Do you have a personal narrative? A story that you believe deeply about who you are and what you do? Like: “If you work hard, you’ll be wealthy,” or “If you don’t work hard, you’re lazy.”
What if I told you that there’s a very good chance that one of your personal narratives isn’t true?
The definition of “narrative” is: a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.
Whether true or fictitious.
When I look back at the countless personal narratives I’ve held over the years, I’m amazed to learn most of them are fictitious. Like the one that I gleaned from my upbringing in a Middle Eastern immigrant family, that only doctors and engineers are truly successful. Or the narrative that psychology majors end up waiting tables. And then there was the narrative that my fingers were too short to play piano and that I couldn’t write because I’m a terrible speller. One thing for sure, our narratives are very personal, and can often be false. When they are wrong, they are destructive, suppressing our true identities and strengths and limiting our opportunities.
In leadership, we all have our own narratives that we’ve developed over the course of life. Some narratives are very predictable based on how we were raised or how we respond in certain situations, or the things people with influence tell us. Other narratives are embedded in our social makeup.
I want to share some stories about a few personal narratives that have lately been leading my friends and colleagues in the wrong direction. Some of these narratives touch on issues I normally shy away from writing about, like religion and politics. I think lately things going on in our culture and the news have had us all looking inward and asking more questions, which inevitably draws back on the narratives, or stories, we tell ourselves about who we are.
The Southern History Narrative
My friend Charles and I were recently talking about what happened in August in Charlottesville. This friend is in his late 70s and grew up white in the South. He spoke about how he had romanticized the history of the South and the Civil War for almost his entire life. He had accepted the statues of Confederate soldiers as symbols of the South. As he put it, “It was a sort of Gone With the Wind interpretation of things.” As he got older, this man had developed many relationships with people who he really loved and respected who were negating that narrative. His friends and loved ones didn’t interpret the Civil War in the same way he did. It wasn’t about the South to them; it was about slavery. Those statues were symbols of oppression. It became clear to Charles that memorializing the Civil War was offensive to his friends, and that his narrative was incorrect. Rather than relying on his past-held assumptions from his personal narrative, he had to pause. He looked at how his day-to-day circumstances, his relationships and his faith in the current time could inform a new narrative and understanding of who he is. Now he has a new narrative wholly focused on the present.
The Narrative of Being a Republican
I recently had dinner with Mike, who is involved in politics, and naturally we got to discussing the U.S. and all that’s going on with our government. Mike has been a Republican forever. He proudly voted Republican in every election since he’s been able to vote, all the way, every time. For generations, his family has been proud supporters of the Republican party. However, in the last U.S. presidential election Mike decided that he was not allowing his new and evolving beliefs to inform him about who he really was and how he needed to vote. He realized that the narrative he was living no longer reflected his political views. So, he “secretly” voted Democrat. In fact, I think he’s still dealing with the shame that’s lingering after he defied the personal narrative he had held onto for so many decades. He hasn’t told many people about his vote, and shared the revelation with me and a few others in confidence.
The Strong Men Don’t Cry Narrative
Bob has recently experienced a devastating loss in his life. He remembers ever since he was a young boy, his father and the culture of his time telling him, “Men don’t cry.” Does that sound familiar? I remember hearing that on the playground, as I was in severe pain after being hit in a soccer game, at 10! My friend (and unfortunately many men) internalized this as part of his narrative. He grew up thinking that men just don’t cry, and eventually that morphed into the belief that men don’t feel pain. Now, he’s having a really difficult time connecting with the pain in his life and it’s preventing him from connecting in his relationships. Bob wants to disengage, because his narrative tells him he shouldn’t feel pain. Actually, Bob thinks he now intuitively disengages emotionally in order not to feel pain. Right now he’s working on ways to disengage from this damaging, but tightly held, narrative so he can experience life in a way that can bring about recovery in healing from his current circumstances.
The Narrative of the Working Mom
Amanda is a high-powered executive with young kids who belongs to a conservative church in the South. She grew up in the church, but while she attends service faithfully she struggles to fit in. Many of the moms in the families at this particular church stay home with their children, often they have up to five or six kids, and they don’t necessarily understand why my friend doesn’t do the same. This is a narrative that comes up often with mothers, who may have been raised with one vision of what motherhood looked like and even as they proudly and gladly choose a different path, that narrative still follows them. While my executive friend thrives as a mom and a leader, she struggles to relate with her community at church, even feeling like an outcast sometimes. The narratives of the community, and the one my friend holds onto on some level, prevent her from truly connecting and living a guilt-free life.
So what do we do with becoming free from these narratives? Here are some of the steps I have found helpful:
- Sometimes I get a feeling in my gut that something’s not quite right, as I experience an event, hear the news, or listen to a friend describe how they feel about something. That’s usually my first inclination that I ought to pause and ask myself what’s really happening. The “feeling in my gut” could be a first step of awareness, like a sadness, anticipation or nerves.
- Then I ask, what’s that feeling coming from? Why am I feeling uneasy and what’s the story that’s unfolding internally for me? Hopefully, this will help me find the narrative that needs to be challenged.
- Then, I identify the alternatives. What other stories are out there, and what are some stories that I can tell myself that could help better inform me about who I am? Those stories always come from a place of love and acceptance. For example, they could be about my faith journey or current community.
- It helps to say the new narrative aloud, or write it down. Don’t be afraid to put it out there.
- Then I find a close friend that I trust to tell about this, because secrets are never helpful!
What are the narratives you don’t want to hold onto anymore? You have the choice to change this narrative at any time. And what better time to change it than right now?