The Power of Personal Narrative

I had a couple of really interesting conversations this week that put into sharp relief for me the power of the overarching narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves. A dear friend and my beloved sister both told me that they see me as a workaholic. And I realized that in fact, while  that was my self-identity for a long, long time, I no longer see myself that way. Whether or not the number of hours I work has changed—and I think it has—I reject the pathology that the term implies. But until now, I told myself that that was what I was, and I told others that that was what I was, and everyone began to see me that way. That became my truth.

In the 1980s, Robert Reich wrote a book called Tales of a New America, which described four different narratives that Americans tell ourselves about ourselves, including The Enemy at the Gates (“They” are out to get us) and The Benevolent Community (We take care of each other). He didn’t mean that these are distinct bedtime stories we tell our children, like Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel. Rather, he explained that when we read a news article or hear a certain fact, we set it within the context of one of these stories. These stories became our archetypes, the lenses through which we understood our national situation. Thus 9/11 became first the story of The Enemy at the Gates, and very soon after that, the charitable donations pouring in for the victims reflected the narrative of The Benevolent Community. There may have been other ways to understand these situations, but most of us never considered alternatives to the national narrative.

I felt immensely empowered by choosing to no longer identify myself as a workaholic. I repeat: Whether or not I am working fewer hours is not the point. Rather, I choose to think of myself as someone who works as much as I need to, when I need to, plus also plays and enjoys life. As simple as that, I began to feel freer, and healthier. Once again, I am in awe of the power of narrative.

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  • rodney  On October 24, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    It seems you only blog in the wee hours.

    • publicstoryteller  On October 25, 2010 at 3:32 am

      Actually I have to fix the clock on the thing–I’ve noticed that the times bear no resemblance to the actual times at which I did the posts. Although I will admit, I’ve never been a 9 to 5 girl.

  • Irene Savarese  On October 25, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    I am sure you know about narrative therapy, but still, this little book is a great read. Alice Morgan: “What is narrative therapy?”. Here is a great website with info;

    And another idea: have you thought about making a blog for use in your classes? Homework could be writing on the blog!

  • Tom Neile  On October 25, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Is blogging work?

    • publicstoryteller  On October 25, 2010 at 4:58 pm

      That’s an interesting question that depends of course on how we define work. When I look at the definition of work in the dictionary, it doesn’t look a whole lot different from lots of things that I, and others, do for fun. I love blogging and I don’t get paid for it. No one is expecting me to do it if I don’t want to (except for my legions of subscribers). It’s not always easy, but neither is swimming or hang gliding.

  • Florence Ferreira  On October 26, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Welcome to the world of bloggers but don’t become a Bloggaholic! Just kidding… Was I the one labeling you? I am sure you have created a current of guilty suspicion among your friends. That’s the power of social networking!
    On a more serious note, I can relate to this post concerning “narratives about ourselves,” and I am glad that you are liberated from that self-image. After all, when work is not work anymore but pure fun, the label crumbles by itself. I enjoyed learning about the “national narratives” and wonder what the two other ones are.

  • Vienna  On October 29, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    In social psychology we call that appraisal. The name/meaning/value you give the -oholism makes a difference. But whatever works works. Who cares if painkillers capable of extinguishing a planet help against the headache or hugging a tree does? If the headache is gone afterwards I’d go for either any time. I’d even hug a cactus.

    • publicstoryteller  On October 29, 2010 at 9:07 pm

      Speaking of which, a wonderful cartoonist/storyteller named Joe Wos gave me a cartoon, which I have framed, of a porcupine and cactus in love. (We know they are in love because there is a heart between them.) That cartoon.story made a big impression on me.

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