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  • Stephen Gaddis

Challenging Essential-Self Stories

I recently joined a soccer team in the Massachusetts “Over The Hill” league, which includes over 30, over 40, over 50, and over 60 divisions. (Good to know that the pinnacle of life takes place before 30!) Anyway, my relationship with sports and athletics plays an important role in the history of my having some positive sense of myself. I played competitive rugby until my son was born, and I’ve missed witnessing my athletic ability over the ensuing 15 years.

A couple Sundays ago, I found the courage to hang around with some of the guys after the game who often sit together and share beers — not surprising the activity centers around drinking alcohol. I both value and fear relationships, so it was not comfortable for me to do anything anything but leave as soon as the game was over. The usual practices of connecting began with questions about what I did for work. I shared that I worked as a family therapist and waited. One of my teammates immediately said, “What?! What was the ‘F*%* you, Robert,’ then?!”

In the midst of a previous game, I did not like Robert giving me unsolicited feedback about how I was playing, and I responded with that crude statement. I apologized later because that is not my preference for how I wish to relate when I am annoyed. We shook hands, had a couple of laughs, and things seemed fine.

Why then did identifying myself as a therapist bring forth his comment at that moment? I imagine it was because the story of therapist and the story of explosive teammate did not seem to easily fit together. What was making it so difficult for these stories to co-exist? What story was in the background to make this “difference” noticeable?

I suspect discourses about singular and essential selves may be at play. Individual self-stories call forth identity questions that are oriented around the incitement to know objective and singular truths about a person. Is the Truth that I am in the category of persons who practice therapy, which is defined by assumptions about sensitivity and empathy, or do I belong with the club of persons who incite aggressive conflict, reflected in my swearing at my teammate?

I believe linking people and Truth has come to be one of the most dangerous human practices. Thanks in large part to my engagements with narrative ideas, I was able to respond to Robert’s question playfully by saying, “I am multi-faceted!” At a time in the past, I would have been left feeling like there was something wrong with me as a person for not being a better soccer-playing therapist, whatever the heck that might be!

In my work, among other things, I listen for the effects of essentialist self-stories on the lives and relationships of the people I meet. I cannot imagine anyone engaged with Western culture could be free from the incitement to think of their “selves” in terms of objective truths, cleverly disguised behind normative measures. Using normative measures as a means to locate supposed Truths about who we are as individuals helps produce a pervasive sense of personal failure for many people. We cannot ever be successful in arriving at any objective truth about ourselves so we are destined to always fail! And when objective truths are offered to us about ourselves, we often feel they cannot adequately account for who we fully experience ourselves to be.

What can we do instead? We can engage in relationships where we are working to story possibilities around what is most important to us and strive to become more of the person we would like to become, which is distinct from discovering Truths about ourselves. That sounds like fun to me!

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