What is Your Narrative?
Whether we know it or not, we all have narratives. We have narratives about our life, narratives about other’s lives, how the world works. Our narratives come from our life experience, messaging we have picked up from others around us, and our interpretations of interactions with others. The stories we create help us make sense of the things that happen. It is a unique human experience, and it is something to be celebrated. However, narratives can be confining, they can be false, and they can be hurtful. Having awareness of your narratives is essential to mental well-being, as well as to having healthy relationships with others.
Narratives are something generally created more in the subconscious experience. We often aren’t fully aware in the moment that we are creating stories. I think of our thoughts as a kind of mental processing factory. We have core beliefs we live by. As we encounter our day to day lives, all the experiences go on a conveyor belt in our mind and get categorized with all the core beliefs we hold. For example, if you hold the core belief “I am not worthy,” as you face hardships in life, you add those hardships to the “unworthy” box. As this happens you might be saying to yourself, “see, I can’t do it, life is too hard, I’m not worthy enough to have a good life.” Another person with a completely different core belief could experience the same hardships and their inner narrative might be, “that was hard, but sometimes life is hard, and with each hardship I strengthen my spirit and become more resilient.”
So much of our identity comes down to our narratives and our core beliefs. The good news is our narratives are completely capable of change. By having awareness, stopping the narrative in the moment, and shifting our thoughts, we can create new narratives that help us feel satisfied, peaceful, and make it easier to get along with others.
As a therapist, I notice several categories of unhelpful narratives. There are many other categories, but these are three I encounter on a regular basis. One is the victim narrative. The victim narrative encourages the belief that one is helpless, hopeless, can’t do anything about their life, and are just doomed to suffer forever. The victim narrative often leaves the individual feeling depressed and anxious and feeling like there is nothing they can do about it. It often leads the individual into self-sabotaging behaviors that subconsciously prevent the client from living a healthy life with healthy relationships. Another common one is the martyr narrative. The martyr narrative leads the individual to believe they have to suffer, they aren’t worthy of success, and they have to be there for everyone else while no one is there for them. This also often leads to self-sabotaging behaviors including staying at stressful jobs, refusing to leave painful relationships, and never setting boundaries. The last category I will note is the narcissist narrative. The narcissistic narrative encourages the individual to never own up to their mistakes or hurtful behaviors, blame everyone else for their problems, and tends to gaslight others in their life. The narcissist narrative is very hurtful to others and pushes others away.
Another way we engage unhealthy narratives is by labeling ourselves. We label ourselves with adjectives like lazy, unwell, stupid, unlovable, sick, poor, inadequate, incompetent, weak, etc. Labeling ourselves is like building a cage around us that we can never break free from. In order to live our full potential, we have to break up with our labels and create new ones like capable, worthy, healthy, peaceful, successful, courageous, etc.
It is possible to change your narrative. Begin by having curiosity and noticing your thoughts. You could journal some of your thoughts or you could ask your trusted loved ones if they notice any of your narrative. Mindfulness is a really helpful practice for becoming aware of your narratives. Mindfulness requires us to observe our thoughts without judgement or emotional attachment. To continue the factory analogy, you could imagine that your thoughts are like objects on a conveyor belt. You see them, they are there, but you are just watching them go by as if you are a site manager just looking to make sure things are going smoothly. You can do this by sitting and focusing on your breath and noticing your thoughts, or you can use a guided mindfulness meditation if it feels hard to focus at first. You could also pretend your thoughts are coming from a part of you that is sitting outside of you for a moment allowing you to ask him/her questions. You could ask things like “where do you come from? What makes you think that? How would we feel if we interpreted that differently?”
Another good skill for challenging our narrative comes from Cognitive Behavior Therapy. I do not use this as a regular intervention, rather a skill I teach to keep in your coping skills tool box. But using thought challenging questions to confront your thoughts is a very helpful practice. Some of these questions include:
- What is the benefit of thinking this way?
- Is there another way to interpret this situation?
- Am I focusing on the negative and not giving opportunity to the positive?
- If my best friend was thinking this way, what advice would I give them? Would I want them to think and feel this way? What would I want for them?
It is hard and sometimes painful work, but it is possible. Let me know some of your thoughts on narratives below.