Personal and relationship narratives are mini stories we hold about ourselves. Although we sometimes tell them to others to manage the impressions we present, the primary function of personal narratives is to make sense of our lives. The human brain tries constantly to organize the chaos of data presented at any given moment. Personal narratives are a short-hand way of imposing order on the chaos.
Each narrative we construct carries a repertoire of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, based on past experience. These help determine our perceptions of the moment and prepare us to act on them. While we’re relatively aware of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, the narratives themselves are mostly unconscious, based on implicit assumptions for interpreting the events of our lives.
Although derived mostly from past experience, personal narratives determine present and future experience. If you feel stuck or like you’re making the same mistakes over and over, your personal narratives are the likely culprits.
Negative Personal Narratives
“I live a forlorn life, cold, empty, uncertain. I feel isolated, like no one cares.” (I can’t do anything to make my life better.)
“People are out to get you. They never change. Why should they, they’re successful at making my life miserable.” (I have to be bitter and aggressive to protect myself.)
In negative personal narratives, bad feelings, moods, and circumstances, seem permanent—living is hardship or a battle or a joyless drive to get things done. Positive feelings, moods, and circumstances are temporary and sometimes dangerous, in that they lead to greater vulnerability.
When negative narratives persist over time, they develop a support structure of highly reinforced habits that are difficult to change. Any positive experience is seen as an anomaly or a brief occurrence in the calm before the next storm. Once habituated, negative personal narratives cannot be changed by positive experience. Only intentional change in the narrative will alter the perceived value of the experience over time.
Positive Personal Narratives
“I live a blessed life; I’m healthy, able to grow, learn, and have enriched experiences. I’m resilient and creative. (I know that, in general, I can improve my experience at any time.)
Negative feelings, moods, and circumstances are temporary, presenting opportunities for learning and growth. Positive feelings, moods, and circumstances are consistent.
Compare the types of narratives above and decide which is more likely to produce the kind of life you would like to have.
In addition to personal narratives, we develop relationship stories that sometimes complement and sometimes contradict personal narratives. (When they are contradictory, cognitive dissonance occurs.) Regardless of whether they are consistent with personal narratives or contradictory to them, relationship narratives seize control of most emotionally-charged interactions and create dynamics in which both partners lose sight of what they want in their reactions to each other.
Consistent Negative Personal and Relationship Narratives
“People are out to get you. They never change. Why should they, they’re successful at making my life miserable.” (I have to be bitter and aggressive to protect myself.) "My partner is (variously) an alcoholic, personality-disordered, mentally ill, selfish, immoral, deceitful, controlling, domineering, unfair, irrational, abusive, etc.” (There’s nothing I can do to improve my relationship.) I feel powerless (and that causes) resentment, anger, and contempt for my partner, and, of course, for myself for being with my partner.”
Contradictory Negative Personal and Relationship Narratives
“I am a compassionate, kind, loving person. But I’m not able to feel those things for my partner. Because my partner is defective (alcoholic, personality-disordered, mentally ill, selfish, immoral, deceitful, controlling, domineering, unfair, irrational, abusive, etc.), I’m unable to be my true compassionate, kind, loving self around my partner”
Positive Relationship Narrative
“My partner is essentially good-hearted. We can work together to improve our relationship. I feel good about my partner, and, of course, about myself for being around my partner.”
Compare the relationship narratives above and decide which is more likely to produce the kind of relationship you would like to have.