Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks shared this perspective on the voice that performs inside each of our heads:” We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative — whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a “narrative,” and that this narrative is us, our identities.” (Robin Williams played the role of Oliver Sacks in the powerful 1990 film ‘Awakenings.)
Prolific novelist Joan Didion had this take: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see and select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” – The White Album
Each of us walks around daily with a narrator performing on a stage inside our head. We replay scenes from yesterday and scenes from half a century ago consecutively, as if they were recorded at the same time. For the optimists among us, that personal self-narrative voice is typically buoyant, encouraging, and hopeful.
However, many of us hear a different kind of voice. In November of last year, I published an article focusing on the negative bias of the human mind. I quoted San Francisco Bay Area psychologist Rick Hanson who quipped “Our minds act like Velcro for bad experiences and like Teflon for positive ones.” That negative bias can frequently be heard in our personal self-narrative.
When our private inner narrative adopts a harshly critical tone, life can be a struggle. Most of our readers can relate to a critical self-narrative that contrasts with our behavior when a close friend experiences a setback or personal tragedy. We consistently show great compassion for our dear friends but scant self-compassion when we make a mess of something ourselves. Readers in search of greater self-compassion are encouraged to watch this video featuring Kristin Neff. Readers who aspire to shaping their personal self-narrative in a more positive direction are asked to apply for a script editor job that pays big dividends. Imagine you take the job and get promoted to Director. You walk on to the set of your personal narrative drama. Someone hands you the megaphone and you take your seat in the Director’s chair. You’re in charge. Now start making changes. Tell the ‘harsh critic’ voices to take a hike.
This is still real life, so you can’t make everything turn up sunshine and roses. Life still has its ups and its downs. But you can change the tone of the narrative to reflect a more hopeful picture. Bring some of your dear friends on set – people who love you. It’s okay if they have graduated into a ‘higher realm.’ This is your imagination. Have them sit next to you in solidarity. Invite them to contribute to a more positive narrative. Steer the action in the direction of healthy habits and supportive social networks. Turn this into a ‘feel good’ production.
Here’s the good news about self-narrative renovation projects. You can change the rules and the outcome. Go ahead! Order that megaphone from Amazon. Keep it around to remind you who belongs in the Director’s chair.
Richard Houston holds a Doctorate in Education and was licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Psychology. He is a graduate of Brown University. He has conducted research on the psychological dimensions of healthy lifestyle behaviors and has had long term consulting relationships with several continuing care retirement communities. You can visit his website at Resilience-Advocate.com.