Narrative Distress and Reinvention

This is the third post in what has been a kind of accidental series. Previously: Narrative Dissonance, and Where the Narrative Stops.

While my previous two posts on narrative identities were fairly broad in scope, exploring some general cultural patterns, I now want to focus in a little more closely on what it feels like to not have a narrative. Unsurprisingly it can be quite distressing, so I’ve been referring to it mentally as “narrative distress”. This is importantly distinct from “narrative dissonance”, where you have a narrative but decide to do something counter to it, although dissonance can also be distressing in its own right.

In Where the Narrative Stops I wrote a lot about how the default narratives are breaking down under modern society’s emphasis on individualism, and how that can be harmful for young adults who haven’t yet discovered an overriding passion. When I wrote that post I was a step away from the problem; I knew a lot of people in this situation, but I had been living the same narrative for most of my life at that point so it was all a bit abstract. In the six months since I’ve had the most peculiar experience of, in some ways, running out of the narrative I was living. Every story has an end, and when you unexpectedly achieve that ending (or, as in my case, realize you no longer want that particular ending) then you suddenly find yourself without a narrative at all.

Finding myself without a narrative after so long living in a very specific direction was a remarkably weird feeling. It felt in a lot of ways like being burnt out; general disengagement, ennui, etc. Unsurprisingly it produced a very existential feeling of “now what”, but more surprising to me it also produced a significant amount of anxiety, because without a narrative to guide me, every single decision became the seed of a new identity crisis.

Fortunately, once I finally realized what had happened it wasn’t terribly difficult to reinvent my narrative in the shape of something that was still ongoing. This was reasonably easy for me because I’d already done a lot of thinking about what I value in the abstract, but of course that can be a major project in its own right.

Naturally, it’s not quite as simple as just picking a new narrative and pressing “play”. As I discussed in Narrative Dissonance, our life narratives are tied up in our identities and every single one of our choices; it takes time and commitment to gradually shift something like that. So that part of the project for me is still ongoing. But such is life: a constant process of change and growth.