Humans are storytellers. All day long, we tell ourselves stories about ourselves and about other people. Through stories, we share passions, fears, sadness, hardships, joys, and find common ground with other people to connect and communicate with them. We convey who we are, what do we stand for, and what do we like and dislike, via stories. 

Our stories help us create a coherent narrative of our lives by assigning patterns to them. These are narratives based on our experiences, our perspective about the world around us, and our interpretation of facts as we see them. Hence, different people could look at the same situation and weave a vastly different story. 

Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams is an expert on a concept he calls “narrative identity.” McAdams describes narrative identity as an internalized story you create about yourself — your own personal myth. Like myths, our narrative identity contains heroes and villains that help us or hold us back.

If strategically produced, our stories give us the confidence that we are doing the right thing. They restore the belief that our life choices are appropriate and help us stay clear-minded about our commitments. However, the human brain has a negativity bias, and we are programmed to pay more attention to the negative things in life than the positive because historically, they kept us alive. When something bad happens to us, it makes a much stronger impression than when something good happens. The result is that while crafting narratives about our lives, we tend to discount the good things. The ‘thought->feeling->action’ loop gets us stuck in the stories that sabotage us. Our stories become self-fulfilling prophecies because the ‘Reticular Activating System’ of our brain brings us all kinds of evidence to support our stories. It is no surprise that we believe all our meanest thoughts about ourselves. 

The good news is that research in cognitive behavioral therapy and psychology has shown that people can change their stories to ones that move them forward rather than hold them back while respecting the facts. A couple of ways in which you can do this is – 

– Try telling your story in the third person or imagine that a loved one is telling you this story. We tend to see things more clearly (and compassionately) when we have some distance.

– Take note of what is good in your life. This is a great way to flip the switch and having your ‘Reticular Activation System’ find evidence for all that is working well. Research proves that stories of meaning and purpose lead to behaviors that support the purpose (Grant & Dutton).

Finally, knowing that we are prone to tell ourselves stories and believe them, be conscious of your stories to avoid becoming fixed in patterns of behavior and thought. Awareness is the first step towards scripting narratives of agency, growth, and positive identity.