As a life-long lover of books, I am drawn to stories. I think most people are. Stories pull us in to new worlds, new perspectives and adventures we would never have willingly taken on ourselves.
While it’s a given that fiction books are stories, I’ve found that the best nonfiction books also use stories to their advantage. I hunt for the ones that tackle psychology–our motivations, our habits, and the whys behind them. Those are the books I consume with enthusiasm and make a note to return to a later time, the kind where two or three passes are needed to fully absorb everything worth knowing.
The common concept shared by these books, one that makes me snap to attention, is that of narrative, the collective experiences, opinions, and personal truths that bind together to represent who we are.
When I was in school, my narrative was that of “the smart girl.” I studied hard, got A’s on my schoolwork, and enjoyed learning. I was friends with fellow nerds who supported the reputation I gave myself.
Looking back, I realize that by pigeonholing myself into this narrative, I probably deprived myself of many experiences that could have made me happy.
I remember an assignment in gym class one year that involved coming up with choreography to a song. It could be any song and any number of dance moves as long as we completed the assignment. I was paired with two girls and naturally took the lead.
I mean, this was my thing. I knew dance. Granted, I had never danced in public in my entire life, but hey, I knew all the steps to NSYNC and Backstreet Boys videos. That should be enough to get something good pulled together, right?
I remember having so much fun doing that gym class assignment that I wondered what it would be like to be in the Tex-Anns, our high school’s dance team. They performed at football games with the band, decked in their shimmery skirts, fringe, and white cowboy hats. Just as quickly as I entertained the thought, I blew it off. After all, I was the “smart girl.” The academic one. Dancing and academics don’t really mix.
But we know that’s bullshit.
Dancing and academics are not mutually exclusive. Anyone could theoretically be a ballet dancer with a degree in neuroscience, or a carpenter with a competitive surfing streak. Men and women are allowed to be complex human beings with interests that run from cats to the cosmos, from trains to track stars.
Hell, some of my friends were Tex-Anns, and they managed to balance impeccable grooming habits and a schedule of practices and appearances while maintaining high grades. And yet somehow the idea of daring to become a Tex-Ann didn’t fit neatly into my self-image, so I rejected it.
Why was I so bent on living up to this narrative?
It could be that the narratives we tell ourselves makes it easier to live our lives, to make decisions that could affect us. That thing over there? Well, that’s not us. No-ho-ho. Best to ignore it, keep our heads down, and stay focused on the direction we’re going.
It could be that the narratives we tell ourselves are comfortable. Comfort is that routine we go through every day–the morning ritual, the same reliable route to work, that one dish you always order at the same restaurant you always frequent. It’s easy. Soothing. Anything new that breaks routine disrupts that comfort and invites an edge of stress.
Now I’m not dogging on routine. Routine is absolutely necessary for us to function. Imagine having to weigh every possible consequence associated with making any decision. It would take us forever to get anything done in a day. Routine streamlines the process.
Where routine–and by extension, our narratives–can go wrong is when we leave them on autopilot for so long that we never allow for change, period. Our narratives become the excuse we use to deny ourselves the possibility of change.
Have you ever told yourself: “Oh, I can’t do ____________. I’m not a _________ person.”
As in, “I can’t go hiking with my friends. I’m not an outdoorsy person.”
Or, “I want to go to that wine and painting party, but I’m not an artsy person.”
How about, “That Color Run looks fun, but I could never get through a 5K. I’m not a runner.”
There are an unlimited number of variations on this. Consider:
“I want to start a blog, but who would want to read my stuff? I don’t have anything interesting to write about.”
“I’ll never win the weight loss contest. I’m a lot older than the other girls, and my metabolism’s slow.”
“I want to teach Zumba classes, but I need to be thinner or people won’t come to my class.”
These are all narratives we’ve sold ourselves. One day we each said, “This is my world. This is the way it has to be.” Maybe it was one specific incident that set a narrative in motion. Maybe it was a lifetime of experiencing setback after setback and feeling like the universe must be telling you something.
Whatever it was, we believed, and because we believed, every choice we’ve made along the way has reinforced those narratives.
I am just as guilty as everyone else of doing this. Luckily I can point to a time when a lightbulb went off in my head and my narrative did a 180 for the better.
It was the summer of 2006, one year after I graduated from college. I was dragging my feet about getting a “real” job. To be fair, there weren’t many job openings for graphic designers (there still aren’t), but I wasn’t in any hurry to find one because, well, adulting.
Meanwhile, my uncle in Austin had met a young, aspiring director named Chris Eska who was about to start filming his first independent movie. My uncle, excited by the prospect of helping his niece network with like-minded creatives, convinced me to meet with Chris in person. During the course of our conversation, Chris casually confirmed the need for a graphic designer and was open to me coming on board. He also mentioned that the crew would be living and filming in Gonzales and that I was welcome to join them there during the shoot, even though most of my time would be needed after the movie was finished.
I had never lived away from home at this point. Since I went to college in my hometown, I graduated with no debt due to a significant scholarship, a part-time job at the movie theater, and living at home while I went to school. On top of this, I was a homebody. A classic introvert. I could count the number of close friends I had on one hand. I’m not someone who randomly decides to move a town far away to live with complete strangers for a few months.
• Narrative change #1: Except I did.
Why? Even now, all I can say is “because I felt compelled to go.” Every part of my intuition was screaming GO, even though I couldn’t logically explain why. I happened to listen to that inside voice this time because, really, what did I have to lose?
So off I went to Gonzales to live in a two-story rent house with twelve to fifteen complete strangers. I claimed the empty dining room area with my full size air mattress, lamp, and suitcase of clothes. Five small mattresses covered the living room floor designated for the girls; the guys bunked upstairs in whatever corner they could claim. We shared meal duties so no one got stuck with the job of feeding the entire team–three people prepped, three people cleaned. The community rallied behind us and delivered casseroles daily during our 30 days of filming. It was like summer camp for adults, except we were making a FREAKING MOVIE.
Some of the crew members were students from the film department at UT Austin; some were the director’s friends or connections hired to do their job. I didn’t fit in either slot, but since I was there before most of the crew arrived, I was assigned the role of Costumer for the entire movie cast.
• Narrative change #2: As a self-appointed “the smart girl” I’m supposed to know how to do things. All A’s, remember? But this–I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So why did I agree to be the lead costumer? Telling it straight: ego, peer pressure, and an unclear sense of what I would be doing when I got to the house.
I didn’t know how to pick fashionable clothes for myself, let alone a whole cast of movie characters. Gonzales was one of those podunk towns in the middle of nowhere, so I had to call clothing stores in the nearby larger cities and convince them to let us borrow clothing for the movie. I had to travel to these places to “shop” for the right size clothing for each character and create an Excel inventory database of what we borrowed. I was continuously washing, drying, ironing, and traveling with clothes in my car to each shooting location.
Oh yeah, when we were done filming, I had to give it all back.
It was in the midst of this cycle of wash/dry/iron that I had my lightbulb moment.
We had returned to the house after a long day of shooting, and I was alone in the rec room doing my nightly laundry duties. It was near midnight. The house was eerily silent as the rest of the crew lounged on the back patio in the cool relief of darkness. I could hear the low chorus of voices mixed with bouts of laughter. Everyone else was outside enjoying themselves, and here I was–by myself, ironing shirt after shirt, feeling anxiety and the heat of indignation rising within me.
A self-righteous rant rolled through my mind to the effect of: “How is it I’m the only one working? I bet they don’t even miss me. There’s so much to do. Why do I have to be stuck in here doing the dirty work? I didn’t even sign up for this! Hell, Chris is outside too. WHY DO I CARE MORE ABOUT THIS MOVIE THAN THE DIRECTOR?!”
And then it hit me.
• Narrative change #3, a.k.a. The Lightbulb Moment: “Why DO I care more about this than the director? If even Chris can take a moment to relax and simply enjoy spending time with the crew, what does that say about me? I’m choosing to care this much, so much so that I’m driving myself to have mini anxiety attacks. If they don’t care, why should I?”
Now to be clear, I wasn’t giving up caring altogether, just the degree to which I was doing it. I realized in a fraction of a second that I was responsible for how I was feeling. Not Chris. Not the crew. Me. Because I took ownership of my situation, I had the power to change how I reacted.
And it worked.
I acknowledged how much the need for perfection and to be seen by others as a dedicated, stoic worker was messing me up. Once I eased off and lightened up my attitude, it was as if a HUGE weight had been lifted from my shoulders.*
Did my actual situation change? No. I was still checking script pages each night to prepare the wardrobe for the next day. I was still washing, drying, and ironing piles of clothing. But my narrative had changed, the one that said I had to be all work and stress and worry and no play. That narrative was no longer working for me, and only until I had identified and owned it was I able to change it.
Take care with the narrative you tell yourself. Thoughts have the power to keep you bound to a story that no longer serves you, or they have the power to release you to discover the person you are meant to be.
*P.S. Just to demonstrate the degree to which the stress and anxiety was affecting me and to assure you I’m not overly dramatic: I was a completely healthy if overweight female, and my menstrual cycles stopped during the months I was working on the movie. After I left Gonzales and went back home, life returned to a more familiar pace. Lo and behold, my body eased up and returned to normal.