Stories and Selves

Young adults hanging out talking

I want to begin by proposing boldly that, in effect, there is no such thing as an intuitively obvious and essential self to know, one that just sits there ready to be portrayed in words. Rather, we constantly construct and reconstruct our selves to meet the needs of situations we encounter, and we do so with the guidance of our memories of the past and our hopes and fears for the future. Telling oneself about oneself is like making up a story about  who and what we are, what’s happened, and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

It is not that we have to make up these stories from scratch each time. Our self-making stories accumulate over time, even pattern themselves on conventional genres. They get out-of-date, and not just because we grow older or wiser but because our self-making stories need to fit new circumstances, new friends, new enterprises. Our very memories fall victim to our self-making stories. It is not that I can no longer tell you (or myself) the “original, true story” about my desolation in the bleak summer after my father died. Rather, I would be telling you (or myself) a new story about a twelve-year-old “once upon a time.” And I could tell it several ways, all of them shaped as much by my life since then as by the circumstances of that long-ago summer. (p. 64-65)

I find myself telling different people different stories over time about why am I in my existing career, why this particular half-time scheme, why am I pursuing a PhD on the side. I think our career and work takes up so much of our lives that it is useful to examine the stories we tell ourselves and others about them. There are those stories about how a child had a dream to be a doctor, to save lives, but thereafter on that path, through the backbreaking work and heart-wrenching encounters, realizes maybe medicine’s not for him or her; stories about how one really wanted to be a lawyer, a policeman, a teacher, but no matter how hard one tried, those doors didn’t open. The heart-aching stories of people who spent their whole lives pursuing a career that they knew they hated, but stayed on because of the fear of taking chances and because it paid the bills . And also stories of how people stumbled into a career they loved by accident. A letter written to the forum and then talent-spotted to be a journalist.

So many, so many possible interpretations of what is happening in our lives. This blog started out as a story as well. It was a story of a girl setting out to find a job, and how qualifications and a good CV were not enough, enough to get her interviews, but not enough to impress interviewers; and how finally a kind soul employed her (what a relief that not every boss goes for the brightest spark), and how she developed empathy for those who struggled to find jobs, because of her own struggles.


Bruner, J. (2002) Making stories: Law, literature, life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press