Our Personal Narrative
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I’d like to have a talk with you about the stories we tell ourselves, almost every moment of our lives, the stories that together are our personal narrative.
With this short phrase, our personal narrative, I mean to point to the everyday interpretations of the world, and many imperatives for our life, that come to us and that are contained in our stream of internal thoughts and feelings, both when we are awake and even when we dream.
Within this idea of our narrative are all the important stories inside us, those that guide us and shape our lives. Our personal narrative includes stories we are aware of and know well, even if we have not always explored and fact-checked them. And our personal narrative includes the many stories told inside us that we do not know and may not have heard before, but that shape us nonetheless. For all of us, there are always aspects of our personal narrative we are unaware of, internal storylines that often strongly influence our lives in ways we cannot see and sense.
This internal story-telling is of course quite human, and quite powerful. Our personal narrative readily affects our health, relationships, and quality of life in important ways. As proof of this, I would point to how we are almost universally surprised when we hear someone else speak to themselves aloud. Our surprise comes not from the fact of ongoing dialogue within them, but simply because we can hear this common fact of life in another person, and can grasp its intimate nature and begin to sense its important power over others and their life choices.
Often, much is revealed about others in these moments of vocalized personal narrative, and so it is with each of us. All of us carry on a powerful narrative within us, and one that we often only partially hear as I have suggested. I will even go so far to say that without deliberate work to uncover our personal narrative, few of us realize its full scope and true power within us and over us, and more importantly, practically understand how we can attend to and change our internal dialogue over time – change or self-mastery that can make us personally stronger and more balanced as people, and our lives much richer and more free.
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To open up this topic for us, it is first important to understand and acknowledge that we all think, feel, and live in narratives. This is our human condition, and it has been since the evolution of language in our species began in earnest.
We are the talking ape, our brains are wired for language and our genes benefit from this fact, and this deeply human conversation extends deeply inside all of us. To underscore this idea, I would encourage you to try to access knowledge within you that is not in the form of a story. Even the logical truths of mathematics are stories of sorts for us, and we all struggle to various degrees with mathematical and scientific ideas that cannot be put into this natural and intuitive human format for understanding how the world works.
If internal narratives are largely or wholly unavoidable for us, it is important to understand that they are very useful for us too, even if they bring with them limitations and can live within us in unexamined and unmanaged ways. As an example, returning to mathematics for one more moment, it is now well known that many advanced math problems can be recast in narrative and more personalized formats (analogies) to aid comprehension or to help in the search for solutions.
In a more human domain, our search to resolve interpersonal conflict in our lives is often a search for a cogent narrative to explain a relationship or pattern of behavior in a way that is satisfying or actionable to us, whether logically or emotionally. Again, there are limitations to this process of narrating about life and the world, but there is also power in it too. We might incorrectly interpret the facts of a relationship, or impose a less than optimal narrative or frame where another would be preferable or more optimal, or where no logical narrative in fact exists. But we might also reach a narrative that is useful for us and others, one that creates new understanding, alignment, and intimacy in our lives and relationships.
We will turn to a specific technique for better seeing and improving our own story-telling and narratives in a moment, but before that, I want to first impress upon you just how powerful narratives are in our lives, and even in our society and in political life, so that you will be highly motivated to better see and shape your own internal stories. I want to leave you with the idea that we really do live immersed in narratives, that these narratives can be extraordinarily potent, and even that we can get pulled into unproductive or unconscious narratives simply because they are compelling – regardless of their factual correctness, their objective demands on our time and attention, or their impact on our lives. You can glimpse this important truth of our human condition with a simple personal experiment that you can do right now.
The experiment I have in mind to better understand the breadth and power of the narratives in your life involves suddenly entering into or intruding on a new narrative and watching its immediate effects on you. You can do this quite simply, now or the next time you are alone and not preoccupied, by turning on a television and watching whatever is on for at least two or three minutes. The programming really does not matter – from news to drama to infomercials – since all these things are narratives in some way, and ones that usually have been specifically created to be compelling to us. If you do this experiment (whether via television, or radio, internet, or by randomly asking a stranger what they are thinking about), I suspect you will find that after a couple of minutes, especially if it an interesting story, you likely will have become fairly immersed in the storyline, even to the point where you might continue attending to the programming for an extended time and feel a sense of loss when switching the program off.
This common truth of the pull of narrative is really is quite extraordinary if we think about it. Only a few moments before our experiment, we were completely oblivious to the specific narrative in question (in truth, since we were attending to other narratives). Then, through our exposure to the new narrative, a new and entirely random narrative has claimed our attention and worked itself into our memory to some degree. And the often quite compelling narratives we are talking about in the case of television, as we all know, are generally contrived for commercial purposes, often quite banal and not deserving of our attention, and yet may force us to struggle to turn away from them and toward more important dimensions of our lives. Now consider the much greater power of the truly authentic and highly personalized narratives we are exposed to or that occur within us each day!
It is worth taking time to reflect on this personal experiment and perhaps to try it again a few times in different settings. Quite likely, your exploration of these random external narratives will give you new insight into the general presence and subtle power of unexamined narratives and compelling storytelling in all our lives – and our universal opportunity to take greater control of the stories in and around us, to take greater control of our own lives in other words.
Personally, I am very susceptible to the many narratives and personalities of television and literally can lose hours to this medium if I am not careful, channel surfing (narrative searching) in a process that its equally both compelling and unsatisfying, and one that is almost never the best use of my time. Because of this, I have greatly reduced easy access to television and other streaming media in my life, and find I have gained better control of my thoughts and feelings, and time and life, because of this. But reducing random external narratives around us, whether from electronic media or the people near us, is really only a first step to more deeply taking control of the powerful and pervasive internal narratives that are within us.
Regardless of the external sources of narrative around us, ultimately it is our own internal narrative, the personal set of stories we tell ourselves or live immersed in, which is the leverage point for examining and then altering the dimensions and boundaries of our life, or the narrative that engenders our default life. That said, it is still quite important to understand the power of situation and personal context. Our own personal narratives can be quite different in different settings and with different influences, with differing narratives helping or inhibiting our ability to change and grow in new and positive ways.
For this reason, as part of my health advocacy work, I encourage a personal commitment to progressive change in all our lives, and the exploration of how this commitment alters our perspective and creates new sources of meaning in our lives. For me, incorporating a commitment to progressive change is essential to vital human life, if only to help us see ourselves and our narratives from new and different perspectives, and to encourage new, healthier, and more self-conscious thinking and feeling within us (for more on this idea, see another article of mine, entitled “The Nomad Within Us”).
To close out this section of our talk, I want to again underscore the power of our personal narrative and to inspire confidence that you can better see and change your narrative and life patterns for the better. Likely, you even can begin to observe the cyclical and compounding nature of narrative and behavior in all of human life, and use this insight to free yourself of still deeper cycles of limiting outlook and action, learning to re-work and choose the stories and realities of your life.
To do this, we each must begin by developing new awareness of the stories at work within us personally, gradually seeing that are created stories, and ones that can be re-created too. We will turn to the specifics of mastering our personal narrative next.
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Whatever social or situational context that is at work on and around us – whatever are our circumstances or the personal environment we are in or can make for ourselves – we each can begin to attend to and examine our own narratives. And we in fact must do this, if our goal is progressive and healthier life. We must examine and step back from the voice or voices in us, if we are to make our own narrative clearer and more known to us, our lives more consciously chosen and meaningful, and our selves more optimal and effective or powerful in the world.
This idea is the most important element of our discussion today – that we can and should begin to better grasp, judge, and then improve the stories we tell ourselves and use our new storyline to chart the course of our lives (and to in turn influence the narratives of those around us). In truth, even before you start to examine your personal narrative, I can tell you that most of the stories we and others tell ourselves are received or inherited, either from our nature and genes, or from our culture and families.
Stories that are not derived from without and this intentionally chosen by us are the exception for almost all of us, until we have learned to live in the new and more conscious way I have suggested is possible. Because of this generally “received” nature of our lives, which is often generally functional but never or only rarely optimal, we are all alive, before we begin to live in a more examined way, in conditions of reduced freedom, personal power, awareness, and health. And we thus all have opportunities to live in far more optimal, universal, and compelling ways.
A straightforward and enormously powerful technique for exploring the full spectrum of our own personal narrative, including its many received and unconscious aspects, is to begin to access our internal storytelling randomly. Why randomly? Because if we only look at our narrative in easy, familiar, or comforting ways, we risk a biased and more limited view of our internal state and external actions and influences. It is in the nature of our human consciousness, and our general and unconscious immersion in much of our personal narrative, that we really do have a compelling need and to sneak up on our stories, when they or we are not looking, and to catch our stories and ourselves in the act.
This process of randomly accessing our narrative is very similar in certain ways to switching on a television at varying times, except now we are tuning into ourselves, rather than an external source of narratives. In this technique, it is very important that we access our personal narrative as randomly and honestly as we can, since there are often stories (patterns of thought and emotion) at work in us that we are partially or wholly unaware of, or partially or wholly uncomfortable with, and we can only see them plainly with a bit of stealth and courage. We often must therefore “catch” ourselves in the act, as I have suggested, if we are to see many of the most important and least understood dimensions of our personal narratives – dimensions that may prove quite powerful and surprising to us and lead to new personal awareness and dimensions of life. Fortunately, the process of randomly accessing our narrative is fairly easy and quite reliable in exposing our full personal narrative to us.
To randomly access your own personal narrative, you will need a timer of some sort, something you can set and that will go “beep” irrespective of what you are doing or thinking. You will also need a log book or electronic device that you can write on and save for future review. As you may have guessed already by this materials list, the process of randomly accessing our full narrative is very simple: 1) set the timer or beeper to go off at random times; 2) jot down what you were thinking (not what you were doing) the moment immediately before the beeper went off – and you should make this narrative log in real time, since memory can distort the facts of an earlier moment; 3) later examine your log and the range and types of stories you see as you build up your log with perhaps 30-40 entries or more. I might add that most people will start this exercise during waking hours only, but if you are curious, you can set your timer to go off a few times while you are sleeping too, and may be genuinely surprised by what you find taking place inside you in the night.
As we become more aware of our personal narrative through this or other acts of new self-awareness (e.g. intentional or unexpected self-observation), our next needed task is to begin to break down our narrative log into its key components, so we can more easily examine and reflect on our total personal narrative, and then challenge it as needed. As a first step toward this categorization of our narrative, try separating your observations (your recurring thoughts and feelings) into story elements you were aware of already and those that you did not know you told to yourself. No doubt, you will have some you were partially aware of, and you can put them into whichever of the categories is closer to the facts.
In my own case, I once had an important and quite persistent story element within me, a key and fully unexamined part of my narrative, one that said I could not be “myself” at work, that I had to leave part of me at home and to separate my private life from my work life. I have found that many people have this storyline in them. In my case, I was somewhat aware of this story, but had assumed this thinking was “correct,” that this was just part of how people behaved and the way the world worked. This is an example of a “partially aware” story, but one that was wholly unexamined for me at one point in my life. We all have these shadowy stories in us of course, and they are often easier to examine than ones that are wholly hidden and a surprise to us, but still hint at the tremendous power and opportunity for more aware life that lies waiting in us by uncovering the many unseen or partially seen elements of our personal narrative.
To become more aware of the full scope of our personal narrative, we must next begin to judge the accuracy and desirability of each of the major the storylines within us. In truth, we can and likely will spend our lives doing this, since new stories are always coming into or being engendered in our lives and we often have new and clearer perspectives on storylines over time. In addition, as we grow and develop as people, some aspects of our personal narrative can become less desirable or important to us, encouraging their re-examination. If I may use another example from own my life, this time more directly-health related, there was a time when the idea of the centrality of natural eating and exercise was a very desirable central story element in my life. Over time though, I have had to change this “centrality” description to a more “foundational” one, to be true to what I have learned, now believe, and even need to progress in my life and natural health practice. This re-examination and change in my conscious narrative has allowed me, and others who I help, to progress into new realms of our natural health, realms that that lie beyond diet and exercise and are reached only with a larger story encompassing or reaching toward more elements of our natural health.
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At this point in our discussion, I will assume that you have or soon will have a good initial categorization of both the familiar and unfamiliar storylines that comprise the personal narrative within you. As I said, a next and even ongoing step is to begin to evaluate our story elements, to judge them, and this often involves the process of “fact-checking” I mentioned before. To help you in this, let’s spend a few minutes talking about the accuracy and desirability of the stories that encompass our personal narrative, today and over time. Philosophers often argue that no story (narrative description) is correct or accurate in an absolute sense, that all stories are stories and therefore full of subjective biases, arbitrary framing, and just plain old human misunderstanding. This idea may have currency with philosophers, but it is a self-contradictory narrative if true and thus reveals a deeper truth about narrative – that there are in fact degrees of truthfulness and thus, ultimately, objective truth.
More to the point of our talk, in the practicalities of our lives and especially amidst the task of advancing our health and quality of life, clearly some internal stories are more objectively accurate or factually correct than others. The story that gravity will pull us to earth is highly accurate, even if there are circumstances when this storyline breaks down. The story that we are klutzes and will likely fall down and hurt ourselves when hiking in nature is a story that is likely less far accurate than one about the inescapability of gravity, and an example of a story that brings important consequences for our quality of life, especially if we don’t test its accuracy and work to adapt ourselves to whatever truth this hypothetical personal story does contain.
In general, we test the accuracy of our stories (our inferences and operating models, to use the narrative of psychologists for a moment) by seeking to see if they are objectively true. This is how scientists operate – Newton figuratively sees an apple fall from a tree and then goes on to work out a formula that predicts gravitational acceleration almost everywhere in the known universe. We can do something like this ourselves, however humbly it may seem, simply by seeking to validate our stories (our assumptions and inferences) in the world. This process of validation can take the form of discussing our stories with others, especially with people outside our immediate social group and who are not likeminded, or by examining scientific research and findings on whatever topic is at hand.
On this idea of the accuracy of our internal stories, what I am about to say next may surprise you, and you are free to disagree with me if you want, but it is a story that has considerable objective validity: in general, most of our unexamined stories are objectively inaccurate to some degree and are often inaccurate to a surprisingly great degree. In actual fact, until we carefully look at and attentively live with our internal stories for a time, most are not especially accurate or are long evolved from some original grain of truth or common sense notion. We may even reach a point one day where we look back and marvel at how we lived with such profound and widespread inaccuracy in our lives (for example, consider the stories that were in you when you were a child, or an adolescent or young adult). The reasons for such pervasive inaccuracy in our personal narrative are complex and beyond our discussion today, but let me summarize this reasonably objective fact by suggesting that our stories need only be broadly functional in our environment and not necessarily highly accurate to allow us (and them) to live another day – and specifically to live another day in our current social setting (tellingly, a setting that usually was enabled, encouraged, or reinforced by our personal narrative the day before).
Once we begin to examine our personal stories in a more rigorous and thoughtful way, or when we seek to live beyond or outside of our present social circumstances (for example, when exploring personal change for its own sake or in search of new perspective and more progressive life), a great number of inaccuracies in our personal narrative become quite clear to us and we can grow substantially from this new awareness and work to make our stories far more accurate. I will leave you to consider and then explore how accurate your own personal storytelling is today, and how you and key elements of your narrative may become more reliable and objectively grounded in the future, but I will also encourage a certain amount of humility in this process, now and always. While we are all equipped to examine ourselves and our storytelling in the manner I have laid out, it is real work and the work of self-transcendence. Making our stories and lives more truthful is first a process of wanting and then of working to live in a more examined, self-aware, and chosen way over time, and it takes time and is real work.
As I hinted at before, just as important as gauging the accuracy of our narrative – and equally a part of the process of examining and taking control of our internal storytelling – is assessing the desirability of the stories that are alive within us. This may seem an uncertain proposition at first, since many of us are naturally apt to equate accuracy with desirability. A way of framing (storytelling about) the difference between a storyline’s accuracy and its desirability is to consider the idea that achieving accuracy in our personal narrative is a long hard fight, and one that we will never fully win. The pursuit of accuracy is part of achieving wisdom and therefore part of becoming humbled to how imperfectly we all really know, especially regarding complex phenomena like the world and our lives. But if greater accuracy in our personal narrative is incremental and hard-won, desirability is often not. Often, there are stories in us that are categorically or incrementally either more or less healthy and life-promoting, and thus desirable – stories that help us to live in larger, more optimal, and more attentive ways, or not. It is here where we can often take make definitive judgments of desirability and take definitive action in our lives, even over the course of days and weeks, in ways that greatly improves our well-being, outlook and receptiveness to life, and quality of life (even if these stories are later replaced by more accurate ones, or by ones that become more desirable as we grow and develop in our lives).
Put another way, in the complex world that is our personal narrative, there are some ideas and feelings that need to be written out of our storyline as quickly as possible and others that need to put in starring roles as soon as we can. While this process and our assessment at any point in time can never be perfect and complete accuracy is ever-elusive, we should and need not get overly focused on accuracy when needed and quite desirable potential changes are obvious and obviously beneficial to us. Often, our intuition and capacity for reflection can quite useful in seeing and taking on the primary things that hold us and our health and quality of life back as people, especially if we are health-seeking and growth-oriented in our lives and are willing to live and experiment in our lives incrementally, iteratively, and progressively toward greater health and vitality.
If we can bring this process and a commitment to progressive life to our life, and to our personal narrative, greater accuracy and clarity can and may well later – in the longer and hard-won fight that is often the case as I have suggested. In the meantime, we can be roughly right, and live and act in areas of our lives and on elements of our narrative where the cost of inaction is high or where there are obvious weak points, trumping stagnation and lower vibrancy in our lives and narratives with action that, while perhaps imprecise, are still progressive, healthy, and desirable.
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To conclude our discussion of the mastery of our personal narrative, I would like to talk about the future for a moment, to the time after you have begun examining your narrative, those stories you know well and those you are coming to terms with for the first time, and of our need to take action in our lives and with our personal narrative if we are to live and narrate progressively. This time in the future may be measured in days or weeks, but I hope not in months or years. In this future of increasing awareness of your personal narrative, I would like to encourage you to make two very important and quite specific lists: 1) the three aspects of your personal narrative that are most desirable today, that most advance health, well-being, and growth in your life, and 2) the three aspects of your narrative that are least desirable at this point in your life, the stories that most limit your health, well-being, and quality of life today.
As we have discussed, we do not have to be exacting and obsessed with accuracy in this assessment – roughly right is fine, since I will also suggest that you begin with small changes in your narrative and life and adjust as you go. Still, as a reality check at the point, just before you begin rethinking your thoughts and making changes in your life, such as a discussion with a thoughtful friend or personal coach, may be quite helpful (ideally someone who has no interest in either your staying still or making specific changes).
In keeping with our themes today, your assessment of the most and least desirable aspects of your narrative can and should be ongoing, and always should be thought of as “subject to change” at any point. I know many of us naturally want final certainty in our lives, but this too is a narrative element that may be variably desirable or even undesirable in our life. The truth is that we all really do change as we change, especially as we begin to mold our narratives and act in our lives for greater health and vitality, just as an artist evolves a work as the work proceeds. As we learn to tell and emphasize new stories in ourselves, we become artists of these stories and makers of our lives, in a process that is ultimately open-ended and rooted in the idea continual learning and exploration.
As you think about the personal stories that might or must make their way onto your two lists, now or in time, we all could write a book on the tales we might summon to our two lists, and many people do this. But really what is most important at this point is for me to give you permission and encouragement to make your lists, as perfect or imperfect as they might be at first, by describing to you the range of things that might, but only might, emerge for you. If I do this, you must promise yourself to make your list your own, to change your list as you need to (as you more deeply understand and begin work to remake your personal storyline), to bring both the courage of conviction and the fluidity of learning to your list-making, and to start with small changes at first that test the waters and give you feedback and new perspective (in other words, that allow you to assess the objective accuracy of and gain perspective on your initial lists and overall assessment of your narrative).
If you are just starting on the path to natural health and more natural and health-oriented life, common stories within us might be that natural eating and exercise are real work, that they involve hardship, or that they may not work for us personally. Since many people have succeeded with these health techniques and have learned to enjoy them as a daily practice, you perhaps can see how these stories are probably inaccurate, almost certainly undesirable, and hints at deeper negative elements within our narrative today. Another common story we might bring to the surface in our early health efforts is that we lack the motivation, the commitment, and even the worthiness to live in larger and more beneficial ways. Still another familiar storyline might suggest that we need and lack certain external things in our life to enable or permit true progress in our lives, or that we lack things in general that keep us from finding fulfillment in ourselves today. Since people from a great variety of material or external circumstances can be shown to be happy, healthy, fulfilled, and progressing in their lives, such stories are again usually very undesirable and quite inaccurate too.
Some more positive stories we might tell ourselves and work to make more prominent in our personal narrative include the idea that we are each naturally evolved to be healthy, fit, and happy, and that we need little to be happy if are healthy and fit. Or we might tell ourselves that friendship is critical to our health, that we need to make our friends healthy if we are to make ourselves truly healthy, or that we can accomplish a great many things once we set our minds and hearts on. One positive personal storyline that I uncovered and have cultivated in my own life – a story that has brought new growth and possibilities to my life in ways I never imagined – is the idea that there is much more to us as people than we realize at any moment, and therefore that we all can be quite different and much larger people than whomever we now are now or once were.
With whatever techniques or methods we do it, uncovering and attending to our personal narrative can be life-enriching and life-changing, especially as we learn to live with greater awareness of and creative control over our evolving personal narrative. Seeking to know our own full narrative is a means to better understand what drives us forward, and what may hold us back too. Exploring the storylines inside us is a chance to reveal unconscious or only half-conscious operating models and biases or assumptions within us. And each step to new self-awareness is a gateway to allow us to consciously and conscientiously shape our narratives – a gateway to make our stories and large tracts of ourselves more powerful and uplifting, to make us more able to envision and then create the life we really want and the people we might become.
Once you have cultivated the ability to reliably find the key high and low points of your personal narrative at any point in time, and have begun to reshape your narrative from this new knowledge of yourself, a next and equally recurring step is to write out your desired personal narrative as best you can, and to compare it with your narrative today, with the knowledge that both narratives will change through the life experiences you have, or through the life experiences you consciously shape and create. A key advantage of writing out both your ideal and current narratives is the opportunity to see things you may have missed in your first look at your narrative, whether positive or negative. It is also a chance to see how your actions and use of your time today align, or do not align well enough, with your idealized narrative or personal vision.
So, let me end our talk by asking, what stories do you tell to yourself today? Are they accurate and desirable? And what stories do you want to tell to yourself, beginning today? Are there alternative story lines you might add to your personal narrative, and others you would like to work or write into oblivion? And do you believe you can alter your narrative and life in more positive ways?
If you are having doubts about your ability to examine and change your personal narrative and own life, that is perhaps a storyline you might want to examine first and test it for its accuracy and desirability. In truth, simply by pursuing new change and learning about ourselves – in the face of self-doubt and other compelling stories that hold our attention and may keep our lives from moving forward – we realize we are free to feel, think, and act in profound new ways.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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