Does a Single Story Define You?

The stories we tell again and again can limit us. There's a better way.

Posted Jul 13, 2015

ilolab/Shutterstock
Source: ilolab/Shutterstock

When I was in training to become a psychiatrist, an old-school mastermind in the field asked the class what I thought was an obvious question:

“What do you think the point of therapy is?”

My arm shot up, eager beaver that I was: “The point of going to therapy,” I said, “is to give yourself a brighter future.”

“Wrong, Dr. Boardman. Anyone else?”

Another brave resident gave it a try: “The point of therapy is to change your present,” she said.

“Wrong again!” he bellowed. “The point of therapy is to change your past.”

What he meant was that people get too attached to the stories they tell about their past—their mother was cold, their father abandoned them, high school was the best (or worst) years of their life, and so on. These are just stories. They are single stories that tell part of a story, but not the whole story. By definition, they leave out a lot of information and leapfrog over nuance and detail. What the good doctor was trying to explain was how recognizing and letting go of the narrow narratives we tell others and we tell ourselves is liberating.

Economics professor Tyler Cowen addresses this issue in a powerful TED talk, "Be Suspicious of Stories." He warns against relying too heavily on stories because they oversimplify things:

So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now some things are actually good vs. evil…but as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling the good vs. evil story, you are basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.

We are drawn to stories. They are in our nature and we are biologically programmed to respond to them. That said, just because stories help us make sense of senseless things doesn’t mean we should get too attached to them or allow them to govern our lives. In fact, the more powerful the story we tell ourselves, the more suspicious we should be.

Cowen explains why:

You’re always left with the same few stories. There’s the old saying, just about every story can be summed up as, “A stranger came to town.” There’s a book by Christopher Booker, he claims there are really just seven types of stories. There’s monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth. You don’t have to agree with that list exactly, but the point is this: if you think in terms of stories, you’re telling yourself the same things over and over again.

Just because we can neatly tie a bow around something doesn’t make it 100 percent true. Stories are not all bad, but those we are overly attached to can limit us from seeing the bigger picture. They shape us in powerful ways and can hold us hostage without us even realizing it.

Writer Chimamanda Adichie addresses the danger of single stories and the value of seeing beyond them:

When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place (or person), we regain a kind of paradise.

Question the stories you tell about yourself and others. Let go of the narrative and embrace the nuance, uncertainty, and glorious mess that life can be.

Gilda Radner says it best:

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.

To learn more visit: www.PositivePrescription.com

About the Author

Samantha Boardman, M.D., is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and assistant attending psychiatrist at Weill-Cornell Medical College. 

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