Changing the Narrative

Last month at TriConf, Philip Roberts gave a terrific keynote about narrative tropes in which he encouraged the audience to examine their own narratives and change them if they weren’t productive. Since that talk, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own narrative – about how I see myself and my story, about how others see me, about who I am and what that means.

When I was a child, I was told repeatedly by a family member that I was selfish. And because it was coming from an authority – an adult, and a parental figure at that – I believed it. I believed that I was the most selfish person in the world. No matter how nice I was, how generous or giving I was, it wouldn’t change who I really was at the core: a selfish little beast.

My belief in my selfishness lasted well into my adulthood. Slowly (and relatively recently) I’ve been able to see that I’m actually not a selfish person – that family member was (and is) deeply insecure, and the things he dislikes most about himself are the characteristics he projected onto me. Of course I have selfish moments – we all do – but I no longer see that as my defining quality. I have changed that narrative – I recognize now that it was nonsense, based not on any moral failing on my part, but on the insecurity of the person who first assigned me that narrative.

It’s not only blatantly negative narratives that can be harmful, however. We can also damage ourselves by adhering to narratives that seem positive on the surface. As a child, I was told by other family members that I was smart, that I was precocious, that I would grow up to be something extraordinary. This narrative set up a different set of expectations: it wouldn’t be enough to be just good enough – I would have to be extraordinary to be considered successful.

I drove myself very hard for a very long time to try to live up to those expectations. I did well in school, I got a Ph.D., I got a job teaching at a college, but I realize now that one of the main reasons I did all of those things was to prove that I was indeed smart, that I could be successful. It was only toward the end of finishing my Ph.D. that I realized that I’d chosen that path for the wrong reasons – you can’t be happy if you’re only doing something to prove someone right (or wrong) – you have to do it for yourself. Otherwise, your success will give you very little satisfaction.

So I’ve decided to change my narrative. I choose to believe that I am a kind and generous person, that my success should be measured primarily by how happy I am, and that I can continue to change my narrative any time I realize that it’s not working for me. We are each more varied than we know – one-dimensional people don’t exist outside of books and movies. We all have the potential to be anything and everything, and while we can acknowledge our negative characteristics, we don’t have to let them define who we are.

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Tamara Holloway

Tamara Holloway

Teacher, writer, knitter, pun-hater. I would be a professional smartass if I could, but since the government is loath to support the arts, I have to do my smartassing as a freelancer. I have a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon – if you want to know about Tennyson, the Duke of Wellington, and Queen Victoria, I’m your gal. I enjoy educating young(ish) minds and correcting their grammar, and occasionally I write stuff.

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  • Suzy Garza Higley

    I loved this! I agree wholeheartedly.

  • Elsie Puig

    Tamara, I don’t know you but I like you and your narrative. I was told the same thing as a child and now I worry all the time whether I lived up to those expectations. Now, I’m just working to live up to my own expectations.

  • Sara Taylor

    This is lovely. Thank you so much for sharing!