What's Your Story?
Don’t you just love to get lost in a story? Whether it’s written, performed or filmed, following the fates of its characters feels like becoming a part of their world.
There is a wise mother, cowardly prince, funny servant, generous giant and countless other possible combinations of roles and virtues we assign to the people in the narrative.
Our mind’s disposition for narratives and archetypes is just one part of the reason why human brains are so complex. It's a part of our ability for creating patterns and predictions - very helpful in the evolutionary sense, but just like any other advantage, it comes with this unfortunate flip side:
through organizing our reality into stories and patterns we trap ourselves.
As in fiction, once the archetype is created it becomes unchangeable and hard to shake off just like that pesky high school nickname. Nicknames are stories too, by the way.
The stories other people tell about us, are the most powerful, no matter how fictional. “You’re not the sharpest tool in the box!”, was a story Albert Einstein may have heard multiple times during his school years but luckily he didn't let this fictional story define him.
This tendency can bear rather dire consequences in our daily life especially if the narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves is a negative one. “I’m that guy who can’t do a back flip”, I tell myself and my belief in “that guy” solidifies immediately. I start repeating it to others and they become hooked on my new story line about a “guy who can’t do a back flip”. So I keep being that guy because archetypes aren’t easy to change.
While we perform challenging tasks, the stories we tell don’t help either. Setting a goal of completing 300 pushups becomes a story about that exact number of repetitions. “The Story About 300 Push Ups” is overwhelming and almost becomes a legend: something that probably can’t be done at all…
And what if it rains! The story about getting wet and possibly catching pneumonia “like that uncle of mine I heard about” is rather dramatic but in reality getting wet is just that: a bit of H2O on my clothes and hair.
And what about that story about a guy who has an ache and goes out anyway and makes that ache so bad that he can never run again. It’s very compelling but it makes the ache become an identity. Never mind that some mild and correct movement may actually help dissipate the ache as opposed to atrophy caused by cautious sitting on one's bum all day every day.
So what would be the best way to reprogram our brain to still be able to enjoy fiction but to develop some kind of immunity to the stories and patterns bleeding into our daily existence?
I would like to start with simplifying my stories. Instead of telling myself “I’m that guy who can’t do a back flip” I would leave just the three final words in the sentence: “do a back flip” (within reason and in controlled situation) and try again and again if it fails.
If it helps I would abandon the idea of a "complex narrative identity" and instead become a simple identity: "become a back flip”, “become a pushup” or “become the rain”. There is no story when all we know is in the present. Focusing on the present moment, one step, one pushup and one drop of rain at the time is another great way to avoid story telling and might even increase our enjoyment and focus while engaging in a good fiction from time to time.