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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.

The good news is it's not always about changing a story; instead, we are seeking additional perspective to identify probabilities, possibilities, and even forgotten facts.

Ideas to start broadening your single story of self:

Let's use a simple example of a single story of self to run with. "I was a bad kid!"

  1. A Person is Never Just One Thing: Start with this idea as you move forward. People are unique, complicated, and multi-layered; therefore, your story is also unique, complex, and multi-layered.

  2. Find exceptions to the Rule: Finding examples of possible exceptions may include: - an example when someone said the opposite to you. Why did they say it? - an example when someone treated you like you were not "a bad kid". - Times when you felt helpful. - Times you had responsibilities you fulfilled. - Some children/adults who see themselves as 'bad' feel they don't deserve appreciation or love. Are there times you can identify when you felt liked, appreciated, or loved?

  3. Reframing: Look at your story and try reframing some of the negative pieces. For example, reframing the word 'bad' might help shift aspects of the story and invite deeper insight. For instance, instead of 'bad', a person could try several adjectives such as sad, misunderstood, misguided, frustrated, or lonely. A person could test each of these and see how these other possibilities feel as a part of their story.

  4. Challenge Your Assumptions: Sometimes when we look at our story in an objective way we can identify important inconsistencies, not only in concrete areas like the timeline or facts, but in our perceptions. Allow yourself to question your assumptions. Look for irrational thoughts, exaggerations, limited thinking, and story flaws.

  5. Choose Empowerment vs. Disempowerment: 'Single stories of self' tend to disempower us from seeing and considering any other perspective. Try to re-interpret your story in an empowering way. Possible examples: - As a child, my feelings and behaviours were normal. - Like most children, I didn't know how to ask for help / I didn't understand what I was feeling. - Even though my actions were seen as negative, they were speaking volumes about my emotions. - I didn't have the words for my feelings, so I expressed myself the best way I knew how. - The people around me didn't have the skills to help, so my emotions found their own way. - The people around me didn't have the skills to help, so I protected my heart the best way I knew how.

  6. Owning the Present: Does a story that paints you in a certain light consistently come up with friends or family? For example, as an adult, if you have been carrying the nickname "Rager" because of your behaviour as a kid, it might be time to consider re-authoring that title. Sometimes finding an ally, or having supportive people from your 'inner circle', can be extremely beneficial. These are opportunities to publicly re-write your story, as the opportunity presents itself.

  7. Own Your Part: Because we believe our story, or perhaps feel disempowered to change it, many of us are accomplices in how our 'single story of self' has progressed over time. Your part in the maintenance of your story is not about blame, it's about understanding how the maintenance of the old story is being accomplished, and where you can intentionally attempt to change how you manage, re-write, and tell your story.

As we allow ourselves to gently investigate our own 'single story of self', we can find opportunities to be compassionate, and to honour ourselves as we seek and discover new perspectives and narrative layers. In doing so, you may discover parts of your story that no longer belong or resonate with you. It's okay to let those go. By rewriting your story, you can experience a sense of increased understanding and control, not only regarding the past, but more importantly the present and future.

A link to Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie Ted Talk.

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