Who Do We Think We Are?

I recently attended a joyous family celebration; a happy occasion that reunited far-flung friends and family members to celebrate a long marriage. It was the type of occasion that invited reminiscing and retelling old stories- not unlike class reunions, alumni events, or catching up with colleagues at a conference. The memories and stories shared at reunions comfort because they reinforce who we are – except when they don’t.

Our biographies consist of the stories of we tell ourselves. Our stories come, for the most part, from our interpretation of experiences. Perhaps a memory of struggling through algebra reinforced through stories about your multiple tutors creates the belief that you’re not good at math.  Or, winning the science fair and a tales of your preference for books over parties cast you as the class nerd who is better at code than small talk. We make sense of our experiences by forming beliefs about ourselves and our relationship to the world- beliefs reinforced by the telling and retelling of our stories.

The trouble with creating stories of who we are and what we can do based on interpretation of experiences is that we may just get it wrong in the first place.  When left strictly to our own devices, we may be the worst interpreters of data from personal experiences.  (There is lots of interesting research on this point.  If you want to check out just how off base we can be, see out Edward Adelson’s work at MIT on the brain and cognition at http://web.mit.edu/persci/people/adelson/illusions_demos.html for some neat tests. )

Left unchallenged by those around us, our misguided interpretations become our stories, and our stories become our beliefs. People become comfortable with our biographies, and may invest in them.  As Kathryn Shultz (2010) writes in Being Wrong, “If we often form beliefs on the basis of communities, we also form communities on the basis of our beliefs.”  A community built up around what we believe becomes a fortress for its protection. If you doubt this strength, watch for it in conversations. The next time you see heads nod when someone claims: We’re not good at X. Remember when  (fill in the blank) or You can’t  (fill in the blank). Once…. you will have seen the power of communities supporting stories, true or not.

Communities and support networks are enormous sources of strength, love and support. They hold our biggest cheerleaders. But, they may also hold stories about us that have never been right or are long rewritten. Moments of greatness are possible when we test original interpretations and update the image.

  • Think about beliefs holding you back from a goal. Test your assumptions about these beliefs. Did you get it right?  Is it still true?
  • Change your story as you change yourself. Put “ I used to be….” in your vocabulary. “I used to be bad at math, but I’ve worked on it and am better.” “I used to be uncomfortable at events, but have found some that I really enjoy.”
  • Advocate for people when you experience their positive change. This is especially important when the person is not present. Offer a new ending to old stories, such as “I’m proud of how well he’s done on….” or “She’s really grown into a great…” 

Whenever we get the chance, we must relish in the camaraderie and support from those who care about us. Just make sure we bring the most recent release of our stories.

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