coordination aged 8 and it condemns you to a life of being ‘terrible at all ball sports’. It’s weird how it works. Having a go-to self-deprecating fact is a sign of modesty I guess, but it can be dangerous if you get too caught up in these labels about your abilities.

    Liked by 1 person

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