USING THE POWER OF STORIES TO TRANSFORM THE MEANING OF OUR LIVES
Each of us has a story about something that’s changed our life, but what changes when we change the story? Stories can create a kind of cognitive resonance in our minds. They represent our interpretations of meaning such that, in many ways, how we tell our stories has meaning / is the meaning of the story.
Stories can be powerful. Whether they’re personally motivational, politically influential, or just socially entertaining, powerful stories capture our attention. They’re like a song we can’t get out of our heads…
However, like infectious songs, powerful stories don’t only get stuck in our heads. They stay with us. Even when we’re not thinking about them, they’re in our bodies and our memories. Even when we don’t know all the words, we know the quality of the sound and the feeling of them. Through our physical and emotional connections to them, stories can become part of us.
These connections involve a certain kind of resonance. The stronger the resonance, the deeper the physical and emotional connections; the deeper the physical and emotional connections, the stronger the resonance. By effectively choreographing such physical and emotional connections, powerful stories can resonate with a sense of meaning that pervades our sense of self.
Beyond our conscious awareness, our minds are constantly creating and shaping their own stories. These stories become the underlying narratives that inform how we organize and interpret our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world around us. They, too, can have powerful physical and emotional effects on us.
Fortunately, with the help of science, we’re learning to better appreciate the power of stories. It turns out that this power is not just about what stories we tell, it’s about how we tell them as well. As we give our personal stories new structures, different perspectives, and alternative plots, we’re also transforming the meaning of our lives.
So what makes narrative expressive writing good for the heart?
“To be able to create a story in a structured way — not just re-experience your emotions but make meaning out of them — allows you to process those feelings in a more physiologically adaptive way … The explicit instructions to create a narrative may provide a scaffolding for people who are going through this tough time … This structure can help people gain an understanding of their experience that allows them to move forward, rather than simply spinning and re-experiencing the same negative emotions over and over.”
Narrative Journaling May Help Heart’s Health | University of Arizona: Alexis Blue
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people normally talk to themselves…
Say a man named John is upset about recently being dumped. By simply reflecting on his feelings in the third person (“Why is John upset?”), John is less emotionally reactive than when he addresses himself in the first person (“Why am I upset?”).
“Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain … That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
Talking to yourself in the third person can help you control stressful emotions | Michigan State University: Jason Moser • Andy Henion
Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI | Scientific Reports: Jason S. Moser • Adrienne Dougherty • Whitney I. Mattson • Benjamin Katz • Tim P. Moran • Darwin Guevarra • Holly Shablack • Ozlem Ayduk • John Jonides • Marc G. Berman • Ethan Kross
[U]nconscious storytelling leaves us stuck. We keep tripping over the same issues, and after we fall, we find it hard to get back up again…
The good news is that we can rewrite these stories. We just have to be brave enough to reckon with our deepest emotions.
In navigation, dead reckoning is how you calculate your location. It involved knowing where you’ve been and how you got there—speed, route, wind conditions. It’s the same with life: We can’t chart a new course until we find out where we are, how we came to that point and where we want to go. Reckon comes from the Old English recenian, meaning “to narrate.” When you reckon with emotion, you can change your narrative. You have to acknowledge your feelings and get curious about the story behind them…
The reckoning can feel dangerous because you’re confronting yourself—the fear, aggression, shame and blame. Facing our stories takes courage. But owning our stories is the only way we get to write a brave new ending.
Brené Brown on How to Reckon with Emotion and Change Your Narrative | Oprah.com: Brené Brown
This content is being created and curated as part of a project exploring how changing the ways we think about thinking can revolutionize the ways we change the world. See the Emergent Cognition Project overview to learn more.