Continuing on the narrative kick I’ve been on lately, this week’s practice turns from looking at the wisdom we can find in literature to the potential and pitfalls of the stories we tell ourselves from moment to moment.
Paying attention to the narratives in our heads is nothing new. It is for example the basis of one of the most common modalities in contemporary psychology, known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT invites us to investigate the scripts in our heads — our automatic thoughts — and challenge them to see if they are accurate. To use a simple example, a script like “I’m not good enough” can be challenged with examples of times when you were good enough; or catastrophizing scripts like “If I don’t succeed at this presentation, I’m going to get fired, and I’ll lose my house, and my wife will leave me” can be challenged by exploring more likely outcomes: “Will I really get fired if this presentation isn’t a success?” Beyond therapy, it’s just a helpful exercise to centre ourselves when our minds are getting away from us.
But of course before we can challenge the faulty reasoning of the false narratives in our heads, we need to identify them. And this is where this week’s practice comes in. It is simply to ask, “What is the story I am telling myself right now?” and to answer it as honestly as possible. It is similar to the exercise popularized by Brené Brown known as the “shitty first draft,” simply writing down the story going on in your head no matter how angry, ungracious, and paranoid it may be, with the intention of moving past it to a more accurate second draft later.
What is it?
This practice is to stop and ask, “What is the story I’m telling myself right now?” This week I posed the question every morning in my journaling time and any time I felt my thoughts were getting away from me during the course of the week.
As it happened, I was in good spirits most of the week, so this practice involved quite a bit of affirmation, focusing on my strengths and abilities rather than on any unhelpful narratives. But there were a couple times when the practice came in handy to stem the flow of some less beneficial lines of thought.
It was actually quite interesting doing this practice in a week when I was in almost entirely good spirits. When I stopped to ask what the story I was telling myself was, I found that it was positive, but in a balanced and nuanced way. It was only when my mood deteriorated that unrealistically black-and-white words like “never” and “always” started to slip into my thinking. That was itself a helpful insight.
What sticks out to me whenever I am intentional about these kinds of narrative practices is just how universal storytelling is. Not just in every culture around the world, but in any given moment. It is said that if you put any four dots on a page the human brain will find a way to turn them into a face. From the universality of finding faces or patterns in the stars or in seeing familiar shapes in clouds, we are a meaning-making people, neurologically wired to connect the dots, to look for relationships and reasons. Evolutionary psychologists have found that meaning-making, pattern-finding, and looking for cause-and-effect relationships are simply how humans think. In a sense, to tell a story is what it means to be human. We cannot not look for reasons for the way things are and meaning in what we see or experience.
The problem, however, is that our meaning-making and storytelling nature will only serve us as far as our perceptions of the world around us are accurate. To some extent, this is a natural glitch in the human system. The same capacity that allows us to recognize faces also causes us to ‘see’ faces on trees or a piece of toast; or, the same ability to recognize cause and effect also drives us to superstition and conspiracy theories. Essentially, once the human capacity for meaning-making gets turned on, it’s impossible to turn it off.
Hence the need for CBT or practices like the one I explored this week.
But as with last week’s practice, it’s worth asking how this is a sacred practice. For me, this kind of exercise is really an exercise in truth-telling. I’m reminded of the maxim of the Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “Live not by lies.” It’s a deeply scriptural sensibility as well. Psalm 51 famously, for example, speaks of God’s desire for “truth in the inward being” and asks God to “teach wisdom in the secret heart.” And when discussing the meaning of the stories he told, Jesus said, “Nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light” (Lk 81.7). And, as I’ve written about extensively before, I believe that truth-telling is the heart of repentance. It’s about being honest with ourselves and God about what is happening in and about us. And so, there is no doubt in my mind that a practice like this is fundamentally a sacred exercise, in addition to one that is simply helpful.
I also like that it is fundamentally non-judgmental. The question “What is the story I’m telling myself?” is neutral. Thus it creates space for further reflection and challenge without deciding ahead of time whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or helpful or unhelpful.
By way of conclusion, I’ll just say that I found this to be a really nice practice, but that it’s only a first step. It’s helpful to identify the stories and scripts going through our head, but we also need some way of assessing them, whether it’s challenging them with facts that counter them (as in the CBT model), or testing them against our bigger values. And I think this is where having a faith tradition comes in really handy. As a Christian, I ask myself “What is the fruit this story is bearing?” or, “In what way does this story demonstrate the way and teaching of Jesus?” And that can provide me with a lens through which I can view and understand my story.
But, if nothing else, first asking myself what the story I’m telling myself is is a good beginning.