Identity and Strength Are in Our Stories

Stories are the threads that weave identity.

Posted Sep 09, 2020

Frayed Edges
Source: Blair

When life happens, who you are is who you bring to the moment, to the party, to the decision. The better you know who you are, the more you have to call on. The clearer you have defined it for yourself, the harder it will be for the world to threaten it. Identity gives you strength. When personal identity is strong and clear, we are more confident, more creative, more collaborative, more consistent, and the list goes on.

Exploring who we are seems to come out of a deep curiosity that I think all humans are born with. What is fascinating to me is that we are so complex that it takes time to discover the depth of who and what we are. That’s one of the reasons that I love using stories to do that exploration. Personal stories are not judgmental. They simply reflect what you believe happened. Even if others see it differently, the story you tell yourself is how it happened to you. 

Stories also demand that the context be revealed. That means you see the action within a larger frame. It deepens the meaning of the actions. Stories also must include the characters who were in the story. While story characters don’t have to be people and could actually be totally inanimate objects that simply have played a role, knowing the people who were a part of the story brings insight into relationships which are a reflection of deeper aspects of ourselves. When we look across our personal stories, they act as threads as we explore what they have woven. 

Stories are threads.

Names are often the centerpiece of someone’s identity. One of the ways to help people begin to explore their identity – and one of my favorite ways – is to ask my audiences to think about the story of their name. Audiences love to tell that story. It’s so much fun to hear how they view the aunt or the grandfather whose name they bear. The story may involve why they were named what they were named, “it’s tradition.” Or the story may involve how a person has discovered things about their name that they find illuminating. The name may indeed be just the name their parents chose, but it may be a name that has intrinsic meaning such as Faith or Hope or Major. The story of your name allows your name to be a stimulant to thinking about who you are without any judgement on the story. 

When individuals take time to write stories from their own lives, they can learn deep things about who they are. This kind of storytelling takes time because you have to let your mind call up moments from your life that you then cast as a story so that the event or moment includes the context, characters, and closure of the event or moment. You can’t do this in an afternoon. In my work with clients, it takes several months until they have enough stories that when they look across them, connecting threads become evident. A childhood story of walking in fields of grass sheds light on why something within you loves the sound of wind in the grass. A story of getting A+ on that test on fractions suddenly gives you a new understanding of why numbers have always been a part of who you are. Remembering a project where you achieved success even though you experienced problem after problem can spotlight your creativity and persistence as you tease out the details of the story. As a result, you step into the next project with a greater sense of what you actually bring to the table with confidence.  

Finding the connecting threads of our stories takes time to weave into a strong fabric, and a strong fabric is needed. 

If the stories we tell about ourselves are always about our work, it is no wonder that many see their identity as being their job or position. Retirement can be more dangerous for those who see their identity only as their work. All of their stories are about and from their work — real but not interconnected with others so that at retirement, they suddenly disassemble. When I work with individuals, I help them look for stories from other dimensions of their lives. Otherwise, the threads are there, but it’s as if they work only in one direction. The fabric appears solid but can be separated by a touch. 

When our sense of identity is under threat, we work hard to protect it.  

When organizations reorganize, job identity which often makes up a large part of our sense of identity is threatened. But even with just a shift of focus to collaboration, staff can feel their identities threatened. When boundaries blur, our sense of position and control threatens our identity. Our response can be to resist even when evidence shows that collaboration is a working style that builds success for everyone. Our concern is that we feel a sense of rupture initially. 

It turns out that there are micro stresses[1] in our lives that are a real challenge to our identity and values. Micro-stresses are when interactions routinely create friction with our values, they challenge our sense of self (identity) and can be emotionally exhausting. Some examples are: (a) pressure to pursue goals out of synch with your personal values, (b) when someone undermines your sense of self-confidence, worth, or control, and (c) disruptions to your network. Micro-stresses add up. 

A more subtle force is when you allow your own sense of identity to merge with another’s who appears to be a super-hero, a star, a power holder, or just is charismatic. It’s as if you were letting something outside of yourself define you. The fabric only appears to be part of you when it is not. Strength comes from your internal identity. 

This is when it’s time to dig for more stories from your life – and stories from different dimensions. The more stories add more threads to the weave and the stronger the fabric of your identity becomes. 

Rip in the Fabric
Source: Blair

Bullying of teenagers is so abhorrent as it tears the fragile, loosely woven fabric of a young life. A teenager may not have enough life experience to discover the threads that make a strong sense of identity. This is why adolescence is the time for parents, family, and friends to hold the threads together until the teenager has gathered more stories, more threads, to weave a more solid fabric. 

What else has an identity that can be threatened?

Products have identities that are called brands. The care that companies take to preserve a consistent, meaningful brand is evidence of the power of identity. That care can be seen in advertisements that are mostly stories. How else can you describe the Budweiser commercials that always seem to feature certain horses and puppies? 

Companies have identities, as well. They are often based on the founder. For example, Walt Disney is known for valuing imagination — staff learn this by hearing stories of Walt and the values he used to make decisions. Today, Disney still values imagination. Imagineers are the creators of the theme parks, which are so essential to Disney’s presence in the world. Pixar is another example of a company that values creativity. In Pixar, it is a culture of innovation that honors honesty and candor[2] so that the best product can be developed. Although Wall Street tends to define companies in terms of finances, their real identity is embedded in their cultures. Disney and Pixar are famous stories. Although strong identities, even Catmul, the CEO of Pixar, says his main job is to assure the company always honors honesty and candor. 

It’s easy to think of large cities as having an identity, but in a recent New York Times article[3] about post offices in rural America, you see it even in the smallest of rural towns. It was all about a story of chicks that died in transit because the post office couldn’t deliver at its usual speed. A simple story that made it clear that as Gaylene Christensen of Arlington, SD, said, “If these small rural towns lose their post offices they lose their identity.” 

Our identity as a nation is also tied to the stories we tell. The stories of the lone cowboy add a sense of independence. The story of Abraham Lincoln makes us believe that we are an honest people. The stories of immigrants reinforce our belief that we are welcoming to all. The stories from WWII suggest that we are extraordinary. Our stories weave the fabric of our identity, an identity that can be threatened.

Our job is to keep telling our stories.


[1] Rob Cross, Jean Singer, and Karen Dillon. (July 9, 2020) Don’t Let Micro-Stresses Burn You Out by . HBR 

[2] Ed Catmull (2014) Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration, Random House.

[3] Jack Helay (August 21, 2020) The Chick’s in the Mail? Rural America Faces New Worries With Postal Crisis