The stories we tell about ourselves come true.
We can change ourselves by changing the stories we tell. We are in control of our narrative. I began my Narrative “word of the year” journey by simply noticing the stories I most often repeated—ones where I was always the little sister, or a hopeless procrastinator, or an ignored middle child, or a heavy drinker, or a victim, sometimes a martyr. I would notice and think, “this is a story I tell about myself.” Change must begin with calling attention to the thoughts and behavior we think might need a tune-up.
Me – to – We
After I spent some time noticing and identifying the most common—and therefore most powerful—narratives ruling my life, I began slowly to re-write some stories to take the focus off myself. Instead of “I’m always the one to do the dishes,” (poor me) I would re-frame to “I do the dishes regularly to help my family function well in the kitchen” (family is important). Another common example for me in the year my baby was born were complaints about how my parents might’ve treated me as a child (poor me), which I spent much time re-writing with compassion, “they were doing the best they could with what they had” (parents are humans too). When you become a parent, your views on your own parents’ parenting often becomes quite complicated! I think I’ll stick to the narrative that we’re all doing our best with the resources we have.
The big surprise was that when I re-framed these narratives in my mind, I found I was much more capable of letting go and forgiving others in real life. The oft repeated stories took up precious space in my mind and sucked so much emotional energy out of me. When I decided to re-write them, it freed up more space for acceptance. That acceptance allowed me to let go of the past and move into the future as a different person. While terrifying, it’s essential for transformation. It’s shedding the identities, patterns, and narratives we’ve outgrown.
Toxic – to – Trying
Narratives can also be toxic to others and ourselves. The relatively common “I’m an asshole” self-proclamation just makes you more of an asshole. You’re giving yourself permission to be an asshole because you, what, think it’s cool? Do you think it excuses your behavior? You get to say whatever you want, hurt people’s feelings, and then just proclaim “I’m an asshole,” and it’s suddenly better? I call bullshit.
The even more common refrain, “I’m anxious,” can also be toxic to ourselves as spending so much time thinking about, talking about, and focusing on our own anxiety often makes us even more anxious. Let me be clear: I am not talking about someone with diagnosed Generalized Anxiety Disorder or any other severe mental illness. I’m talking about the much more commonplace “I avoid this-or-that because it makes me anxious,” when we know (from science) that the more we avoid and make this-or-that a big deal in our minds, the more we reinforce our anxiety. I think this is similar as when we “lean into” other toxic traits and accept them because there have been so many funny memes. Examples here might include being a procrastinator, being messy, being a “wine mom,” being a yeller, being an over-sharer, being a bitch, being a player, or just generally being “problematic” in some other culturally acceptable way.
Noticing our own stories that hurt us rather than heal us is not easy. It’s even harder to let go of them, flip the script, and try a different narrative that focuses on how we’re trying—key word—to change. It’s not about succeeding in no longer being an asshole or a wine mom. It’s not about simply stopping all anxiety because you notice and acknowledge the anxiety. It’s about trying and telling the story of your efforts: I’m trying to do things even though it makes me anxious; I’m trying to tidy just a bit every day; I’m trying to be on time. Telling the story of yourself as someone who is trying—surprise!—really helps you become that new person in real life. It gets rid of the excuse we so often cling to because, honestly, we’re afraid to try—to really try. Because, ultimately, we’re afraid to fail.
Past – to – Future
Speaking of failure…here’s the story I told about failing to become/giving up on/breaking free from/what other narrative might I tell about transitioning out of academic philosophy, which had been my dream for a long time. For those who might not know, I received my Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Auburn University in 2005, and then I earned my Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Ohio State University in 2013. Currently, I am the Director of Faculty Services at a university, an administrative role, and I teach one Philosophy course a semester in addition to running our online program. Follow me on LinkedIn!
Part of me was devastated when I transitioned out of academia. Sometimes what we’re really doing when we re-write a story is grieving a past identity that doesn’t fit anymore, an identity forged by a million small stories we told ourselves and others. In the year of “Narratives,” I knew I was working full-time as a philosopher for the last time of my life. I knew I’d be looking for a non-teaching job soon that could offer stability and benefits for my growing family. I was shedding the narrative identity of Philosophy Professor, which had been with me for twelve long years. I was confronting the loss of a part of myself, and it felt like grief. I was grieving the loss of a storyline—not the whole of me, but a significant arc.
In confronting my grief, it helped to know I could control the narrative. I am the narrator, after all! I wasn’t going to let it be that I failed at becoming a tenure-track professor or even that I failed at the job market or that I failed to publish while teaching a million undergraduate students. Instead, I wrote the story I wanted to tell, which was that being an adjunct at three different universities, teaching seven classes a semester, traveling all over central Ohio, and spending every weekend grading was not what I wanted to do anymore. I was not willing (nor able) to uproot my family, move across the country (or globe) for a one-year position, just to do it again for another one-year position, just to maybe, hopefully work my way up to a tenure-track position even further away from extended family and friends. This massive disruption is exceedingly common for Ph.D.’s as they seek a job as a professor—particularly in the humanities. And we often end up in remote, nightmare towns. None of this felt like a reward anymore.
I cannot underestimate how much the stability of a nine-to-five job with free time on the weekends, paid sick/vacation, and benefits has improved my physical and mental health! I let go of the Philosophy Professor identity without creating a bitter, self-loathing narrative of failure and blame in its place, which opened up space to find the joy in structure and mundane work—something I fought hard against previously. I firmly believe that leaving philosophy enabled me to provide a much more stable home for my daughter to finish out high school in one place, which led her to a full ride at Duke University, something I doubt could have happened if she was switching schools and states every year.
If I had clung to the past, failure narrative—thinking that just because I stopped doing something that meant I failed to achieve my dreams—I would not have ended up quitting. I would have continued the hustle because I cannot stand to fail (another narrative of “high achiever” I should probably work on). Re-writing my story as one that looks toward the future instead of wallowing in past failures laid the foundation for where I am today—I have a very rewarding job making the lives of adjunct faculty better, improving equitable access to higher education, and designing a new logic class that starts Monday. I’ve found the best of both worlds using the power of storytelling.
Narratives Tarot Card: Knight of Cups
It has been a challenge to return to my thinking from 6+ years ago. I am not the person today that I was when I first undertook the “word of the year” project and adopted “Narratives” as my inaugural word. I’m also very interested in Tarot these days, and I’ve had some significant insights. So, for each of these yearly entries, when I think I’m done, I will pull one Tarot card and ask what I’ve missed, misunderstood, or what still needs further clarification. I’m committed to life-long learning and introspection, after all.
I pulled the Knight of Cups. The thing that struck me as most poignant about the Knight of Cups was that she is focused entirely on the cup. She may be a charming, confident storyteller, but this serves as a nice reminder to me that the goal is to change ourselves by changing the stories we tell about ourselves. We cannot lose sight of that ultimate goal by focusing too much of our energy and time on crafting the perfect, Instagram-worthy story, and thinking that’s all we need. The stories serve us, not the other way around. Thank you for this lesson, Tarot.
Again, feel free to share how your own narratives have shaped your lives and how you’ve been able to re-write them to construct a brighter future. If you’re pursuing a different word of the year, share it in the comments! I’d love to hear about it.