Interpreting Our Reality Through Story

What a personal narrative really is

Posted Oct 18, 2018

Ian Schneider/Unsplash
Source: Ian Schneider/Unsplash

At the deepest level, what is our personal narrative?

In today’s business world, companies are being built from a foundation of storytelling. News channels report vastly different narrative accounts of the same event. And groups are being developed to support story-sharing as a mechanism of healing and community-building.

Since the 1980s, narratives and narrative psychology have played an increasingly important role in our communication, personal growth and societal development.

On the more personal side of things, we are witnessing more support than ever to open up and share our personal stories, even in relation to traumatic personal events. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton Psychology Professor Adam Grant have created an entire network of #OptionB groups, where community members can share their stories of loss, health challenges and overcoming incarceration. Survivors of sexual assault and abuse are speaking up and sharing their experiences with the support of groups like the #metoo movement.

If we are moving into a time and place where personal narratives continue to play an increasingly important role in society and business, it is not worthwhile to take a moment to step back and understand what a narrative actually is?

In its simplest form, what is a personal narrative?

According to narrative theory (Freeman, 1993; Murray, 1999; Sarbin, 1986), a narrative is an “organized interpretation of a sequence of events.” It includes “attributing agency to the characters in the narrative and inferring causal links between events.”

What is actually happening when a narrative is created?

What if we considered our personal narratives to be much like the sound that comes from a large seashell, a conch. When we lean in and listen, what we hear is in fact not the mythical “sound of the ocean,” but rather the surrounding environment resonating within the shell. When we create our narratives, we act like seashells, taking in our surrounding reality and sounding out how we see it (sharing how it resonates within us).

In the book, Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods¸ Narrative Psychology contributor Michael Murray (Chapter 5) references Jerome Bruner’s work in Acts of Meaning (Bruner, 1990) and Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Bruner, 1996) that distinguishes between “two forms of thinking: the paradigmatic and the narrative.” Where the former is a method of science, the narrative approach “organizes everyday interpretations of the world into storied form.”

We are all unique interpreters of reality, each playing a role in helping ourselves and each other learn from life. Therein lies the critical nature of carefully crafting and communicating our narratives.

Through the stories of how we see our lives – how we interpret and communicate our experience on this planet – we are experiencing, digesting, interpreting, filtering and communicating back our take on reality. Our interpretation is one that is unique to our experiences (past and current), perspective and intended growth in awareness. In most cases, the perspective that defines our personal narrative cannot be called right or wrong – it is simply “ours,” part of the journey we are taking.

Every narrative can have value, both to us and to a particular audience.

As we tell our personal stories, we share discoveries and tales of what makes sense (or doesn’t make sense) to us. We share the awareness of ourselves, others and the world around us gained through our experiences. And we open up avenues for individual and collective growth.

Why do we create personal narratives?

Having been a part of shaping the narratives of hundreds of others, it is clear that the stories we shape serve the purpose of helping us access clarity amid chaos, identify simplicity within the complex, and find comforting familiarity within the unknown.

In the words of Michael Murray in Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods, our narratives “bring order to disorder.” They are our powerful means of navigating a sometimes shocking or uncertain world...and finding our place in it.


What this boils down to is that our personal narratives help us shape our identities and create order in our world:

  • Forming our identity – There exists a forever dance between what happens in our lives and what we create from it – who we become. Our narratives give us the opportunity to shape our character and our voice, to make the choice as to who we become.
  • Creating order in a chaotic world – We use narratives to create meaning and attempt to make sense out of the events in our lives. Having twice defied death as a young adult, I would be one to argue that not all events will “make sense” to our logical minds...though we always have the opportunity to create meaning from every experience.

Next time you shape and communicate your narrative, or lean in to listen to that of another, will you see it differently?

Will you understand the psychological background of interpretation, identity, and meaning-making that is bubbling to the surface as the narrative takes shape?

When we all see life through our own lens, it’s easy to forget that another is not coming at things from the same perspective we are. It becomes very easy to judge...until we understand where they are coming from. The same applies to how we treat ourselves.

Understanding what a narrative truly allows us to offer deeper empathy and compassion in the development and communication of our narratives.

If a narrative is to always have a beginning, a middle and an end, may the beginning be the life events that promote our greatest growth, the middle be the point of our creating meaning from those experiences, and the end be one of contribution, where we transform our stories into something that’s benefit extends far beyond ourselves – a benefit so empowering that it cannot help but also spur our own growth.


Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods, 3rd Edition, Edited by Jonathan Smith (2015) – Chapter 5, Michael Murray (2015)

Acts of Meaning, Jerome Bruner (1990)