I spend a lot of time thinking about narratives. Sometimes fictional stories, but mostly about the way I live my life, the way I see others living theirs.
What I see are stories, scripts. Stories that society tells us, on how to live. How to interact with another person. What we should do with our time. What things should be important to us.
The New Year recently passed; a time often considered of rebirth and renewal. Indeed, a narrative has sprung up around the New Year, known mostly as “resolutions.” The time to kick smoking, or exercise more, or any number of things. It is the time of a thousand thousand shoulds, faux commitments to change our lives.
The dark war of Should
I say faux because these are not intrinsic stories; instead they represent a social narrative thrust upon us, driven by an agenda not our own.
Take “get in shape”, for instance. This narrative is often results from the social should of “I should be thinner”, driven by endless slews of marketing around fitness gyms, fashion media and the entertainment industry.
The intrinsic value in the narrative of physical fitness resulting in medical and emotional benefits? Almost completely lost. The narrative is about others’ judgements, not our own health.
The American Dream narrative is equally horrid; especially now that the middle class is being annihilated by the advancing Information Age. Go to college, get married, grow old, and finally retire for yourself?
Work hard, and life will just Be Okay.
We’re seeing the pushback on that now; the utter decimation of manufacturing. The loss of loyalty being rewarded by a corporate entity. A narrative for a world that no longer exists, injuring much more than it helps.
And even for those who grew up in the narrative; got the benefits of it? After forty years of Work being Value, doing nothing is extremely hard. Compounded with ageism, devastated retirement plans and the growing discontent of younger generations at the abuses of the elder, and it’s not hard to see how much damage this narrative did.
A “should”, that didn’t work out.
Should meets Mental Illness
“Shoulds” profoundly worse for those with mental illnesses. Lacking psychic abilities, should is our basis for normality, how other people work inside.
With ADHD, I see other people focussing on tasks, growing tired, resting and recovering. Very normal processes around functionality.
My own behaviour differs starkly; I have to actively work to remove distractions. I often find myself reading random articles; lost in the Internet at large. Maintaining focus without my core interest is excruciating, taking me hours to achieve what should be mere minutes.
All I have to go on are shoulds. The shoulds I made for myself - I should be able to act like others, should be able to focus.
The shoulds I get from society are similar; you should be able to focus. Your value is your work, you should be able to create more value.
You should be able to control this; you’re lazy or a procrastinator if you don’t.
Others aren’t psychic, after all. All they have to go on is giving me their shoulds. I see my procrastination as extremely difficult to control or correct. They see me as lazy, someone who should know better.
I feel shame, emotional rejection. They feel frustration, anger.
Women, Tech, and Impostor Syndrome
Impostor Syndrome1 is a huge problem for women in technology and science fields. We often feel like we don’t know enough, like we’re one minor slip from everyone around us discovering that we don’t belong here.
That we’re faking it.
The stereotyped narratives around women not enjoying tech, not wanting to be in tech are hugely damaging, a narrative of the culture around us that places us as Other.
Because of this narrative, I get challenged on my technical credentials. That I write backend software leaves me unable to discuss generic development concepts; I could never talk about front-end development, for instance.
A man, however, would be unchallenged on that front.
That I write Python, I am challenged on general comments as they relate to Objective-C. Again, the narrative allows a man to comment on these things, whereas I cannot.
Each of these could be written off as one-off events, of course. Someone not understanding my contribution, someone having an off day. The prevalence of the generalised narrative is demonstrated by the sheer number of women who have these stories, who’ve been criticised and silenced.
The likely narratives at play? That women should defer to men. That women don’t do well at science or technology.
That women shouldn’t be here.
Building Better Worlds
Shoulds are a positive force as well; they do provide narratives that help us interact more effectively. You should get to know your neighbors, for instance. By entering their Monkeysphere2, you gain new allies and resources, knit a stronger world.
You should not steal, or impinge others. You should pay attention to your vulnerabilities, be they chemical, gambling, or other.
You should be friendly, outgoing. You shouldn’t get angry. Underlying narratives that gave us strength, helped us move forward.
We are our Stories
In the center is the weight we give to stories. Stories are our emotional connections to others, to our histories.
They are the allegories that shape our lives, the metaphors that guide us. They are the context of a social system that exists beyond the self, the missing psychic link we need to relate.
We ask “why?”, asking for the story, the social context. Signals that are almost unconscious, systems burned into us from childhood.
Our stories are the way we look at the world. Our shoulds are the stories we tell ourselves on how to act, from our parents; from society as a whole.
These are the narratives of our lives, that give us meaning to the world; give the world meaning to us.
The worst abuses come with advertising gets involved, telling everyone how they should buy the latest gizmo. Stories are fed to us on how our happiness hinges on accumulation of Things, of consumption; how a new tool will remove a problem we didn’t know we had.
We are taught to consume to show love, friendship. Told stories on the evilness of the Other political party, that we Should have children.
Should be good consumers. Should work more. Endless shoulds, all designed to manipulate, cost us money. Shoulds that promise happiness; but deliver none.
We don’t question these shoulds, these stories. Narratives that bypass our better judgement, weaponised to force society in a direction against our individual desires; preying on our craving for the tribe.
Questioning is Hard
I’ve started looking at, trying to question my “shoulds.”
Some of them are marketing programming; some of them are contextually provided. Others are broken patterns, social interactions that never worked right.
But even knowing to look; even being aware of the programming of the world around me, I can only barely catch myself on “shoulds” I don’t want. These social narratives are so deeply ingrained, so much a part of me that removal or change is an excruciating process.
It helps to look, though. Without awareness, we have nothing.