Fighting “Narrative Disorder”

Let’s start by making this clear: narrative disorder, narrative addiction, narrative perception and some other things I’m going to mention here are fictional conditions created by the talented writer Malka Older. I’ve been enjoying her “Centenal Cycle” of books, and when the phrase occurred in one of them it spurred me to look further.

Turns out there’s a short story by the same name, along with an essay to expand on the themes. I think, much like Jules Verne or Octavia Butler, what she is writing about bears a striking resemblance to something that will actually exist in the future, whether it bears that name or not.

I’ve written often in the past about how our power to shape our own narratives can be used as a tool to counter both the obstacles and the randomness of life. Heck, one of my pieces even got picked up by a Tiny Buddha course!

The thing is…I’ve also noticed in my friends, my loved ones, myself, and certainly in the national narrative that like any tool, it can be used for either good or ill. And when it’s used for ill, it can get really, really bad – as manifest by the narrative being created in politics right now.

But it manifests on a smaller scale, as well. And that’s in a place where we can, I believe, do something about it.

What is “Narrative Disorder”?

As Ms. Older describes it, narrative disorder is basically the compulsion to create stories out of the events we observe, layering on extra plots, subplots, ascribing over-arching personality traits based on limited data points. It’s a natural result of our increased free time, she speculates:

We have enough leisure to be able to spend plenty of time engrossed in stories that have no bearing on our own lives, and enough intellectual complexity and/or despair in our jobs that latching on to an effortless narrative is an obvious, almost necessary form of rest.

My partner Natasha and I manifest this on a regular basis, when we’re tired at the end of the day and we realize that our imagined life of dancing and drawing and hiking and etc. is much less likely given our level of energy. “Netflix & chill” to the rescue.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; the problem becomes when we start to mistake the fictional narratives on the screen – or the edited “reality” shows – for the way our own life works.

We expect drama, and we expect it to crescendo and diminish in one of the familiar rhythms we’re used to. We want resolution, and we believe that events will make sense if we can just uncover the intrigue behind them…And sometimes we’re right, because we’re not just looking for narrative everywhere, we’re also creating it. We create it through our expectations, sometimes, and we create it through our actions.

And right there is where we run into problems. Sure, we can create our own reality based on how we frame our perceptions; but what happens when we forget we’re doing that?

The Symptoms

An example of this is a friend of mine who has an upcoming combined business/vacation trip. They have expectations of the things they’ll get to do, the friends they’ll get to see, etc. Of course, like any combination of work and play, there’s always the possibility that things will get in the way, or get moved around. That’s reality.

What surprises me is the way my friend insists on reinforcing and retelling one particular narrative, often as if it’s already happened. Even with a lack of evidence beyond single points of arbitrary data, they have already decided they won’t get to do the things they hope to on the trip, they won’t make any new friends, and even the old friends they have will be too busy having fun with each other.

Speculating this as a possibility is smart. Preparing for things going wrong is good, and studies have shown that depressed people tend to have the most accurate predictions of reality.

That being said, the accuracy rate still sucks. We are really bad, as humans, at predicting the future, and especially bad at predicting whether we’ll be happy or not given a particular situation (see Dan Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness).

But if we condition ourselves, with the power of a narrative disorder, into thinking that our prediction is the way it is supposed to be, we are running the risk of being in a situation where we are, in fact, happy, or the thing we want – or something like it – is available, and we turn it away because that’s not how it’s “supposed” to be.

There’s a lot of powerful stuff here: the power of narrative combined with conditioning combined with the impaired decision making that comes with the stress and fatigue of being on a business vacation.

The Treatments

Ms. Older, in her fiction, describes several treatments that would be likely to look appealing to people fighting “narrative disorder.” I haven’t read everything she’s written (yet!) but I know that there are definite tactics that have been proven to work.

One is from the Designing Your Life teachers (one of the most popular classes at Stanford, y’know), and it involves creating alternate narratives, all leading to “happily ever after”, in order to remind yourself that not only are there multiple possibilities, there are multiple good possibilities. You can see the authors talk about this exercise for free, but I also recommend the book.

That one takes some time and effort. But there is a simpler, more immediate way, and it simply involves six words:

The story I’m telling myself is…

If you put that in front of whatever expectations you have, it changes those expectations from fact to fiction. More to the point, since those expectations are now in the form of the story, you have the power to change the channel. Edit the book. Choose a new podcast. Whatever the metaphor you want to use, it reminds you that this is a story you are making up…and you can make up other stories as well.

I don’t know if “disorder” is the right word for this phenomenon – and Ms. Older acknowledges “ that’s how a newly named difference is usually perceived…But like many neurodivergences, narrative susceptibility occurs on a spectrum.” I do believe, however, that the more susceptible we are to narrative, the more powerful a tool it is in our lives, the more dangerous and careful we have to be with how we use it.

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