The Single Story of Self

Updated: Mar 20, 2019

Some time ago I happened upon a presentation by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie where she provided a thought-provoking talk about the "Danger of the Single Story". She outlined a broad range of experiences around the topic, and I couldn’t help but think about the impact of the “single story of self’. This “single story of self” (insert self-narrative here) can dangerously flatten a persons’ otherwise richly layered identity. Many of us not only hold “single stories” about others, but also believe and work from our own “single story of self”; one which we have created about ourselves, or heard and accepted from others.

Common Stories

I can think of a quick few I often hear in my office; they commonly start with, “I am . . .”, and end with words like: not good enough, not talented, a poor decision maker, “just” a mom/dad, a bad parent, not smart enough, etc. We can be so hard on ourselves.

Surprisingly, these stories are not always negative, (I'm a straight A student, I'm a good person, I am the responsible one, etc), but just as flattening because of their singularity.

Unfortunately, when a person tells, or hears, a story about themselves multiple times, that person may eventually believe that story, and whatever positive or negative connotations it carries. These single stories create an oversimplified image of a person, which can overshadow beautiful layers of individuality, and hide both the depth and nuance of an individual's experience.

Broadening Your Story

Investigation into your own “single story of self” is an intentional act, and a constant discipline of working with self. It is an investment in recognizing you have, and can actively create, a narrative that supports and speaks to your value as an individual. Many of us are involuntarily provided with stories about who and what we are. These are not necessarily good or bad, but they can become some of our core stories rooted deep within family structures, our culture, or our political, spiritual, and religious affiliation, just to name a few.

Challenging and working with the parts of our stories that limit us, or cause us pain, can be hard work! It takes effort and vulnerability to look at our story, and then more effort to make the emotional and mental space to consider our story in a different way. Doing this often challenges some of our core identity issues (ie: I'm a bad person, not good enough, etc.).

Additionally, the work can be hard because we are used to our stories. Even if our story is negative, it can still be 'comfortable' to our brain. Brains like familiar things, and this can make the unhelpful stories not only hard to identify, but also difficult to change.