I believe the most compelling question we ask ourselves is “Who am I?” We ask and answer this question in both our most lucid and our most unconscious moments—in nearly every moment of our lives. Our sense of who we are shapes our values, beliefs, and motivations, along with our sense of freedom and the barriers that limit us. Identity is the center from which all our “mortal coils” unwind.
To further complicate things, there are two types of identities—personal and social. There are parts of these identities that are constantly informing each other but also have their own lives.
The personal identity is something we are constructing, authoring, and re-authoring in a constant interplay between the private part of ourselves and the external world. It’s always on the move. And if it’s not, we risk losing our identity and being overcome by entropy.
The writer Salman Rushdie recognizes this phenomenon, noting, “Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives—the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change—truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”
Things start to get tricky if you are “other” in a group or culture. Social identity comes from the collective "who are we?" stories that aim to reflect a sameness of the “we” and our relationship to others in the group. But social identity is created by the dominant culture, so it’s something one can have without being personally aware of it.
A hallmark of being “other” in a culture is that moment when we realize we are not part of the “we” or dominant narrative—when we recognize we don’t fit into the story. Or worse, when we realize the master narrative debases us, excludes us, and robs us of choice, freedom and agency. Read any memoir of an African American, Latino, or woman in our culture and you will read about this “moment.” For Malcom X it happened at age ten when he was told he should be a carpenter and that “your people” should not aspire to be lawyers. There are millions of examples like this. My deep purpose in life is to create safe spaces for women and people of color to identify and share these stories.
And not only to identify and share these moments, but to gain insight to the power we all have to author stories we live into, and to “re-author” our stories when they limit our potential.
When people of color and women come forward with their own stories of full identity, they invariably present a “counter narrative” to the dominant social story. A counter narrative, or counter-storytelling, can give people a voice that was formerly held in the realm of silence. Because the master narrative outlines a widely accepted belief as “THE truth” (often robbing people considered “other” of moral standing and capacity to be fully functioning actors in the world), a counter narrative can be used to repair as well as resist the dominant narrative and provide a different point of view that may have not otherwise been considered.
In my work with clients and groups to re-story their lives, I encourage people to fully inhabit a new story that removes the barriers of problem-saturated stories. Meanwhile I urge them to proceed with caution—these new narratives will often cause fault lines in their relationships and disrupt their standing in their world. I have a dear friend who, after re-authoring a very limiting story of being the silent servant to her husband, found her brothers berating her at every step of living into her new story. This was a painful time for her and a cautionary tale for anyone stepping into a new story.
In looking closely at my own life, I’ve been most inspired by those who had the courage to bring forth a counter narrative, and to live into it so that this new narrative became part of the possibility of social identity I could step into. I hope you find these folks as inspirational as I have.