Stories and Identity

I spent the last couple of weeks preparing a workshop for a group of part time master students on a leadership programme, identifying the power of stories and storytelling in organizations. It struck me how relevant the topic was to the stories we tell ourselves in creating our personal identities.

Throughout our history, mankind has always used storytelling as a way to describe and share the history of the community therefore ensuring their legacy was protected. It is through stories that we come to understand, learn and know. Stories are powerful means through which we develop a sense of self.

It is worth remembering that stories may also contain truth as well as lies and deception. An example are the lies we tell ourselves about how we should feel, behave and be when we get older. If we tell ourselves a story often enough, we will begin to believe it.

Furthermore, we are unaware of how the constant bombardments from the many forms of media that permeate our lives and influence our identities and beliefs through the stories they beguile us with. The negative stories of aging they tell us infiltrate our subconscious minds to shape our expectations and experiences of aging. Science has proved that the negative stereotypes surrounding the process of aging are as pervasive as they are inaccurate.

Contrary to the traditional story of aging proclaiming the inevitability of decline, a bold alternative story of aging suggests that if we free ourselves of the self-limiting beliefs, we may stretch our genes to healthier and new frontiers. We create our own self-fulfilling prophecies with our lifestyles and as we get older, we eliminate the very activities that will help us remain fit and healthy.

Central to storytelling is the concept of interpretation, which suggests that meaning is fluid and contextual and not fixed and universal. By deepening our understanding of the meaning of our personal stories, we are able to create new stories. It suggests that our life stories remain open ended, allowing us to re-author our stories to enrich our lives rather than impose limiting constraints on our experiences.

One of the key contributors to postmodern philosophy, François Lyotard, supports the idea that there is a darker side to storytelling. He suggests our societies and institutions are rife with what he terms the grand narrative, suggesting it has the capacity to exert power, manipulate, distort and abuse. He advises that grand narratives represent large scale theories and philosophies that should be viewed with deep skepticism. Instead, he proposes the use of little narratives that represents everyday life as a multitude of alternative voices. Every so-called reality can be viewed from many different perspectives, or stories.

The story of aging is a powerful example of a grand-narrative, which we all collude with. However, as storytellers, we are powerful in our ability to influence how our stories will turn out. Our identities are imbedded and influenced by the cultures, which we inhabit and interact with and are therefore multi-voiced. However, we do not need to become prisoners to the stories told by our societies. We are the author of our own stories and can therefore choose to change the plot and characters.

Our intention directly determines our actions and state of mind. Attention follows intention bringing into manifestation what we anticipate; we get what we expect. Unfortunately, we are oblivious to the fact that our assumptions and self-limiting stories will eventually determine our reality.

Research supports the fact that the stories we tell ourselves will come to pass and tests have shown that how we think about getting older in terms of decline or disability will be reflected in the state of our health. This is not to say we should deny experiences of decline in physical strength and some abilities. However, it is vital to separate fact from fiction. Aging is not merely a physiological process and the stories we tell ourselves about aging also have a significant influence on the quality of our lives.

I invite you to reflect on the quality of your stories. Are they negative and inaccurate or uplifting and life enhancing? You are in charge of the stories you tell about your life. Choose wisely.


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