Building Core Value Narratives

Compose the best possible story about yourself.

Posted Nov 20, 2015

If you feel stuck in life or like you’re making the same mistakes over and over, your personal narrative is a likely culprit. Although derived entirely from interpretations of past experience, personal narratives determine present and future interpretations of experience, which, in turn, greatly influence behavior. To become personally secure, you must make your personal narrative secure.

Sometimes we tell them to others, as a form of self-disclosure or to manage the impressions we make. But 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 of experience.

Each narrative we construct stimulates a repertoire of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 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.

Compare the types of narratives below and decide which is more likely to produce the kind of life you would like to have.

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, positive experience will not change negative narratives. Only change in the narrative will alter the perceived value of the experience.

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.

Relationship Narratives

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 most of the time 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 self, which is compassionate, kind, and loving.”

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 with my partner.”

Which relationship narrative is more likely to produce the kind of experience you would like to have.

Core Value Narratives Exercises

List what you consider to be the three most important qualities about you as a person. (Example: passionate, optimistic, compassionate, loyal)

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List three things that you “stand for,” i.e., things that are important to you and worthy of your time, energy, and sacrifice. (Example: fairness, hard work, integrity)

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List five things you appreciate about your life. (Example: health, caring people in my life, material needs met, good friends, education, knowledge/wisdom, success)

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Use the 11 items you listed above to construct a narrative about yourself. (Example: I’m passionate, optimistic, compassionate, loyal, fair, a hard-worker, of high integrity. I’m grateful for my health, the caring people in my life, my material security, my good friends, and my education.)

If you adopt something like the above as your personal narrative, how might it change your behavior and your experience?

Relationship Narratives

List the three most important assets your partner brings to your relationship. (Example: sensitive to others, generous, cheerful)

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List what you consider to be the three most important qualities about you as a husband or wife. (Example: loving, respectful, compassionate)

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List three ways you would like to improve as a husband or wife. (Example: be more engaged, more positive, and more aware of the good moments)

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List the five things you most appreciate about your relationship. (Example: companionship, fun, sensuality, vitality, security)

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Construct a narrative about your relationship using the 14 items you listed above. (Example:  My relationship brings me fun, sensuality, vitality, security, and companionship. My partner is sensitive, generous, and cheerful, who deserves to have me work hard to be loving, respectful, and compassionate. My relationship is important enough for me to make the effort to be more engaged, positive, and appreciative of the good moments.)

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