Our Personal Story
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” - Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
The purpose of this article is to illustrate the power of the story that we tell ourselves inside of our head. To properly explore this territory, we will go on a journey first exploring what story is, and it’s importance, then we will examine why we are predominantly negative creatures. This exploration will be followed by how we tend to have our psychology formed and will conclude with a mental shift that we can have toward our story from negative, to positive.
Story is perhaps the most powerful tool that humans possess. We can leverage highly complex communication schema known as language (spoken, written and bodily). This tool allows us to do two essential things. The first is to cooperate. This concept is how we survived (hunted, gathered and protected ourselves). The second is that we can establish value. That is to say, when I act a certain way, others communicate back to me the value of that action through language. Others reactions toward objects can convey the same. Objects and actions inherently have no intrinsic worth; it’s not until we humans come together in a group that we can establish value based on relative desirability.
Many people spend their days focused on the negatives. “I don’t have enough money; I’m not smart enough; I don’t look good enough.” This thought pattern makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint in that our ancestors who focused on the negative survived. This idea is to say if our tribal predecessor was hunting on the planes and a bush rustled, but they though positively “It’s probably nothing” and it was a tiger, then they are not our ancestor. This notion is to say, that we have been tuned to focus on the negative aspects of life because historically, negative things harmed or killed us. This concept is a powerful realization when we take a step back and understand that those adverse situations are far and few between in our modern day society. Do bad things happen? Yes, but if we look at the statistics, overall bad things, especially in the first world, are down based on many metrics. In many ways, we live in the safest time in history.
Another aspect to note is that how we feel about ourselves, is based on three primary attributes, biology, psychology and social surroundings. Let us look at these three attributes in more detail. Our biological lineage (all those who came before us in the family tree) has a significant impact on whom we become and our general demeanor. This biology feeds back into our psychological disposition. Our social environment also has a good deal to do with how our psychology is formed. Our nervous system physically changes based on how others socially interact with us. From here it should be seen that biology creates an initial psychological landscape and then our social interactions modify it. This concept is important to note because we don’t start with a blank slate; we are prone to specific thoughts, and behaviors. Our surroundings can then modify those in a profound way (both socially and biologically).
An additional layer of complexity is added when we forget the previous challenges that we have surmounted. In this situation perhaps we developed some coping mechanism, a habit if you will. Now, years later that is no longer a problem that we need to face; however, the pattern persists. These unique experiences, challenges, and adversities that we face in our lives inherently make us who we are.
If we think about it, who are we? We are incredibly complex biological, psychological and social beings. Each of these previous components has a historical aspect. So all of our past culminates, shapes and forms us into who it is that we are today. For example, our biology is affected by not only our parents but our entire family tree. This set of circumstances makes us into the unique individuals that we are. Therefore, we can tackle challenges that no one else can.
From this overall system (bio, psycho, social, and historical) we form stories about ourselves. These stories are based on feedback that we get from the world. This feedback goes into the formation and modification of rules of engagement. As we shift the set of rules with which we lead our lives, we also alter the way we engage in the physical world. As we interact differently with our surroundings, the feedback that we receive is different and subsequently modifies the rules yet again. This loop forms the basis of the story that we continually tell ourselves - which can and often does become quickly outdated even as we persist into our clinging to these dialogues that can be negative.
To this point, we have talked about story, our proclivity toward negative patterns of thought and some of the pre-dispositions that we might have, but have little to no control over. The point of setting this up is to illustrate how we form our inner dialogue. If the story that we tell ourselves is negative or focuses on failure, that is okay. In fact, that helped us to survive in times past. The most significant realization of all is that we have a choice on how we let our reality affect us. A Nazi Concentration Camp Survivor clearly illustrates this concept:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” - Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
This realization is a tremendous step toward achieving emotional maturity. However, this is not necessarily an easy or straightforward thing to practice.
Now, why is this important? Story helps us to develop the value of different objects, including our sense of self-worth. If we continue to go into the public domain and are called an “idiot” then perhaps that is what we are going to start believing. If we are socially ostracized, our inner dialogue can easily become, “What is wrong with me?” This idea is what I fell victim to in times past. It was not until after several therapy sessions that I realized that flocks of a feather tend to fly together and when we are unique, unusual or different - then we must find other people who are equally unique, special and different to have a real sense of belonging and acceptance. The desire to be accepted and loved goes back to the human survival instinct. If we were not loved and approved by the tribe, it was likely that we perished on our own.
With that being said, I envision myself as a puzzle piece. The more complicated my puzzle piece becomes, the more difficulty I am going to have in finding other, equally complex puzzle pieces. If I spend my life, trying to force my complex puzzle piece, onto other simpler pieces, then I will never feel like I fit in. It’s not until we embrace who we indeed are - without trying to change or modify ourselves (for which we are only able to alter a small amount regardless) that we might start finding other unique puzzle pieces. The converse is also true. If I am but a simple puzzle piece and I try to fit with the complicated ones, I am going to spend my life in fear that other people will find out that I’m a phony. I would also presume that we would spend our lives in anxiety and confusion as we don’t understand what the people around us are doing or saying.
An additional but essential note is that we tend to become those with whom we surround ourselves. If we have many people around us who are negative or condescending, that is how we will start to act. Therefore, it is imperative that we come to this realization, and are strong enough to let those people go who are dragging us down. If there is a group project and everyone is working hard, and one person is brought in who has a negative mindset or is not carrying the same burden, they will bring the entire group down, by a significant amount. It only takes but one drop of poison to infect the whole well.
In the end, story is an extraordinarily powerful tool. We can learn about ourselves, others and many aspects of life that are useful for navigating this immensely complex world. There are always many negative things to focus on in life; it is our choice to fixate on them or change to the positive. Our disposition toward certain behaviors is mainly biological. We can modify our behavior based on how others act toward us. In the end, however, we have the ultimate choice on how we let things affect us (our attitude toward things). We all have an inner dialogue. It is easy for it to get out of hand. We need to be infinitely patient with ourselves as we, being in the human condition, are flawed to our core. We can rest in the peace of knowing that everyone is equally flawed and always working to keep it together and better themselves.