by Sunetra Senior

When we think of having a ‘self-narrative’, there might be connotations of egotism and/or triviality, and some of us may even draw a complete blank. It isn’t mentioned very often, and when it is, there’s this fashion of deconstructing it: the notion of having your own conscious story as being strangely self-indulgent, or in its best light intriguing, but ultimately useless. But in a world that is increasingly trying to tell us who we are, where nationalism is on the rise, in even the most *apparently* free-thinking of countries and conformity is king, having a healthy self-narrative – the perception of how our life experiences have come to define and shape us – is not only valid and beautiful, but I would argue, key to rejuvenating our social freedom.

The power of the self-narrative is the fact that it is not simply a cold, CV-like account of external events. As individuals with our own personalities and sensibilities, we’re constituted of a complex set of emotional resonances that emanate from our past experiences and have been forged through both exterior and psychological places. This means that nascent – and just itching to be discovered – within us is a more feeling and multi-dimensional understanding of who we are. ‘A remarkable thing,’ writes Neisser, author of the academically studied psychoanalytical text, The Remembering Selfaccuracy and construction in the self-narrative, ‘is not just that past events influence the present (which happens in all biological systems) but that they are explicitly reconstructed by the person who experienced them (…) If the remembered event seems to have played a significant part in the life of the rememberer, it becomes an example of autobiographical memory’ and can consequently come to form part of a life narrative (…) crucial turning points appear in self-narratives, much more than in life itself.’

This is who we are as humans: pulsing, capacious and infinitely profound.

Importantly, he also emphasises that ‘remembered selves’ are not even entirely dependent on memory because ‘the crucial cognitive activities involved in self-construction seem more like thinking than memory.’ Essentially then the creation of a self-story involves a deep and sustained introspection that connects you to a rawer, more intuitive sense of self that ultimately transcends time. This is your truest character, and it lies beyond the methodical – ancillary – indicators of a consolidated existence, such as a six-figure income and/or popular vocation, getting married, and owning a decent property.  Thinking on and continually reconciling your personal history, including the most charged moments of your life – how and why you reacted a certain way and what the consequences were for you and those around you, your repeat motivations and natural preferences for specific people, traits and activities – gives you the reliable foundation for a personal identity.

This means that, far from being rigidly measurable or linear, the path to fulfilment – your life narrative – is fluid and fluctuating, and inevitably open to adaptation. This is who we are as humans: pulsing, capacious and infinitely profound. This philosophy is especially vital at a time when our concentration is being constantly disrupted so that we have little or no time to gather a self-narrative, let alone the momentum to pursue a relevant life path. We are living not just in the information age, but the information overload age, where we are perpetually bombarded via a range of digital devices by images of glorified social statuses, celebrity lifestyles, and advertisements that are of the opinion that we’re deserving of a better career. It’s a time when, as the Guardian mentioned in a recent article, we’ve returned to pre-workers’ hours rights because of the 24/7 obligation to be alert to our work emails and preserve our social reps on the web and through social media.

In short, if we go back to Neisser, we are being plunged headfirst into a medically amnesiac state. Neisser tells us that without narrativity, amnesiacs have their obvious and distinct identity, but ‘devoid of memories, these patients are not devoid of feelings. In particular they are often depressed about the impoverishment of their lives! They know what they have lost even if they can’t remember it.’ This has painful parallels with the person who has lost their job and, even though they find themselves financially stable, continue to be filled with fear and panic, unable to be at peace just within themselves. This also applies to the rich and successful business owner who feels only emptiness, and finally to the leaders of business empires who somehow think power is equivalent to great intelligence (his name begins with a T).

If we are becoming robots, and I’ll happily get sensationally human when I say this, we are being programmed for evil.

The picture gets even darker when you realise that in lieu of a robust individuality the empty space can be filled by an illicit social identity that slowly creeps in, gauzed by all the superficial criss-crossed confusion. This identity, without us even knowing it, gets us to enforce its authoritarian bidding. There are no better examples of this than the grand concepts of racial and national identity and, even for some of the most liberal of us, our loyalty to corporate affiliation. There isn’t just co-option of our wants and desires, but distortion and degradation. If we are becoming robots, and I’ll happily get sensationally human when I say this, we are being programmed for evil. It’s the 21st Century and the public is being made to regard those who look and want to do differently with sheer apprehension and contempt. This is at the same time as feeling shame themselves when thinking about leaving an oppressive career – heaven forbid going freelance (what a scandal).

Here’s where it becomes significant not just to realise but to own your self-narrative, and also where the argument against narratives as egocentric can be swiftly dismantled. Neisser, and basically the whole of contemporary psychology, agree that one’s tendency to self-criticise – especially in a hierarchical society – is as strong as their tendency to self-aggrandise. This minimises chances of any internal misrepresentation. Surely the passionate amplification of one’s most intimate subjectivity is the antidote needed in a world of flat, uniform constructs and interpersonal indifference? The self-narrative is ego-led but also empowering and meaningful. It can become a salubrious repossession of that particular unit of the mind. I will use the example of one my favourite comedians, Russell Brand, to illustrate. He is often looked upon as eccentric and/or delusional, and shamelessly self-indulgent, but this is precisely because he exuberantly lauds everything the institution-defying self-narrative is.

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Fiercely self-aware since he was a child, to the point where he even ‘came out’ as the second coming of Christ to his mother, Brand has challenged family members, authority figures, and even his own unconscious while grappling with his drug addiction. He has ended up being one of youth’s most looked up to social campaigners, now having spoken in both official and unofficial capacities on the topic of drug addiction – sometimes in great communicative tandem with his comedy-allure. This is honouring one’s ephemeral qualities at its best. ‘He was a mess, and he was always talking about being famous,’ says one of his friends, in his latest documentary, ‘that he would change the world; we all thought he was crazy. But, he’s doing it…’ In essence, a self-narrative may be a self-focussed fabrication, but it’s the right way, as it were, to be wrong.

With a bit of daily contemplation and acting on what you’ve learnt from it– e.g. by doing what you love to do more, enthusiastically talking to people about it, and making plans that speak to you, from socialising to career choices – you can synthesise for yourself a great certainty and feeling of moving forwards. Watching the clock and striving for banal landmarks will only leave you feeling stagnant and flat inside. Techniques such as meditation and CBT can guide you through this journey, too, if you’re struggling. Finally, to truly live in the present, you must process what’s passed. This is the message of the self-narrative and why you need a strong one through the turbulence of modern life.

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