I write a lot about the power of personal narrative. How do I shape my life by the story I tell myself? How much of my life is self-fulfilling prophecy, based on my interpretation of events and interactions, and the messages I feed myself?
The greatest power of this personal story telling is that so much of it happens without conscious thought…that is, I don’t acknowledge that I’m crafting my story. But I’m doing it every day, weaving narrative from perception, emotional response, facts as I know them, assumptions, and the stories others tell me.
This is powerful because crafting personal narrative in the shadows of consciousness allows the potential for distortion to mingle with truth, without question or challenge.
Am I living in some altered state of reality? Not at all. I’m living my reality. Every human does the same thing. We each see the world through the lens of personal experience, imprint of upbringing, geography, economic strata, and the external forces that bear upon us. External influences range from members of our own family, to work and social environments, to cultural messages we’re bombarded with on a daily basis. And no two of us sees exactly the same. How could we? Even siblings in the same family have a different birth order, different friends and experiences. Subtleties can create nuances in perception that influence personal narrative to an astonishing degree.
While I believe there is objective truth, and I believe that most of us would like to think we live in objective reality, I’m convinced that “reality” is threaded with our personal views, to a larger extent than we realize. And personal perspective is where reality and truth can get murky.
You can glimpse the way emotional response shades reality from something as basic as weather. On sunny, beautiful days, it’s easier to feel positive and upbeat. On gray, dreary days, easier to feel down. And that’s just the impact of sunshine.
Add in the personal interactions and stresses of daily living, and you have continuous messaging coming into your mind, which is shaped and molded to fit the narrative you create.
We understand, culturally, that the messages we give to children shape self-image. But this is true at every age. We internalize the messages from others, and added to our self-image and perspective, we birth a mosaic, a composite of everything around us and within us.
To be clear, I’m not talking about creating a personal fantasy that life is rosy when objective truth says otherwise. Tragedies, misfortunes, and losses are realities we each experience, and there’s no denying that. I’m talking about the interpretation of facts, not the facts themselves.
To illustrate the power of your narrative, I challenge you to create two stories from your life.
First, take all the negatives of relationships, work, personal failings, fears, economic and cultural status and heritage, and describe your life and your expectations through those filters. Write this out in detail.
- What are you disappointed by in your life?
- What did you expect to be different?
- What have you given up on achieving or finding?
- How much of your current situation is due to your limitations / poor decisions?
- How much of your current situation is due to circumstances beyond your control?
- Do you see yourself as a victim of life circumstances?
- Do you believe you can overcome external factors that are barriers?
- Do you see yourself as optimistic or pessimistic?
Next, look at the positives in your life and write your story from that point of view.
- What has surprised you, turned out better than you expected?
- Who is in your life that supports you?
- What are your personal strengths?
- How have you improved yourself and your situation?
- Do you practice the habit of gratitude?
- Do you see yourself as a success in the making?
- Do you feel personally confident of doing well / being well in the long run?
- Are you able to take the long view, i.e. that life will work itself out sooner or later?
You could say that this comes down to being more of an optimist or a pessimist in outlook, and I believe those tendencies are important.
But what I’m talking about is more than simple optimism or pessimism. I think it’s possible to shape your narrative intentionally, once you become aware of how you’re writing it. You have to step back, evaluate your self-talk, and be open to honest assessment of how your narrative aligns with objective truth.
This is hard.
It’s hard because you’ll need to step outside yourself, as much as possible. It’s difficult to be objective about ourselves…how can we see differently?
You can begin by asking the questions above, writing your story from the two perspectives, and then sitting with the two views of self that emerge from what you write. Notice how you feel when you read the negative narrative, and your view of who you are when you read the positive story.
Woven into the facts of our lives each day are the assumptions we use to color the happenings around us. If someone cuts you off in traffic do you tell yourself it was an intentional act and respond with anger, or tell yourself it was just poor driving, and shrug it off? If your spouse is quiet or moody do you interpret that as a personal slight, or recognize it as his / her way of processing? Do you internalize a negative response at work as a reflection of your value as an employee? Do you find yourself in defensive mode as you move through your day?
When I find myself in a downward spiral, I notice if I can interrupt my narrative and interject a different perspective, I often feel better immediately. Gratitude can do this in a heartbeat. Reminding myself that there is good in the world on a difficult day can help. Reminding myself that I’ve been successful in many ways helps me keep a balanced view of my ups and downs with accomplishments. When something goes wrong, doesn’t end as I’d like it too, that’s a part of life as much as the times everything comes together.
Snapshots of life can’t encompass the whole reality, and it helps me to write a more realistic narrative to remember: just as I can’t take a sentence or a paragraph from a book and think I know the whole story, neither should I judge a situation on a first impression or incomplete facts. It’s possible to write a very inaccurate story based on partial knowledge and the assumptions I bring to the situation.
The truth is, once we begin feeding ourselves a narrative, it’s often difficult to change the story, even if the facts change. We become invested in the narrative as we’ve constructed it, and we begin to see facts in support of the story, not the other way around.
You can see this clearly in the current political narratives in this country…each party, and their supporters, has a view of the facts, and nothing, not even the facts, can change the views each side embraces.
We do the same thing in our personal lives, all too often. Once we’ve begun to view the facts of our life in a certain way, our narrative is set, and circumstances become reinforcements of our perceptions and overall story.
Just asking myself how I’m forming my conclusions, if information is objectively accurate, or assumed, thinking about the filters I bring to any situation, can help. The questions help me confront and test my assessments, and that’s a good thing for my personal narrative.
I want a positive narrative, and I want a personal story that is realistic, as far as is possible. That means I need to be in control of the story I tell myself, and check it for accuracy on a regular basis. Becoming aware that there is a constant story running in my head, to make sense of life and everything that happens to me and around me, is a good place to begin. Acknowledging there is a running narrative that shapes my life helps me stay in the driver’s seat.
As a responsible and capable adult, that’s where I belong.
How about you?
What story are you telling yourself?