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The Psychological Art of Narrative Choices

Anni Albers, Tablecloth Fabric Sample, 1930. via MoMA

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” - Patrick Rothfuss

There's a friend I know from a while back, who I often struggle to figure out. You might have a friend like this too.

This individual usually drops off the radar for periods of time. I’ll message or email with no response from them, despite an active presence on social media. This presence will be a mixture of highs (‘just did this AMAZING thing — look!’) and lows (a selfie in bed accompanied by ‘gastro is no fun, guys’ sentiments). Eventually, they’ll respond to me with a flurry of messages. They’ll say they’ve been overwhelmed with work, struck down with a mystery illness, or some unexplained family/relationship drama they can’t get into RN. Our conversation might last a couple of days before they disappear again.

And again, their social media will paint a disjointed picture. That stint in hospital for pneumonia they claimed to have when messaging me, occurring at the same time they went surfing on the Gold Coast. The relationship drama they've been telling me about juxtaposed with a loving photo and excessive heart emojis. Hm.

I don't want to sound mean, and I know this is a little judgey, but I find it all a bit exhausting. The constant need for a ‘story’ — a narrative — consumes everything this person does, on and offline. It becomes difficult to really feel connected to them as they’re so focused on creating the story of their life. Even if connection is a part of that story, it’s hard to shake the feeling it isn’t all a little one-sided or disingenous.

My friend is not alone in their pursuit of a narrative. We are all in the process of creating our own personal histories, peppered with points of high and low. How we shape, share, and re-purpose these points is a part of how we seek to find more meaning in our life story.

Mary Catherine Bateson refers to this as an "act of creation of the composition of our lives". Now more than ever, with the advent of social media, Influencers, YouTubers, and Bloggers, are we able to curate our own narratives. It is, in fact, big business to tell our stories and there are some who do it exceptionally well.

Difficulty arises when our own stories or life narratives don’t follow the well-established arcs we have been taught since childhood fairy-tales. The ones that involve rising out of dire situations to achieve astounding feats, overcoming major trauma or challenges, or leaving the daily grind to seek adventure elsewhere. These are the stories, I hate to say it, that ‘sell’ in our current social media currency.

But here’s the catch-22 — no one's life will ever follow a predefined arc. Yes, we are all constantly in a state of flux but for many, the changes and experiences will be extremely subtle as we settle into the continuity of our life. Most of us lead consistent lives when it comes to the day-to-day.

Which, if you’re seeking the peaks of social media storytelling, is bad for business.

So, What is Narrative Identity?

Within many streams of psychology, the concept of slotting the puzzle pieces of our lives together to form a coherent picture is not uncommon. In fact, many psychologists suggest that this is a fundamental building block for uncovering meaning in our life.

Dan McAdams is an American Psychologist, who has dedicated most of his career and research to exploring what he calls the ‘Life Story Model’. This model suggests that people living in modern society create a sense of unity and purpose in their life by constructing evolving narratives about the self — Narrative Identity.

The idea of identity as a life story is connected to a multitude of other psychological themes in developmental, cognitive and cultural psychology including self-concept, autobiographical memory, and personality structure.

An individual’s Narrative Identity will be made up of heroes, nemesis’, major events and challenges, plot twists, suffering, heartbreak, joy, and love. When we want others to understand us at a deeper level, we share the parts of our stories we feel will resonate and connect the most. Likewise, when we want to know people better, we ask them to share their own stories with us.

Within each Narrative Identity, we also make what McAdams refers to as Narrative Choices — the process of selecting the parts of our story we deem the most valuable, desirable, extraordinary or worthy. Depending on the arc of the narrative we want our story to tell about us, the parts of our history we decide to share will differ greatly — even amongst those who have shared similar histories.

The Downside to Narrative Identity

There are clues to the downside of narrative identity in the way my friend often acts.

They know that to secure the external feedback loops which provide them with a sense of value (the social media likes, comments and such) their narrative choices need to reflect a certain narrative arc.

In the pursuit of this, small things become grandiose. They’ll seek out bigger and ‘better’ things to create a sense of awe, and attempt to further define their narrative identity and/or arc. The highs and lows of their story are clearly defined (or indeed exaggerated) in the ways they share their narrative.

In his research, McAdams has come to see two distinct narrative identities emerge. One of which is the concept of the ‘Contamination Story’. Individuals whose narrative choices follow this pathway tend to order their life events as going from good to bad.

There is no equilibrium in their narrative identity, and these individuals tend to tell their stories in such terms. They’ll tell of the big travel adventure they went on, that was then marred by some challenge or trauma. The story can’t be told without the added ‘bad’, the drama, or the negative, which then becomes the core focus.

McAdams has found that individuals who tell contamination stories are less driven to contribute to society, feel a lower sense of purpose and coherence in their life experiences, or struggle to find and understand the ‘meaning’ of their life. They also tend to experience more anxiety and depression.

The component of ‘less driven to contribute to society’ feels particularly poignant when I reflect on my friend's behavior. Despite years of claiming to want to find their purpose and give back to community, all of their pursuits so far have only benefited themself and their pursuit of an extravagant narrative.

The Upside to Narrative Identity

On the flip side of contamination stories are what McAdams calls ‘Redemption Stories’. These are individual narratives that transition from bad to good, focus majoritively on good experiences, and articulate the meaning or purpose of the bad they experience in order to achieve the good.

McAdams has found that individuals who interpret and understand their lives in terms of redemptive stories are more driven to contribute to society and rate their lives as more meaningful than those whose narrative identity follows the contamination story pathway.

McAdams has also found that beyond stories of redemption, individuals who genuinely believe their lives are meaningful tell life stories defined by growth, communion, and agency. In return, these individuals are able to craft a positive identity for themselves, where they are in control of their lives and able to overcome whatever obstacles they encounter with positive outcomes.

I know people who spring straight to mind when considering the ‘Redemptive Story’ concept of narrative identity.

When you get to know these people, parts of their story emerge that many others would struggle to overcome. I continuously find myself in awe of these people, for how they continue to tell their stories without relying on the trauma of their lived experience to define them. Their focus is on how the negatives in their history have helped to cultivate the positives, and live in genuine service of others — without having to plaster it all over their social media.

Learning to Live Your Narrative Identity

It’s important to know when it comes to narrative identity, you don’t have to be ‘stuck’ with the arc you find yourself attached to.

Psychology and psychotherapy research tells us that we are able to go back and edit, revise and re-interpret our life story and narrative identity in positive, meaningful ways.

Working with a therapist can help us to evaluate the ways we currently tell our life story and come to realisations that we might not be approaching it in the most appropriate, honest, or positive way.

Research has shown that even the smallest of edits in our narrative identity can have a huge impact on our overall outlook, mood, and approach to life.

Aside from therapy, taking the time to sit and consider the ways in which you tell your life story to others — either in person or online — can glean valuable insights into how you currently approach this part of curating your lived experiences.

It’s through this awareness we can begin to make the changes we feel we might need in order to tell our stories in the ways that better contribute to the self and others.


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