I was in my high school English class when I first heard the term, “unreliable narrator.” An unreliable narrator does not accurately report a story, whether intentionally or because of a personally skewed viewpoint. While my teacher probably gave us a textual example, I either didn’t recognize it or it didn’t stick with me. For some reason, it’s one of those concepts that has always intrigued me. Yet, until a few years ago, I had never come across an unreliable narrator (at least, I had not encountered a narrator that I had recognized as such). I was excited, then, when I happened upon one such narrator in a novel a few years ago and was able to label him with the term. More surprising, however, was what the novel made me realize about myself: I was an unreliable narrator, too.
The novel was about a monk in crisis about his vocation. It was narrated in first person (from the perspective of the monk). Throughout the first half of the book, the monk relays his memories of his deceased wife and the children they had together (prior to his becoming a monk). I don’t remember all of the details, but he presents a fairly innocuous and clear-cut picture of his past. Slowly, through his present experiences and his counseling by another monk, a very different picture unravels. The new picture displays a complicated relationship with his wife and children. He reveals some starkly honest details about how he felt about them and acknowledges selfish choices he made for his own “protection” from them and their needs.
If you want an example of an unreliable narrator, watch the movie A Beautiful Mind or google the term. You’ll find lists. You don’t have to go that far to find one, though. If you think about it, I bet you’ll find an unreliable narrator right in front of you: yourself. We can all identify times and situations when we have been unreliable in the stories we tell ourselves.
I realized this tendency in myself after reading the novel I mentioned above. I was a year or so into counseling at that point, and much of that first year had revolved around processing a personal situation that had recently ended. I had prolonged the situation because I could not (or would not) accurately assess the nature of the situation and my feelings about it. My own commentary wrote the story in the way I thought it was supposed to go. However unconsciously, I avoided what was really going on and kept myself from having to deal with it.
Typically, my self-narration is most flawed when there’s a situation I thought would go well but doesn’t–a job, a relationship, a decision, you name it. I’m not sure why it’s so hard for me to admit that to myself. Part of the reason is an avoidance of dealing with pain and disappointment. Part of the reason is a prideful desire to not be wrong. Part of it is wanting to just stick with whatever it is rather than acknowledging that starting all over again might be my best option. Part of it is hoping I can “will” situations into becoming what I want them to be or what I think they’re supposed to be.
When we distort the stories we tell ourselves, we get in the way of our real story moving forward. We get stuck in false narratives that take us in directions unhelpful to us and the people who are part of our story. Sometimes we realize when we’re doing it, sometimes we don’t. Usually it takes us a bit of time to become aware of the difference between our natural reaction and the way we are changing the narrative in our heads. Occasionally, someone else can point out the difference to us, or at least guide us towards it.
Realistically, our self-narration is always a bit skewed. The first step, however, is to realize it happens. Then, you have willing to engage in the uncomfortable but necessary task of identifying when it happens and, instead, letting situations and your reactions to them be what they actually are. When you do, you can start expending your effort on what those situations and reactions truly mean about where you’re going, rather than using your energy to force a false narrative that takes you in a different direction altogether.