“You can’t know what’s really happening in this loud, crazy world, or in a single human heart, unless we are fully present in the moment, and listen. We are the characters in the daily dramas that make up the moments of our life, and our days, and then all of history. Stories exist wherever we look for them, because human life plays out in the form of stories. The best stories are found not through judgment, but through curiosity and a sense of true wonder.”
I wish I had written these words; such a beautiful description of our stories, and our roles in those stories. But I didn’t write them. I heard them on the home page of the website called The Power of Storytelling, a conference built around the idea that stories can change our worlds. In my last post (Stories–Part Two: Telling Stories), I wrote about the power of storytelling, when used skillfully, to connect with and inspire others.
But there’s another kind of storytelling that deals with what is, perhaps, the most powerful story we tell. I call it our Personal Narrative. [I capitalize the term to distinguish it from “personal narrative” in the literary sense, where a personal narrative is a story or essay told from a first-person, personal point of view.] What I mean by Personal Narrative is the story we tell to ourselves about ourselves. It’s not what we tell others about ourselves, not the persona we put on display when facing the world, not the constructed personality that we wear when we are trying to make others recognize us and remember us. Instead, it’s the tale we tell when we describe ourselves to ourselves. It’s the “who” that we think we are when the doors are shut, the windows are closed, and the lights are off. It’s me telling me about me. It’s how I define myself to myself, for good or for ill, and is, to a large extent, how we bring meaning to 0ur lives, and how we go about the business of living our lives, even though we are probably not even aware that a Personal Narrative is busily at work shaping our behavior to conform to our story.
What fascinates me about Personal Narrative is the power that we have to change ourselves, changing our behavior, our attitudes, maybe even our beliefs, by changing, with clear intent, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves–our own Personal Narrative. For example, some recent research indicates that even tiny changes in a Personal Narrative can be a powerful force in forming or breaking habits. Consider the case of a person who is an occasional vegetarian, who wants to go vegan. If her personal story is along the lines of “I’m a sometime-vegetarian-who-wants-to-be-a-vegan,” her story allows her to deviate form her desired vegan behavior; it’s built-in to her story. However, if she intentionally changes her story to “I am a vegan,” she will begin to think of herself as a vegan, and that burger from In-and-Out Burger is more likely to be treated as an object of revulsion, rather than an object of desire, because a vegan won’t eat a double cheeseburger.
Beyond habits and isolated behaviors, there is mounting evidence that we can use our Personal Narrative to change our overall outlook on life, from positive to negative [probably a bad thing to do], or from negative to positive [definitely a good thing]. In a revealing article in Psychology Today, psychologist Stephen Stosny tells what happens when we have a negative Personal Narrative, such as, for example, “Of course I feel isolated; no one cares what happens to me,” or “I have to be harsh and aggressive, to defend myself against the people who are always out to get me.” He wrote:
“In negative personal narratives, bad feelings, moods, and circumstances, seem permanent—living is hardship or a battle or a joyless drive to get things done. Positive feelings, moods, and circumstances are temporary and sometimes dangerous, in that they lead to greater vulnerability.
When negative narratives persist over time, they develop a support structure of highly reinforced habits that are difficult to change. Any positive experience is seen as an anomaly or a brief occurrence in the calm before the next storm. Once habituated, negative personal narratives cannot be changed by positive experience. Only intentional change in the narrative will alter the perceived value of the experience over time.”
Contrast that with the situation of someone with a positive Personal Narrative, such as “I live a blessed life; I’m healthy, able to grow and learn, to love and be loved.” To a person with that kind of positive Personal Narrative providing the contextual glue to hold together, in a meaningful way, the diverse relationships and rich experiences of one’s life, the world is a very different kind of place. To that person, as Stosny goes on to explain:
“Negative feelings, moods, and circumstances are temporary, presenting opportunities for learning and growth. Positive feelings, moods, and circumstances are consistent.”
I’ll leave you with two questions from a blog post written by philosopher and (I hope) friend Tom Morris:
“We all tell ourselves a story about who we were and how we got to where we are now. Are you telling yourself a good story, a deep and empowering one that will set you up well for whatever comes next? Is your story helping to make you better as a person, or not?”