Within every one of us there is an invisible force that guides us through our lives. It is our personal story—our narrative. We’re largely unconscious of our narrative, but shouldn’t be, because if we have an unhealthy narrative we limit ourselves. We use past mistakes to hold ourselves back. We attract the wrong kind of people into our lives. We sabotage our potential. But, our narratives can be changed, and by creating healthy narratives we shift our identity from being a passive recorder of what happened to an active author of our own life story. We go from being a historian to a novelist in which we create our own story.
First, we’ll explore a bit more about what we mean by “narratives,” and then we’ll examine the differences between unhealthy narratives and healthy narratives. Finally, we’ll look at the things you can do to create your own healthy, coherent, and constructive narrative.
What is a narrative?
If I were to ask you, “Who are you?” or “What are you doing with your life?” or “What’s your purpose?” you would tell me a story of sorts. You wouldn’t need to stop and prepare because you know your own story, you tell it all the time, through your behaviors, your expectations, and your choices. And your story shapes the way people see you and respond to you.
To get the most out of this article, you might take time—right now—and write down your story. Just answer this simple question, “If you have five minutes to tell me about yourself, to tell me what matters most, what would you say?”
Okay . . . a few people will actually stop and answer the question above. In doing so, these people are telling us something about them. This simple behavior suggests that these people are serious about getting the most out of this article. They are motivated. They are willing to invest some time and energy. That’s part of their story—and it says something about the kind of person they are.
Other people are more likely to keep on reading. Maybe they think of themselves as too busy, or they haven’t yet decided if this article warrants their full attention, or they think of themselves as smarter than other people and they think they can take a shortcut and still get the gist of this article. That’s part of their story—and it says something about the kind of person they are.
All of our decisions and behaviors are driven by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And our decisions and behaviors shape our stories. Most of this happens unconsciously. Seldom do we stop and take the time to consciously create our stories. Most of us are living with stories that to a significant degree were formed when we were younger. And here’s the problem—we’re living with outdated stories. I’ll share an example with you from my own life.
I started teaching workshops and psychology trainings in Japan fifteen years ago. I was in my early forties at that time—excited about the chance to work abroad, to learn about a different culture. Because of my eagerness and ambition I made agreements with the people who sponsored me to work in Japan and then I lived with those agreements for the past fifteen years.
But, over time, I frustrated myself because I outgrew my original agreements and started to feel limited by those agreements. It didn’t occur to me—until my partner pointed it out—that my old agreements were no longer a good fit for me. My story had changed, but my agreements hadn’t changed. I needed to renegotiate my contract based on how I thought of myself now. As soon as I did, I reinvigorated myself.
When the stories we have don’t match with the way we live—we frustrate ourselves and exhaust ourselves, or we bore ourselves.
Okay, we’ve seen one thing that contributes to an unhealthy narrative and that is living with an outdated narrative, and this is very common. What are some other things to contribute to unhealthy narratives?
When your narrative is only about you—instead of including other people and other people’s perspectives—it conveys a narcissistic quality. So when you tell your story notice whether or not you include other people. Yes, it’s your story, but do you include your spouse, your children, your friends, or your parents in your story?
How do you talk about yourself in your narrative? Are you the creator of your life, a passive observer, or are you a victim of other people’s actions? Do you talk about how people have treated you unfairly, or do you talk about what you learned and how you changed as a result of being treated unfairly? These are two very different stories.
Are you self-dismissive when you tell your narrative? This can be very subtle. You might start your sentences by saying things like, “This is not that important, but I remember when I . . .” Or, “It probably made no difference, but I remember when I . . . “ Or, “I always wanted to do something meaningful, but perhaps that’s not meant to be.” Each of these is an example of being self-dismissive.
Does your narrative make sense? Sometimes we hear a narrative that is simply incoherent. It doesn’t add up and therefore lacks credibility and won’t be taken seriously. For example someone might say, “I don’t remember much about my relationship with my father, but it wasn’t an important relationship.” This makes no sense, if the person doesn’t remember much, then how do they know if it was or wasn’t important?
If we contrast unhealthy narratives with healthy narratives, the primary difference can be summarized with one word: integrated. A healthy narrative is integrated. And what’s fascinating is that a healthy narrative is also integrative. Let me explain.
First, let’s look at the concept of integration, which is one way to define mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health—the more integrated we are the healthier we are. Integration occurs when we take separate things and link them together. In linking the different elements we create something that is more complex, more adaptable, flexible and resilient.
Imagine a business that only makes software, like Microsoft, and then imagine a business that makes software and hardware and retails stores in which to sell what they make, like Apple. Apple is more complex, more adaptive, and more resilient than Microsoft. Apple is more integrated.
Imagine a person who denies aspects of their past. Now compare them to a person who is fully accepting of their past, including their limitations and their resources. The latter is a more integrated individual—more flexible and resilient.
Imagine the human brain of an individual who is highly cerebral, but out of touch with their emotions and disconnected from their body. Then, imagine a person who has full access to their left hemisphere—highly cerebral—but they also have full access to their right hemisphere so they are in touch with their emotions and aware of their body. The latter person is a more integrated person, having fuller access to different aspects of themselves.
In each case, what we see is that when we link different parts or functions and create a more complex system, we create a system that is more resourceful, adaptive, flexible and resilient. And this is why we refer to integration as a measure of health.
I started off by saying that a healthy narrative is integrated, but it’s also integrative. What I mean by this is that when we intentionally create an integrated narrative, we are building more integrated brains—we are actually altering the structures of our brains in ways that expand our capabilities and our resiliency.
What’s An Integrated Brain Look Like?
To learn what an integrated brain looks like, and how to make yours more integrated, you’ll want to read Part II of this article. We think you’ll find it very worthwhile. And, if you haven’t yet written your personal narrative, we encourage you to do so before reading Part II of this article.