Psychology Today 6 January 2019
Emily Green Psy.D.
There Is Always Another Part
A 2019 Resolution: Go Off Script
This year, let’s challenge the rigid life narratives that keep us stuck.
If you had told me five years ago that this holiday season I would be wearing a Christmas sweater with a cat in a Santa hat on it, while proudly proclaiming myself a “cat mom,” I would have told you that you had lost it.
I was a dog person. I am a dog person. But as it turns out, as I discovered after stumbling upon and eventually taking in a meowing, underfed creature in my closed-in courtyard in Brooklyn one day in May of 2015, I am also a cat person.
I won’t lie, my insistence on my “dog person” identity probably almost stopped me from taking the plunge and welcoming a cat into my life. To do so would be to go against the narrative that I had written for myself, the collections of stories and beliefs and experiences that make up “who I am”. And had I stuck to the script- I’m a dog person, I can’t have a cat- I would have missed out on exploring an entirely different part of myself, a chance to flesh out a range of interests, emotions, and interpersonal connections that had been previously untapped. Now I buy Christmas sweaters with cats on them and have 491 photos of my own cat on my phone.
I tell this story as a suggestion to us all – and a reminder to myself- to make 2019 the year of shedding our attachment to the rigid narratives we spin for ourselves, particularly the ones that keep us from growing and expanding our lives. We all have a narrative about ourselves, who we are, who we expect to be, what we expect we will do going forward. For some of us, it’s based around our profession: I am a psychologist, I am a lawyer, etc. Sometimes our narrative is built around beliefs about ourselves: I am weak, I am strong, I am a Victim, I am a Survivor. We also write our story based on our feelings and experiences: I am anxious, I am shy, I am optimistic. Our narrative can extend to our future, as well: I will never be happy, I will always figure it out. And while it is of course important to have a framework with which we work from to know and describe ourselves to ourselves and to others, over-attachment to these descriptors can be more harmful than helpful.
Say, for example, an individual who defines themselves by their career as a police officer is permanently disabled and no longer able to work in law enforcement. For this individual, not being able to be a police officer becomes a deeper, more confusing cut- If I’m not a police officer, who/ what am I? We want to hold our self-descriptions lightly enough that they can adapt around the twists and turns that life throws at us. This means making room for positive twists as well. There are those who, likely based on difficult or abusive experiences throughout their development, may see the theme of their life story as “I am alone”/ “I have no one”. A rigid attachment to this theme makes it difficult to integrate experiences that counter that concept into one’s life. Perhaps you make a new friend or a family member is there for you in a time of need. We must work towards making space in our narrative for new and potentially contradicting experiences, because thus is life. There is always another part, and sometimes that part does not fit neatly into the picture you have already painted. Not allowing for these other parts to integrate keeps us stuck in the same storyline, not moving our plot forward.
Being more flexible with our life narrative does not just allow us to account for the detours that life hands to us; it also allows us to discover new roads of our own choosing, to actively explore paths that may not necessarily fit into a strictly defined self-description. The individual who describes themselves as “shy” may not go after an opportunity that requires them to be outgoing and sociable. Perhaps it is an opportunity that interests or intrigues them, that may open them up to other opportunities or allow them to move in the direction of important life values. Perhaps there is a part of them that wants to explore this path, but its incongruence with a rigid “who I am” story creates enough cognitive dissonance that they may abandon this intriguing opportunity for the comfort and familiarity of the old narrative.
Herein lies the struggle we must face with pushing ourselves to challenge the rigidity of our narrative; it is inherently uncomfortable to do so. Our narrative, while expanded upon and reinforced over time, is often written starting from a young age, a touchstone to which we return to in an attempt to make sense of and categorize our life experiences. Yet as we move through life, this touchstone tends to stay fixed even as the circumstances of our life, and our own emotional and psychological makeup, grow, expand, or change course. Like any other shortcut for categorization (stereotypes, heuristics, etc), what at times makes for quick and broadly accurate description in other contexts leaves us distorting or manipulating reality to get the narrative and our experiences to jive when they in fact no longer fit. Our narrative soon become akin to an old sweater, now too small, filled with holes, worn thin and no longer keeping us warm, but so difficult to let go of as it reminds us of a time when it kept us safe and comfortable.
The truth is that the stories we write for ourselves starting early in our life may always pop up, tempting us to stick stringently to the script. Sometimes it’s hard to throw that sweater away. But maybe we don’t have to. To try to rewrite our story completely is unrealistic, impractical, and perhaps not entirely possible. Instead, let us make an effort this year to simply hold our story more lightly. Let us try to put that sweater in the closet every once in a while, acknowledge that while it might always be there, our insistence on it being the only sweater we wear, despite the fact that it doesn’t work or fit the way it used to, might be keeping us stuck. To do this will likely be uncomfortable. In 2019, let us challenge ourselves to tolerate that discomfort. Let us push ourselves through the anxiety of a more fluid, flexible “who I am” story. To tolerate that discomfort is to open the door to the full reach of our personality, capabilities, and interests, and those are certainly achievements worth fighting for.
About the Author
Emily Green, Psy.D. is an early career clinical psychologist. She works at the Metropolitan Police Employee Assistance Program in D.C., providing psychotherapy to law enforcement officers.