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Breaking Free of Our Rigid Narratives

Being with things as they are.

Key points

  • Our narratives, understandings, and the stories we tell ourselves shape the experiences we have in any given moment.
  • When narratives become rigid, they can lead us to miss important information in the moment and interfere with our learning.
  • Practicing being aware in the moment can help us develop flexibility and enhance our responding in the moment.
Josh Bartok, used with permission
The Functioning of Karma
Source: Josh Bartok, used with permission

My commute to the school where I teach includes an exit off the highway that often gets backed up with a line of cars waiting to make the turn.

The first month of school typically involves me progressively leaving my house earlier and earlier so that I can navigate this part of my trip without as much stress.

When I came up to a car stopped in the right lane near my exit one morning, I stopped behind it and waited. And waited. I’m not sure how long I was waiting there, with my mind wandering, before I noticed that this car had its hazards on, and there was no car in front of it. I sheepishly looked behind me at all the cars now lined up because I had assumed I knew what was happening in front of me and didn’t pay sufficient attention.

I drove around the car and headed to school, thinking about what happens when I approach a situation with expectations instead of viewing the situation as it actually is.

It is natural to anticipate and expect. We develop narratives and understandings of common situations we encounter and interpersonal exchanges we experience. These stories we tell ourselves can help us to respond more quickly in the moment and to do one thing while thinking about another. Yet, the more rigidly we rely on these stories and assumptions, the more we will miss in our lives. Developing a practice to bring attention to this moment, as it is, again and again, can counter this rigidity.

Another example: A while ago, I exchanged a series of emails with a colleague about a situation we were both trying to navigate and about which we seemed to have different views. I was busy with multiple other responsibilities, I read the colleague’s responses quickly and developed a narrative that we were in conflict that involved the colleague not being respectful of my opinion or my needs. We scheduled a meeting, and each time I thought about the meeting in advance, I felt anger arising and prepared myself for an intense argument about the issue.

As soon as the meeting began, it became clear to me that the colleague was experiencing their own stress about the situation and genuinely wanted to find a solution with me. The conflict and discounting of my perspective had been manufactured in my head. In fact, in my narrative, I had excluded the colleague’s perspective. Fortunately, I was able to switch my narrative quickly, and we had a lovely discussion and reached a resolution that worked for both of us.

Should we stop developing stories and narratives or have expectations as we encounter different situations? Even if that were a good idea, it wouldn’t be possible. Our minds make sense of situations, develop theories about how things are, and help us to predict what might happen. We can’t just turn that off. And I wouldn’t want to.

My mind helps me to leave early enough in the morning so that, when there is a line of cars at my exit, I can still make it to school on time. The narratives I have about how to make my partner’s life a little easier help me to remember to move my shoes out of the hallway so he doesn’t trip over them again.

Importantly, paying attention to narratives can also help us to see things exactly as they are, such as recognizing discrimination and injustice, which involves understanding context and history. The trick is to hold these narratives while continually bringing our awareness into our current moment with curiosity and flexibility.

What would that look like in a practical way?

As we make our way through our days, we can practice intentionally bringing awareness to the present:

  • What do we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel?
  • What do we notice in our bodies?
  • What kinds of thoughts are arising?

When we notice tension in our bodies, or strong emotions arising, we can re-engage in the practice above, perhaps adding in some questions like:

  • How do these feelings make sense in my current context?
  • What am I feeling certain of right now?
  • Is that definitely so?
  • What might I be missing?
  • Can I expand my awareness in this moment and notice something unexpected?

If we notice ourselves ruminating and going back over something that happened in the past, we can bring ourselves back to the present again and wonder:

  • What thoughts and feelings are arising for me right now?
  • How can I be curious about these experiences?
  • What else is present that I might be missing?
  • Can I expand my awareness and notice something new?
  • Can I cultivate compassion toward myself for responding in a natural, human way?
  • Can I bring awareness to my context (the pandemic, work stress, injustice, sadness, and grief) to deepen my compassion and flexibility?

We won’t always remember to stop and reflect in this way. Our narratives will continue to grab us and convince us how true they are, particularly when we are under significant external stress. But each time we stop, notice, and wonder, we can create a little more spaciousness and a little more flexibility. Maybe then we can notice if the car in front of us has its hazard lights on, or if the person in front of us is having their own challenging experiences that we care about.


Lee, J. K., & Orsillo, S. M. (2014). Investigating cognitive flexibility as a potential mechanism of mindfulness in generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45(1), 208-216.

Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and cognition, 18(1), 176-186.

Sørensen, L., Osnes, B., Visted, E., Svendsen, J. L., Adolfsdottir, S., Binder, P. E., & Schanche, E. (2018). Dispositional mindfulness and attentional control: The specific association between the mindfulness facets of non-judgment and describing with flexibility of early operating orienting in conflict detection. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2359.

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