Maybe it is time to have fewer opinions
Your opinions determine who you are and who you will be. This is not a revolutionary realization, but it is a crucial notion to have around.
In the meaning I’m trying to convey here, opinions are any formed judgment you might hold about reality. A value you attribute to something, usually taken from a pool of other possible ones. It goes from “I like broccoli” to “I am Christian.”
At first glance, the statement sounds like a tautology: the present is always a necessary condition to the future, so inevitably, what I am, say, and do now will determine what I will be, say and do in the future. But the relationship between opinions and your future is a more intimate one.
A general idea of how this relationship unfolds has been running through my mind for a while. Still, I couldn’t frame it in an intelligible way until I looked at it through the lenses of the Narrative Theory of Personality. Or, to better put it, through the overly-simplified filtered version I, a humble, curious mind, made of it.
Our self stories
The Narrative Theory of Personality is a psychology theory that postulates that we build our identity by constructing an actual story of ourselves. We put together our past, present, and future into a cohesive narrative with scenarios, characters, plots, etc. We then use this construct to make sense and reflect on our identity. We also share parts of it with others around us to have a glimpse at who we are.
The psychology professor Dan McAdams, the first researcher to completely formalize this theory, explains that this phenomenon of “constructing a narrative of our self” has its origins in our late adolescence and young adulthood. In his paper, The Psychology of Life Stories, professor McAdams mentions the following of this period of life:
“In general, Western societies ‘expect’ adolescents and young adults to begin to examine the occupational, interpersonal, and ideological offerings of society and, eventually, to make commitments, even if only temporary, to personalized niches in the adult world.”
The original finality of the self-story abstraction, I conclude, is to help us fit in. After I understand who I am and how my story will develop, I can place myself in the right social contexts. But to understand my identity, I need mental tools to help me visualize it. This tool is a self-story.
Self-stories permit us to build a sense of coherence and finality in our lives.
Self-stories permit us to build a sense of coherence and finality in our lives. By re-creating ourselves as the central characters of this story, we can more concretely understand and start answering the more fundamental identity questions. Who am I? What I’m doing? Where I’m going? Those answers will serve as clues, helping us tie our stories to the bigger social narrative.
Naturally, the pretense of control under the character destiny a fiction story holds does not sustain itself in the real world of self-stories. We’re constantly adjusting our narrative to the external circumstances of life. Still, what is undeniable is that we must convey a coherent story. Like in any good tale, we need to guide the reader through a series of facts that hold a relationship of cause and effect, building to some form of climax and leading to an end.
The cost of Change
This necessary coherence makes the effects of opinions over our selves more impactful than we would consider at first glance. When you absorb a particular view, you’re adding it to your self-story main character. And once you do it, you have to keep the story coherent. If you think A, you cannot act B unless you write yourself a series of convincing facts that lead you from A to B.
If you think A, you cannot act B unless you write yourself a series of convincing facts that lead you from A to B.
Unlike their fiction analogs, self-stories do not allow for rewrites or drafts or any cheap removal mechanisms. You’re often adding, writing action after action in a permanent record. A process that requires energy and effort because writing new lines means living new lines. Change costs.
To make it trickier, you must also recognize that your self-story has external readers. Everyone that, in one way or the other, relates to you will grab the relevant pieces of your narrative you share with them and add to their self-stories.
You’re the main character of your story while also playing supporting roles in other people’s tales. This means that tiny adjustments or big plot twists on your self-story must be convincing to your external readers as well. An exterior tension that is often constraining how we delineate our identities.
Handling the plot twists
There are some ways one can handle this strain around change. You can focus on coherence by writing only what needs to be written. Your character does not need always to know if they’re A or B. They might act ambivalently, to postpone the struggle of change until necessary.
For several matters, the need for positioning is ephemeral
For several matters, the need for positioning is ephemeral anyway. Voicing an opinion is often more a status signal than an identity realization. But there are cases where the development of the story depends on an internal resolution.
If, after careful examination, it becomes clear you need to decide between paths, you might still have a strategy to reduce the distress of change. Write the character of your self-story as an ever-changing one from the beginning.
A fluid persona needs less effort to keep it’s identity coherent. Suppose you internalize change as an undeniable necessity of the future and incorporate it into your story. In that case, different narrative directions will still hold cohesion. Make sure it is an existential choice, not pure fickleness, and you will be setting yourself towards more fluidity and fewer struggles.
Those strategies shouldn’t imply that change is unwanted. They’re just the recognition that changes are both challenging and necessary. They’re so essential to save us from self-denial that we want to welcome them as much as possible.
But even after understanding the nuances of changes, we might still face some that will frighten us. In those cases, remember that the hero’s journey requires struggle. Pain, doubt, and confusion are on the path to redemption. Do not be afraid to face the changes you have to face if they’re on your way to who you want to be.
All Illustrations by Absurd Design.