As I entered my final year of primary school at age 10, I had one singular wish. I wanted nothing more than to be a student road warden who helped kids to cross the road at the pedestrian crossings near our school.
I wanted to wear the bright orange vest. I wanted to swing out the big orange signs. I wanted to have the power to stop traffic, and to be seen as the responsible one who was providing a public service. I had been watching older kids play this role for years, and to me it seemed the pinnacle of earned respect.
I put my name forward at the beginning of the year, and waited expectantly. When I found out that my application had been declined, I was crushed. The message, relayed through my parents, was that my maturity levels were not high enough to take on this important responsibility. I was seen as too silly, always clowning about. It was a devastating blow, and I was angry and confused.
I couldn’t understand how the adults would assume that just because I liked to make people laugh and be silly in the schoolyard, that I couldn’t be serious when the situation warranted it?
There was nothing I took more seriously than crossing the road, and so I was surprised to learn that by being silly in contexts where it was appropriate and harmless, that people would assume that I lacked the ability to turn it off and sincerely focus on a task. Even as a ten year old I innately knew that people are multidimensional and behave in different ways in different contexts.
This familiar situation played out again in my final year of high school, when the school went through the process of selecting the head girl, the deputy, and a group of prefects. I had been involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, I got pretty good grades, and was for the most part polite and respectful of my teachers. Although I had no expectations nor aspiration to become head girl or deputy, I was surprised when I was once again overlooked for prefect selection. Looking back, it might have had something to do with being caught running down a dorm hallway late at night in a Scream mask by the Deputy Principal at our recent school leadership camp…. But again, my view was that just because I had an affinity for silliness, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t prepared to knuckle down and take things seriously when required.
This label of being the class clown — indeed those exact words were scrawled across several of my school reports throughout my early education — was an identity I carried with me into the future. Initially borne out of innate personality traits, the story of myself as The Clown became one that I lived into partly out of the effect that I saw being funny had in elevating my social status as a young child, partly out of a sense of expectancy, and partly for the sheer fun of it. I just loved telling jokes and doing silly things to make people laugh. Yet when it came down to it being the singular, defining story that others told about me, it became a story laced at times with a sense of shame and not being good enough which I carried into adulthood.
The effects of holding on to that story manifested in always being worried about what others would think, particularly those who were in positions of authority. If I was not one of them, as I had come to understand through these experiences growing up, I was surely someone who should always defer to them. This influenced everything from my relationship with my parents to the way I would behave in work settings when I believed I didn’t have the authority to speak my mind or offer my opinion, lest I been seen as lacking in maturity or experience to properly understand the situation. I suspect this deference to authority (e.g. church) even had a lot to do with me being in deep denial about the fact that I was gay until my late 20’s (more on the dramatic unfolding of that story here).
The stories we tell about ourselves, and that others tell about us ultimately shape us as individuals. As human beings, we generally want to be accepted by others and perceived as rational, consistent beings, so we reinforce our stories and behave in alignment with them, further honing our identities. When we tell them enough times, our lives may cease to inform our stories, but rather our stories inform us. The consequent socially constructed identities become the yardstick by which we measure ourselves.
As has been brought into popular understanding by Brené Brown, overcoming our shame, embracing vulnerability, and having the courage to tell our stories has great potential. There is equally great potential in deciding which of our stories are no longer serving us well, or those are what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to in her viral 2009 TED talk as “single stories”. These limiting stories can be dangerous when we don’t put them in perspective, and they become the defining narrative of ourselves or others.
It’s important to remember that we are not our stories, they are just the lenses through which we view ourselves or others. They influence us greatly, yes, but they do not make up the totality of our identity.
Our stories change throughout our lives — and in addition our memories are unreliable indicators of the past. We may focus on our shortcomings, without realising the effects that living into this story is having on our lives. Alternatively we might tend to minimise the bad and emphasise the good about ourselves and our past. In cases where personal narratives become problematic or affect our mental health, interventions such as Narrative Therapy can help us to name our stories and separate ourselves from them. Where predominant organisational narratives are causing harm, Chené Swart’s book Re-Authoring the World is a good reference point for taking the narrative therapy approach into teams, groups and communities.
Once we begin to objectively explore our stories, we can operate from a kind, compassionate, and non-judgemental space to examine what it is that we hold to be true about ourself and our lives, and what assumptions and narratives inform the way we act. It paves the way for developing a new relationship with our stories. We can embrace the stories that teach us something or bring us joy, and distance ourselves from those that are impeding our growth or reinforcing unhelpful views or habits. We can identify their origins or roots and understand the moments along the way have either served to challenge or reinforce those stories.
“This work makes it clear that when we are operating from a problematic story, it is the narrative rather than ourselves that is the problem.”
Alternative stories are often just sitting in the background, ready for us to shine a light upon and pull to the forefront of our relationship with ourselves. The story of myself as The Clown, somewhat tamed from my early years although never fully suppressed, need not be the singular defining story of my life. I still love making people laugh. I still love being silly. But I choose to recognise that clowning about is only one part of my story. My other stories of self include that of the playful mother, the spoken word artist, the nature lover, the trail runner, the avid skier, the fearless dancer, the dry cynic, and the ever-curious questioner.
What stories of self are you ready to leave behind? Which new ones are you ready to embrace?
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the story, feel free to clap — remember you can clap up to 50 times if you like it a lot! If you’d like to support my efforts in writing about storytelling for impact, narrative change, and systems change, you can do so through Patreon.
This article is adapted from the draft of the book I’m writing on storytelling, narrative, and systems change. For updates on the book, you can sign up to my newsletter. Thank you!