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From Victim to Victor: the heroic narrative as a path to transformation



As we go through life, each of us constructs our own story, casting ourselves as the lead character, weaving together the threads of our life experiences, thoughts and memories to create a coherent sense of who we are. This is our “narrative identity”, and it encompasses the interpretation and integration of our experiences, relationships, and cultural influences.


Our narrative identity provides a framework that influences our self-understanding, decision-making, and the construction of meaning in our life, ultimately moulding the character we become. This narrative is not just a chronological account of events; rather, it is a dynamic, evolving process by which we weave a unique, subjective story, making narrative choices that helps us make sense of who we are and how we fit into the broader context of our personal and social worlds.


In this article, I explore how our narrative identity is formed, how it both influences and is influenced by our path through life and – ultimately – how we can create a positive narrative identity for ourselves that supports our wellbeing and growth.


Anatomy of a narrative identity


From the earliest moments of childhood to the complexities of adulthood, we are constantly crafting our story, integrating triumphs, failures, and the myriad nuances of human existence. While many people are able to construct healthy, positive narrative identities, negative ones can also manifest in various ways, shaping individuals' perceptions of themselves, their capabilities, and the world around them.


The foundation of our narrative identity is often laid in childhood, where we absorb societal norms, familial values, and personal experiences. For example, a child raised in a supportive environment may develop a narrative that emphasises resilience and a positive outlook, influencing their approach to challenges in adulthood, whereas a child who experiences neglect or abuse may develop a narrative around helplessness and dependency on others to resolve problems.


Cultural influences, too, play a pivotal role. Consider a young musician growing up in a community that values creativity. Their narrative identity might be shaped by the belief that musical expression is a noble pursuit, leading them to pursue a career that aligns with their passion. Compare this with someone growing up in a community that regards creative pursuits as a waste of time; this person may feel alienated and unworthy. In every society, there is a set of cultural “norms” - expectations placed on all members of the community to embrace certain beliefs and behave in particular ways. While some norms are often important for society to function, others can be oppressive and serve to stifle or even punish non-conformist actions or aspirations where these do not align with “the norm”.


Critical life events are also significant factors in the formation of a narrative identify. For instance, overcoming a significant setback such as illness, job loss or the break up of a relationship are all situations in which the narrative may be reinforced or not, and can be a turning point in a person’s life story that transforms the narrative from one of despair to resilience.


Our narrative identity frequently becomes deeply ingrained within us, and our inherent confirmation bias leads us to unconsciously seek evidence that aligns with our existing beliefs about ourselves. For instance, if we have framed ourselves as victims, failures, or unworthy in our narrative identity, encountering challenging situations triggers an automatic response wherein we instinctively perceive ourselves as victims, failures, or unworthy, subsequently influencing our behaviour. While there are situations where this self-perception may accurately reflect reality, having such a negative narrative identity can blur our ability to distinguish between perception and objective reality.


Negative narrative bias


You might be tempted to think that, statistically, there would be a 50-50 chance of developing a negative narrative identity but in fact the odds are stacked against us: a narrative identity stems from a combination of psychological, social, and evolutionary factors, each of which can be characterised by a form of “negativity bias”.


Firstly, from an evolutionary perspective, as humans we are wired to be vigilant to potential threats for survival, and this innate negativity bias may lead us to focus more on the negative aspects of our experiences. Consider our ancient ancestors and the difference between these two cognitive processes: “A sabre-toothed tiger – Run!” and “Hey, I wonder what that sabre-toothed tiger is doing”! If our ancestors’ brains hadn’t been able to make the distinction, you or I might not be alive today.


Secondly, cultural influences and societal expectations frequently emphasise shortcomings or failures, fostering a predisposition towards self-criticism. We are constantly bombarded with social media, celebrity news stories and advertising campaigns that encourage comparison with others (in which we almost invariably find ourselves lacking), which create a sense of lack or low self-worth. The human mind also tends to give more weight to negative experiences, perhaps as an evolutionary protective mechanism to avoid potential harm. Furthermore, cognitive biases such as impostor syndrome or negativity bias can contribute to the formation and reinforcement of negative self-perceptions. In contrast, societal and cultural norms often discourage overt self-promotion, making individuals more hesitant to construct a positive narrative identity.


The interplay of these factors can create a fertile ground for the development of negative narratives, as they align with both our internal cognitive biases and external societal influences.


Some of the most common negative narrative identities are:


  • The Victim narrative: People with a victim narrative see themselves as powerless, oppressed, or unfairly treated by life. They attribute their struggles exclusively to external forces, rarely taking responsibility for their actions. This can lead to a sense of helplessness and dependency on others for solutions. It may hinder personal growth and resilience by framing challenges as insurmountable obstacles imposed by external factors.


  • The Failure narrative: People with a failure narrative define themselves by their past mistakes or perceived shortcomings. They may believe that their past failures predict future ones, undermining their self-esteem and confidence. This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where individuals fear taking risks or trying new things due to an expectation of failure. It can impede personal and professional development, limiting one's willingness to explore opportunities.


  • The Unworthy narrative: People with an unworthy narrative often feel undeserving of success, love, or happiness. They may believe that they are inherently flawed or inferior, regardless of their accomplishments. This narrative can lead to self-sabotaging behaviours, as individuals may unconsciously reject opportunities for success or meaningful relationships and it can contribute to a cycle of low self-esteem and negative self-talk.


  • The Alienated narrative: People with an alienated narrative feel disconnected from society, viewing themselves as outsiders or misunderstood. They may struggle to form meaningful relationships and may adopt a cynical worldview, contributing to social isolation and hindering the development of a support network. It may lead to a reluctance to trust others, making it challenging to build healthy connections.


  • The Stagnation narrative: People with a stagnation narrative resist change and personal growth. They may perceive the unfamiliar as threatening and prefer the safety of the familiar, even if it means remaining in unfulfilling circumstances. This can result in missed opportunities for learning, exploration, and self-improvement. It may lead to a stagnant and unfulfilling life, as individuals avoid the necessary challenges that come with personal development.


The Hero’s Journey


Identifying and challenging negative narrative identities is a crucial step toward fostering personal growth and well-being. By recognising these patterns, we can begin to change our narratives, focusing on our strengths, building resilience, and the potential for positive change.


But because our narrative identity is literally who we believe we are, shifting from a negative to a positive narrative identity is a deeply transformative journey that demands self-awareness, introspection, and a commitment to change. The process involves recognising the negative patterns ingrained in our stories, acknowledging their impact on our thoughts and behaviours, and actively choosing to reframe them.


One powerful framework for understanding and constructing a positive narrative identity is Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey - a universal pattern that underlies many of the world's most enduring myths and legends. Campbell was a renowned mythologist and spent his life studying the world’s greatest myths, religions, and stories across all cultures and languages, and from every era. He identified a universal narrative pattern - the Hero's Journey – an archetypal story structure, found in myths and stories across cultures that outlines a transformative adventure which mirrors the challenges and triumphs of human life.


The hero begins in the ordinary world but is beckoned into the unknown by a call to adventure. This mirrors the moments in our lives when we are presented with opportunities or challenges that compel us to step out of our comfort zones. The hero faces trials, encounters mentors and allies, and confronts adversaries. Similarly, our personal journeys involve overcoming obstacles, seeking guidance, and navigating the complexities of relationships. Throughout the Journey, the hero undergoes a profound transformation and returns to the ordinary world with newfound wisdom. This mirrors the personal growth and self-discovery that occur as we navigate life's challenges, emerging wiser and more resilient.


The Hero's Journey invites us to embark on a quest, confront our inner dragons, and emerge victorious with newfound wisdom. It offers not only a new lens through which to view challenges but also serves as a blueprint for rewriting our narrative, recognising that each of us is a hero in our own life and encouraging a shift from victimhood to empowerment, from failure to resilience, and from unworthiness to self-discovery. The Hero's Journey becomes a guiding light, illuminating the path toward a positive and fulfilling narrative identity.


This is backed up by positive psychology research which suggests that individuals who construct positive and coherent life narratives experience greater psychological well-being: longitudinal studies have shown that the way in which people construct their narrative identities impact on their longer-term mental health and, with specific reference to the Hero’s Journey, a recent study found that people who reframe their life as a hero’s journey have a greater sense of meaning in their lives, and as a result they experience enhanced wellbeing, greater life satisfaction and reduced depression.


Conclusion


In the complex tapestry of life, the construction of our narrative identity is essential to our sense of who we are and our place in the world. By embracing the metaphor of the Hero's Journey, we can transform the mundane into the extraordinary, finding meaning in adversity, embracing personal growth, and contributing to our overall wellbeing. As the hero of our own story, each challenge becomes an opportunity, and every step forward is a heroic stride toward self-discovery and a life well-lived.


If you want to explore this more deeply and make positive changes to your personal narrative identity, but aren’t sure where to start or what to do, The Wild Edges can help! Contact me at thewildedges@pm.me for an informal, no-obligation discovery session.




Joss Anderson is a qualified and experienced Shamanic Practitioner, Shamanic Reiki Master Practitioner and ICF-accredited coach, based in Cambridgeshire, UK and online.


© Joss Anderson 2023; © The Wild Edges, 2023












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