It’s a new year — the end of one chapter and the beginning of another — a time to change.
The more dramatic the change, the more likely it is to lead to a transformation of your identity. Some changes involve integrating into new environments, building new relationships and developing new behaviours. You may have to leave behind some of the things that currently help you to define yourself and incorporate new things. This can be especially true if, like many of my recent clients, the change is something that has been forced upon you and is quite dramatic — such as redundancy.
Such a change may bring about a transformation of identity. A lot of clients undergoing this kind of process struggle with how to describe themselves. ‘I used to be a… What am I now?’
What makes for a successful identity transformation — whether it is voluntary or imposed upon you?
Editing our story
Narrative theories of identity assume that we build our sense of ourselves almost exclusively through constructing narratives. We select episodes from our mish-mash of experiences and imbue them with self-defining significance by incorporating them into our life stories. Whilst I’m not convinced that narrative is the only technique that we use to define our identities, it does seem to be a very important one.
So, how do we use narratives to construct new identities in the midst of change? According to a recent paper by Ibarra and Barbulescu (2010), significant work role transitions involves rearranging our repertoire of self-defining narratives through a process of trial and error. When we take on a new role we often have to introduce ourselves to new people or, perhaps, change the nature of our existing relationships. This often involves justifying a connection between what we are aiming to achieve and what we have done in the past. Because the demands of the situation have changed, the justifications we used in the past may no longer work and we have to find new ones. This can be particularly important if we are going for interviews or networking with potential contacts in a new area. Through trying out these new narratives on ourselves and on other people we start to identify which ones are acceptable and helpful for making sense of the new situation. As well as constructing new narratives, we may drop older ones or amend them so that they are more consistent with our new situation.
Validation and authenticity
In order for our new repertoire of self-defining narratives to be successful in facilitating the transition, they have to be validated by the people in our new social environment. We need to receive some form of positive feedback on our attempts to explain ourselves. For this to happen, our stories have to make sense to the people listening and to fit in with their expectations of what is an acceptable narrative.
At the same time, we like to view our identity as being consistent over time (even though that might not be the reality). It can be unsettling to feel that there is no connection between how you were in the past and how you will be in the future. A narrative is more likely to be successful therefore if it feels authentic to the narrator and is consistent with other self-defining narratives.
Coherence and legitimacy
If a story has a coherent, structured plot, it is easy to see how one episode follows logically from the preceding episode. Even if the reality was somewhat chaotic and unstructured, people like to hear stories that flow with a certain amount of predictability.
It helps if there is an agentic protagonist — someone who makes choices and takes actions which make sense within the setting of the story. So, narratives that explain the link between seemingly disparate episodes and which explain a coherent rationale on the part of the main character are more likely to be validated by others and to be perceived as authentic by the narrator.
However, it’s not just the characteristics of the story itself that determine its validity in the ears of the listeners. Whenever we listen to someone else’s story we automatically compare it to our own story and to other archetypal stories relevant to our setting. When I hear other careers advisers talk about how they got into the field, I expect to hear something about how they always enjoyed listening to and helping other people with their problems. I also anticipate that they will say something about being somewhat confused about their own career direction, because I’ve heard this frequently in other narratives from careers advisers. If their story doesn’t contain these expected elements, it doesn’t feel quite so legitimate. Therefore, you are much more likely to be accepted within a new field if you are already familiar with some of the common themes of existing inhabitant’s self-narratives.
Variety and consistency
If we already have a varied repertoire of self-narratives, it is more likely that we will be able to find a story that can be adapted to meet the demands of a new situation. Variety isn’t just about having lots of different stories to tell. It’s also about being able to tell the same story in a variety of ways to bring out different messages and meanings. In the same way, the greater number of archetypal stories we have access to, the easier it will be to adapt our narratives to include these expected themes.
If there is a large degree of consistency in the themes and meanings of our new narrative repertoire, we are more likely to settle into our new identity quickly. This may involve revisiting older narratives and reinterpreting them in light of the elements of our new identity.
For me, there arise from these ideas a few obvious tips for helping people to deal with transition (or even dealing with my own transitions):
- Work to increase the variety of your narrative repertoire — this means trying out new experiences but also regularly reviewing my existing self-defining narratives and experimenting with alternative interpretations and viewpoints.
- Collect more archetypal narratives from the target environment. Increasingly, I find myself encouraging clients to find someone who is already doing a job they are considering and getting them to tell some stories. Questions like ‘How did you decide to pursue this particular path?’ can be quite instructive.
- Practise telling your new stories in a safe environment before launching them on to the target audience.
- Concentrate on the links between episodes in your life. How did you get from A to B?
- Concentrate on the reasons for your actions (even if they are only evident after the fact).
- Ibarra, H. & Barbulescu, R. (2010). Identity as narrative: Prevalence, effectiveness, and consequences of narrative identity work in macro work role transitions. Academy of Management Review, 35(1), 135-154. DOI: 10.5465/AMR.2010.45577925
- There is an interesting special issue of the Journal of Personality [72(3) 2004] on narrative identity and meaning making.
- Related posts: Telling tales; Time travel; Intentional change; Identity crisis