We are all natural storytellers—It’s how we organize our internal worlds. Stories have been used for millennia by indigenous peoples to convey everything from hunting wisdom to navigation, to passing on values and traditions. They are as central to our identities as the names that we have been given.
Next time you find yourself sitting in traffic, riding a subway or bus, or waiting in line, stop for a moment and notice what is happening in your mind. Chances are you’ll find yourself knee deep in a story. It may be recounting an article you read over morning coffee, making plans for the weekend, or re-hashing a disagreement. Either way, it’s a story.
How We Develop Our Stories
We begin to create stories very early in life. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, most well-known for his four stages of child cognitive development, proposed that children are like “little scientists” who conduct an ongoing and endless series of tests to try to make sense of the world. Between roughly the ages of 2 and 7, children are in what Piaget called the “preoperational stage”. During this stage, children engage in a continuous stream of pretend play where they try on roles in an attempt to see what fits. If you observe them closely, you will notice that they often narrate their play with elaborate stories. Adults do the same thing. The only difference is that our stories often occur in our heads, and influence our behavior in more subtle ways.
Most of the fundamental stories that we create about our identities were shaped by the perceptions of parents, teachers and significant others; the more consistent the feedback, the more indelible the story. As we move through adolescence and into adulthood, these personal narratives are interwoven into the fabric of who we are and how we inhabit the world. They also feed forward into the types of experiences and relationships that we seek, and either confirm or refute our beliefs and expectations. More often than not, we seek out information, and gravitate to environments and situations that reinforce our personal narratives – a phenomenon referred to as a confirmation bias. These biases can have a tremendous influence on how we view ourselves and who we become.
Not all narratives are negative or harmful, and they are certainly not intractable. We live out stories one way or another, some limiting and some empowering. Psychologists Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman speak of a mindset in which individuals view themselves as strong, capable, resilient and able to overcome challenges – what they call a narrative of personal adequacy. In a review of the impact of self-affirmation on behavior they find that positive self-affirmations can and do positively impact health and relationship outcomes, sometimes for months and even years. Conversely, negative narratives can lead to devastating long-term consequences and self-fulfilling prophecies. In the words of psychologist Abraham Maslow, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The more you hold to a particular belief, the greater power it has over you.
Why Stories Matter
Our stories do not develop in isolation. They are shaped by years of social interaction – some positive, some negative. Humans tend to remember painful events more than pleasant ones. For example, we are often more likely to recall a critical comment than a positive one – a phenomenon referred to as negativity bias. Research confirms that negative events are usually more salient, and remembered and recalled more accurately and in greater detail than positive ones. Human language provides an excellent reflection of this. Studies find that we have more complex and elaborate language to describe negative emotions and experiences than positive ones. These negative experiences need not be traumatic to be impactful, but we tend to remember them in remarkable detail, and recall them more readily than positive events. This is particularly true when those emotionally charged incidents occur in the context of a relationship.
Why are these stories and personal narratives so important? By the time we reach adulthood these stories and identities are literally wired into our brains after years of rehearsal. This means that they are likely to be inflexible and habitual features of our mental and emotional landscape. We’ve also inadvertently or consciously become attached to their content, and are often no longer able to discriminate that they are, in fact, only stories. Because of their strength, habitual nature, and the fact that they are strongly linked to our identity, we are particularly susceptible to living them out when our brains are taxed, or we feel stressed, tired, anxious, overwhelmed or fearful.
Becoming Aware of Your Stories
Even though our stories influence our perceptions and reactions, we are not destined to live them out. We are, however, much more likely to rely on them as lenses of perception when chronically stressed, emotionally reactive or acting on autopilot. So learning to manage stress is the first order of business.
When you begin to pay attention to your mental chatter you will likely discover that the stories you tell seem endless. It is how the mind works – one incessant stream of commentary. Paying attention to this voice is an essential step in liberating ourselves from it. The best way to free yourself from this incessant chatter is to step back and view it objectively. Just appear like someone there is talking to you. Don’t think about it; just notice it. But this is easier said than done, particularly when we’re stressed, tired and overtaxed. That’s because this voice is very responsive to stress. The more anxious, fearful and pressured we feel, the louder and more persistent the voice becomes. It’s the equivalent of having a hungry toddler in the candy aisle in the grocery store rattling around in your brain. The more you deny it, the more it protests until it gets your attention one way or the other.
Research shows us that we not only have the capacity to pay attention to and stop the chatter of our stories, but we can also reduce our stress, rewire our brains and reinvent our relationships by responding to them differently. This is one of the hallmarks of mindfulness – gently learning to observe and attend to our bodies, minds and experiences non-judgmentally. But to make that happen you first we need to learn more about the stories you tell.
Exercise: Identifying Your Personal Story
Take a few moments to write down your personal identity story. You may use simple descriptive phrases like, “I am tough”, “I take care of others before myself”, “I am good at math”. You may also choose to write down experiences, family beliefs or other influences that helped to shape how you view yourself now. Once you have listed your beliefs about yourself, and identified a few of your stories, look at each one and ask yourself the following questions:
Where did this story come from?
Is this my story or someone else’s?
Is this story true of me now?
Is this story contributing to or undermining my happiness?
Do I choose to continue to live this story or is it time to write a new one?