Identity Through Narrative

In the past few weeks, I have been researching personal identity through narrative from the perspective of survival of trauma and complex PTSD. It’s a rehashing of my thesis topic, in which I proposed that identity is formed and stripped through the power of personal narrative. George Orwell said “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” While in my thesis I cited literary academic sources, I have been deep diving into psychological research that speaks of this same idea. In Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, the author relates that if you don’t have a basic sense of who you are as a person, you can’t learn how to emotionally engage with other people at a deep level.

The resources that I have consulted over the past few weeks all promote the idea that we must speak about our personal experiences to become freed of the psychological weights we have been carrying around. When we create a narrative around our experiences, we are able to own them. Further, through the various outlets I have been consulting, the common thread is that there are some inset narratives that must be dismantled and rewritten.

There are narratives that we tell ourselves, such as “I am unloveable”, “I am worthless”, and “I am a burden” that may have carried over from the past. In claiming our personhood and reintegrating our personalities, we must come face-to-face with these damaging narratives. We can slowly begin to brush these thoughts away as they come. And they will come. There is no shame or guilt in having thoughts. It is in our hands to be gentle and let them come and go.

Sometimes, we will meet people who will attempt to destroy our identity. Maybe they will not even realize what they are doing. Maybe they will catch us in a moment of vulnerability, such as when we start a new job, as we’re moving, when we’re going through some personal issues. These people will tear apart those very things that make us feel secure. They will have us feeling like empty shells walking around, unable to operate without their opinions. Those are the people who take away the power of our personal narrative. And in that, they temporarily shrink our identity.

Not until we come out of spells like this do we realize that we relinquished our very personhood to someone else’s insecurities. And then we may take on more damage and more damaging narratives by telling ourselves that people are not trustworthy and that they are not meant to see our truest selves. If we have been through enough trials of broken identity, we may wake up one day and realize this. Perhaps we’ll stumble on a book that will frame identity in a new way, or someone will say something to us that will break from the norm and get us thinking differently.

When this happens, it is up to us to run with it. Not walk, run. Pick up as much as we can and sprint for that person inside of us, that true identity that we lost in childhood. We lost this identity because we thought it was safer that way. If only we were more quiet, or more nice as small children, then maybe we wouldn’t have been subjected to the abuse. But when we wake up, we start to realize that it was never our fault. We were just small. We adapted in the best way we could, and that carried over far into our adulthoods.

And when we finally wake up from that dizzy spell of rejection and manipulation, only then can we see that it is all of humanity that is hurting. And we all hurt in different ways. Some of us hurt ourselves (internalizers); some of us hurt others (externalizers). We have a bit of both. We can claim the pain and we can claim our actions, but never the actions of others. We can fathom that tomorrow will be a better day, because we will continue to steep in the lovingness of self-awareness, fend off the negative self-talk, care for ourselves like nobody else ever could, and try to make those nourishing connections we always craved.

When we have untangled the horrid things we’ve endured and cast them to the winds, driven through our thought deserts alone, gained enough courage to be vulnerable, then we can stop fighting. We can drop our shields and pour out all of the last hurt and mistreatment and even the things we’ve done to hurt others. And when we are so tired that we drop to our knees, we will feel there is nothing left. Nothing more that we can possibly go through that will make things right. And that’s when we’ll give up our healing fantasy. That healing fantasy was meeting a partner to put us whole again, our mother coming to hug us and say sorry, a friend realizing that they’d abandoned us when we needed them most, strangers taking out their frustrations on us. That healing fantasy will disintegrate. And when we’re still there, on our knees, we’ll realize all at once that we were always whole.

A rush of energy will make us briefly dizzy and then make us itch to stand up. And we’ll stand and as we do, we’ll begin to rebuild our identity. “What makes me happy?”, we’ll say. “How do I like to do my hair?”, we’ll cast into the mirror. “What do I like to do?” And it’s those questions that will weave a narrative of self, and our identity will come to feel more integrated as the days, weeks, months, and years go by.

Our identity will have gone from being fractured. We will have come from feeling discomfort in our own bodies. We will create a new narrative of ourselves, and it will change and flow. And it will repel the people who want to hurt others. And it will welcome those who want to share the precious time we have here on Earth. It will cater to those outside ourselves who see our value and respect our boundaries. It will place the things in front of us that we never thought we could have.