Lesson #2: The One Simple Story That Changes Your Life

Lesson #2: The One Simple Story That Changes Your Life story timeYou're constantly making up up stories about yourself. Whether you're conscious of it or not. (Most of your stories are subconscious anyway.) Your brain is designed to make up stories. That's how it evolved so you could survive. Your personal narrative Your brain is a constant thinking, predicting machine. It anticipates the future, so that you can respond to the present. To predict the future, your brain relies on information from the past. It puts all that information together in a way that makes sense to you. In a way that informs you about what's going on right now -- why exactly that is -- and why it's so important to you. That tapestry of past, present, and future is your personal narrative. The power of your personal narrative
"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." -- Henry David Thoreau
Life events and experience are always filtered by your senses, and always interpreted by your cognitive networks -- your thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, expectations, personal constructs, etc. So that they mean something to you.

Your personal narrative heavily influences your cognitive networks and the way your senses filter incoming signals.

You personal narrative constructs the way you experience life and interpret that experience. This is how your life is your construct; your construct is your personal narrative.

Your personal narrative may not be true It doesn't matter if your personal narrative is accurate. Your brain's not in the business of accuracy. It's in the business of preparing you to respond to your environment so that you survive. Survival comes about in many different ways. Some ways are better than others. The means justifies the end. (The end is survival.) Surviving while also thriving, and enjoying life -- that's a whole different issue that your primate brain wasn't really designed for. So if you want to thrive and enjoy your life, you have to pull the extra legwork, with mindfulness and resolve. Your personal narrative can grow and change The way to thrive and enjoy life is by identifying what makes you happy and what keeps you healthy. Which requires that you really look at your personal narrative. And decide whether it is helping you or preventing you from doing what makes you happy and what keeps you healthy. As we covered last lesson, you can never know with certainty what the absolute, objective truth is about all life and the universe -- as long as you are human. Because you're always seeing the world through your unique human looking glass. But you can figure out what's happening "out there" with greater and greater clarity. By making sure that your personal narrative doesn't conflict with the evidence, or the experiences, of your life. You can also improve your clarity by making sure that your narrative isn't a dysfunctional and hopeless story to begin with -- because that will veer you off the course of response ability, every single time. Your personal narrative can hurt you Margaret doesn't think she deserves to be with a man who loves her. She subconsciously reinforces that story by staying away from the good apples, and getting swept away by dysfunctional types. She tells her friend Cindy, "I have no luck with love. There just aren't any good fish out in the sea." Cindy knows this simply isn't true. She knows that there are tons of men out there of all walks of life, many of which would be good for Margaret. But for Margaret to share this perspective, she would have to take out her personal narrative and revise it. She would have to start noticing men who are respectable and decent. She would have to acknowledge that there are women who are in happy and healthy relationships with men. She would have to weigh the evidence, instead of sticking to a story that feels safe. Margaret's current story feels safe because it protects her from rejection or failure. Because it discourages her from even trying in the first place -- from ever risking for love. To share Cindy's clearer and more balanced perspective, Margaret would have to tell herself a new story: "I deserve to be with a man who treats me with respect. And it's my job to only tolerate a man who does respect me." In order to get there, she would need to do a lot of emotional work and healing to get clear on where her previous negative narrative came from. And she would need to do more emotional work and healing to figure out how she can sustain her new story. It's not easy, but by working with her emotions, Margaret can change her dysfunctional narrative into a functional one. And until she does, her narrative will only continue to hurt her. It will color the way she views other men and her relationship to them. It will prevent her from working on her real barriers to having a healthy and intimate relationship with a man. It will lead her into bitterness, resentment, and despair. It will keep her locked away from truly loving and respecting herself. And so much more. Your personal narrative shapes who you are Your personal narrative shapes your reality. What you say to yourself has tons to do with how your relationships go. And tons to do with how you behave. If your personal narrative weighs you down, you need to take it out and rewrite it. (Of course, with enough emotional work to make sure the changes are lasting and deep. Mental work only scratches the surface, because your subconscious emotions are powerful stuff.) You have to do this to make your version of reality more and more accurate over time. Your personal narrative is a precious story
"How we remember, and what we remember, and why we remember form the most personal map of our individuality." -- Christina Baldwin
Your personal narrative shapes how you remember the past -- the collective stories about your life and your place in it. Your personal narrative also shapes how you respond to the present and how you create your future. You can increase your response ability to the present by getting clearer on the past, so you are mindful of how that shaped how you are today. Getting clearer on your present thoughts and feelings, so that you can respond mindful of them, rather than react. And getting clearer about what you really want in the future, so you respond with care.

Response ability means being mindful of your personal narrative and recreating it to be as functional as it can be.

Get in touch with your personal narrative The one simple story that changes your life -- is the one that you tell yourself. It's there, right now, inside your head. It may be known to you, or it may be subconscious. So let's play a little game to help you start uncovering (or better understanding) it. On a sheet of paper, or in a text editor, do the following:
    1. Write down the date, the time, your name, and your age at the top of the page.
    2. Your friend set up a meeting between you and a independent filmmaker he knows. He says this man is looking for new movie ideas, and wants to talk to you. When you meet with him over lunch, he asks you to describe yourself in three words.
      • What three words pop into your head? Write them down without thinking too much about it. Then explain why each one fits you.
    3. After hearing your explanations, the filmmaker's convinced your biography will make a moving film that many others can relate to. He explains how your friend has already told him so much about your life and your friendship. He wants to put your story on the big screen!
      • You're thrilled to start the project. Your task is to go home, think about it, and then email him:
        • The working title of the movie
        • A one sentence summary of the hero's journey (you're the hero)
        • The purpose or meaning of the hero's life (this is whatever you want it to be be; you're the screenwriter)
        • 3 possible endings (in as much detail as you can)
    4. Go ahead and write these into your editor. Save the document, and don't edit what you've written so far! It's a valuable window into how you're viewing your life at this time.
    5. In a new paragraph or more, explain how close this story is to your real life. Be as honest as you can.
    6. In a new paragraph, write down whether you think the hero is on the right track in reaching their goals? Are there any obstacles that they're creating for themselves? Are they blocking any opportunities that might be coming their way? See the story from a bigger-picture perspective, one that you get when watching a movie.
    7. Write for as long as you need to. Remember, what you're written out links up to what you really think about your life, where you're headed, and where you want to go. When you're all done, save the document and then print it. Wait a month a read over it again. Maybe even do the exercise again too.
The point of this exercise is get you more in touch with your personal narrative. Which is a healthy and smart thing to do because, again, your narrative shapes the way you:
    • Relate to your past
    • Respond to your present
    • Believe in yourself
    • Recognize opportunity (so that you can act upon it)
    • Regard your relationships
    • See other people (characters) in your life (story)
    • Co-create your future
So try to find clues to these things when looking over the movie script, and each of the three possible endings. Which ending is your favorite, and why? Are each of the endings mutually exclusive? How might you blend them together to make one ultimate ending? Keep in mind: The three endings are there to help you find out what you really want to create in your life. Marrying Mr. Bob down the street isn't the ultimate ending -- because you can't control Mr. Bob's fate, nor would you really want to. But settling down and starting a family with a man who treats you with the respect and care that Mr. Bob does is far more realistic -- it focuses on your choice to choose such a man. In other words, avoid writing out codependent endings where an "irreplaceable" person or thing is the number one source of your happiness. Accept your personal narrative before you try to change it Be honest and mindful of your personal narrative. It might not always be helpful or positive. Some days it may feel bleak and empty. But accepting how it is... is the only starting point. It's the only way you can start to rewrite it, and do so with care. Until next time... All the best, signed, Melissa P.S. Did you get here from a link from a friend? This is Lesson 2 of a 10-part free e-class that shows you how your life is your construct. Learn more about it and sign up here.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Adrienne June 10, 2010 at 11:57 pm

I really enjoyed this exercise – thanks Melissa.
I would like to share a similar one. It is to write out your life story in about 10-15 pages. Then let some time go by (a week is good), and reread it with an eye towards spotting a pattern in the way things happen to you. This will point you towards a conclusion or conclusions you have made about what life is, based on your past. It’s also easier for someone else to spot your patterns, so finding someone you trust who will read and comment honestly is an option.

You can do this exercise following certain instructions as well, such as remembering all the times you showed courage. Not only will this change the way you remember your history (old memories will come up), but it will affect the self-image you have of yourself today.

Melissa Karnaze June 11, 2010 at 9:06 am

Wonderful Adrienne, thanks for sharing! Looking for patterns is a great thing to do, and I would definitely recommend asking for input from a close friend or someone you trust to give honest and helpful feedback when possible.

Excellent point too about changing the way you remember your history by focusing on certain elements or qualities from your past selves. It really goes to show how the personal narrative is powerful stuff!

barbra July 24, 2010 at 7:37 am

this is a new twist on an exercise i know…and much more powerful. thank you melissa

Melissa Karnaze July 25, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Great to hear barbra, thanks for sharing.

David Sinei November 1, 2010 at 10:41 pm


Thanks again. One of the endings was NOT pretty.

On the bright side, I found out what is holding me back.

As an aside,
I was reading recently about how our memories form. Specifically how they change over time and even how the act of remembering can change the memory itself. In other words, memories are not reliable.

Merging this with what this lesson teaches, I suppose the personal narrative can also determine how you remember something. Which will affect the meaning derived from the memory which then affects the personal narrative…. Chicken and egg type thing.

This raises issues about identity. All this means is that we must be very careful (I suppose the word mindful could be used here?) about the personal narrative.

Melissa Karnaze November 2, 2010 at 8:49 am

Yes, memory formation/maintenance is another example of how you co-construct reality. Memories don’t correspond to past events 1:1. You recreate the past as you remember it!

“I suppose the personal narrative can also determine how you remember something. Which will affect the meaning derived from the memory which then affects the personal narrative…. Chicken and egg type thing.”

Definitely. Talk about responsibility!

Of course some would take this all as leading to the realization that there really is no “self” and that self is just a construct/illusion that you selectively create.

But, that narrative in itself is not very helpful. The construct of self is incredibly important for not only survival but also well-being. Just because because identity can change doesn’t mean you should abandon it altogether.

“All this means is that we must be very careful (I suppose the word mindful could be used here?) about the personal narrative.”

Indeed. Especially considering all that negative self-talk that slips by the radar. And not to mention the types of narratives that are buried deep beneath conscious awareness or not even encoded in langauge — what George Kelly called preverbal constructs (usually formed before a child learns how to speak).

Alex August 31, 2012 at 12:48 am

Oh my! This exercise really eye-opening about my life.
I realize that what I’m doing right now isn’t going to reach where I want to be. I think, doing this exercise monthly is a really great way to “review” my life.
Thank you so much for this wonderful article!

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