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?
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.
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.
I had a weird experience at the airport as I was waiting on my flight from L.A. due to some vagaries of packing and space and the rules of carry-ons, I had no less than three yoga mats and two water bottles among the items I was carrying around the airport. I looked, in short, like a yoga bum, with a long tube slung over one shoulder and a large folding flat mat in my other hand as I filled my shaker bottle at the water refilling point.
It was false advertising, of course. I make no secret about how I feel about yoga; it is something I enjoy having done, never something I enjoy doing and that I certainly don’t look forward to. But I could see in the way people looked at me that not only was I sending out the message of “yogi”, I was interesting, because I don’t look like your usual yoga bum. I’m not slender, I don’t have a man-bun, and I was wearing combat boots, not sandals.
Eccentric yoga bum. I’m sure people thought I was making my way to Esalen or Goa or some other retreat. In reality, I was heading to Chicago to pick up my car and drive overnight back home to Madison.
But…what if I pretended?
The Subtle Seduction of Rock & Brew
I went to a brew pub – one I’ve been to before with my partner Natasha, in fact, called “Rock & Brews” in the terminal. I sat down, looked at the menu, ready to order my usual big hamburger and fries and maybe a lava cake for dessert…and suddenly this weird feeling came over me.
This isn’t what a yoga bum would eat.
I ended up ordering a Cobb salad.
I was going to go and sit and watch a movie on my iPad…but instead I found myself looking for an open space to do some inconspicuous standing stretches. I found myself checking my activity level on my watch. I drank more water.
In short, I acted like a yoga bum would act at an airport, short of actually unrolling my mat and going through asanas. Hell, I even had a freakin’ banana for dessert instead of Cinnabon!
I stood up during the flight to stretch my legs. That never happens.
It was weird. It was like a strange kind of cover identity, a secret agent disguise that didn’t let people know I was the real me who didn’t like yoga and ate his feelings.
It was kind of useful, to be honest. And when I landed, and went to the car, I picked up a monster energy drink to keep me company on the way home, and listened to 90’s pop songs with the bass turned up.
Because that’s how I roll, when I’m not in disguise.
Pick Your Cover
At the same time it was not lost on me that I ate more effectively at the airport than I really ever have before. I was better hydrated, I was less stiff, and in general I took better care of my body than normal.
Because I was wearing the disguise of someone who did that. It was quite useful.
It makes me wonder what other “lives” we can try on, just for a while, when we need to face a challenge. How would a scholar approach a research project? How would a hotshot entrepreneur approach making a budget? How would Mr. Rogers approach handling the kids tonight at dinner?
It’s all a projection, of course. A story we tell ourselves about how those people act. But sometimes it may be useful to borrow someone else’s story, for a while, so that you can give your own a rest.
A few days ago, a friend of mine posted a picture. You can see it up there.
Along with it, she voiced some displeasure over the phenomenon of “manspreading”. This is the perception that men, especially in public spaces, tend to take up more space than is usually allotted to a given seat.
I say “perception” because, thanks to confirmation bias, it’s very easy to discount the phenomenon by looking for examples of women doing the same behavior. That’s not the point. I strongly suspect that in a society where women were treated less as commodities needing to be regulated and more as, well, humans, the occasion of a person putting their feet up wouldn’t trigger such an angry reaction.
See What I Did There?
Let’s try a little thought experiment – creating narratives. We like stories, so see if any of these change your perception of the picture at all:
Since getting his discharge from the Army, George had never been able to sit comfortably in public transport. His knees just didn’t bend that way anymore. It had been a rough shift at the VA Emergency Room, and he was so tired he’d forgotten to take off his name tag. Thankfully, the bus wasn’t so crowded and there was room to stretch out his aching knees.
Albert kept half an eye open as the bus took him to work, but there was plenty of room and no one seemed to need the seat in front of him. Gratefully he stretched out his legs; busses used to have bigger seats, but some bean-counter had figured out that smaller seats meant more passengers meant more money, and unfortunately Albert wasn’t getting any smaller. It had been a long shift as an escort at the local Planned Parenthood, and some of the demonstrators had been downright rude. He would get to his job at the Amazon Disbursement Warehouse in twenty minutes, and it was nice to have a little time to relax.
Jack was tired at the end of his third-shift at Denny’s, and he was grateful the bus wasn’t too crowded. He hated the looks he got from people when they smelled the grease from grill he’d been working over for the past eight hours. He could catch a quick nap before he got home in time to pack his kids’ lunches and send them off to school. It was harder since the divorce, but he was still glad the kids were with him, because his ex wife had taken the job in New York and didn’t have room for them there. He would be able to sleep until about one p.m. before he had to go to his second job at the data-entry center, but that was just a few hours and his kids would still get to see him for supper.
See What I Did There?
Maybe it doesn’t make a difference to you. However, if your objection is those aren’t realistic, I have to reveal that two of the scenarios aren’t made up at all; they are based on actual experiences from my life.
More than that, this whole entry is an example of making up a compassionate narrative. When I talk about that “ friend of mine” I have to admit: she’s not a close friend. In fact, her husband once described us as “frenemies”. So it’s entirely possible I’m completely wrong in my thought processes as to why she was so angry. But since I don’t know, I’d rather try to find an explanation that spins a positive story than a negative one.
I’m not saying this needs to be done all the time. It’s even been proven that, statistically, depressed and pessimistic people have a more accurate assessment of reality than optimists.
However, if you find – as I do – that the world has a whole lot of negative stories to tell you, perhaps the way to find more compassion in it is to begin within your own mind.
Just a thought.
One of the few good things to come out of this particular year is a greater awareness of the problems of narcissistic behavior and emotional manipulation. I’ve had more contact with that than I’d prefer, on a variety of levels, so it was nice, in a way, to be able to have conversations and not have to constantly define the term “gaslight.” While the roots of the term lie in the malicious manipulation of perception to undermine a victim’s confidence in their reality,
There’s a lot of stuff written about that, and I’m not going into it here.
Instead, I want to bring your attention to something you might be doing: gaslighting yourself.
What Does Gaslighting Yourself Look Like?
Here’s an example: a friend of mine recently kicked ass on a major project. Not only did she solve an ongoing and pervasive problem, she did so using a uniquely original solution that not only worked but was almost immediately adopted by others in the industry. It wasn’t an easy process; there were weeks of work prior to the deadline and a literal all-nighter the day before it was rolled out. The response of the clients was almost universally excellent, and those of us who actually saw what she did were awestruck by her abilities and felt fortunate to be her friends.
If you mention it to her, though, the most common reaction she’ll have is to say “I’m sorry.”
The reason why is related to the narrative habit we all have – we like to make up stories about ourselves. However, in this particular narrative, in spite of the external evidence that the project was an amazing success, she focuses on the parts that she feels she could have done better. The fact that her effort in the reality wasn’t what she imagined it should have been overruled the evidence of her senses: the reactions of the people at the event, the accolades of her peers, the creation of a system that others in the industry want to emulate.
Please note: I am not saying she is wrong. That would be gaslighting. No, instead I’ve just suggested to her – on multiple occasions – that she approach it like a scientist. If you learn how air pressure and clouds and weather work, then even if you feel that it is a Great Thunder God battling it out with the Lightning Demons, you may have to challenge that belief in light of the evidence.
Now, I used her as an example because it’s uncomfortable to pick out my own moments of gaslighting myself. But I can give you an easy and quick example: at the same event where my friend’s system was unveiled, I worked my butt off. Literally, I have my Apple Watch telling me how far I walked, how many pieces of performance equipment I lifted, how many stairs I climbed and hands I shook (Ok, maybe it doesn’t get quite that granular, but it tells me an awful lot). I also have a good idea of how much sleep I didn’t get, and I know exactly how far Natasha and I drove to get there and back: 16 hours, from Madison to New Orleans and back.
At the end of that wonderful week, I came home. The work of the last nine – no, really, the last eighteen months had paid off and it was done. We got back late in the evening, and I sat on my couch, reaching for the remote, sure that I had earned an episode of Gotham, at least.
Couch potato, the little voice in my head chirped. You’re going to become fat and lazy because you don’t do enough.
“Everybody’s on your team except you.”
That’s what happened. Luckily, I had two things: one, a framework to identify this as self-sabotage, and two, a partner who had been with me throughout the whole experience, who assured me that contrary to that evil voice, I had done enough and I did not need to get up and go work out.
My friend has a husband who does that, too. He’s the one who uttered that gaslight-banishing phrase up there, and I think it’s a great tool for getting past those moments when your feelings don’t match your reality. It may be a “fake it til you make it” situation – that is, you may have to just act like you believe the evidence, even if you don’t. I’m currently in exactly that situation with my morning routine.
But it’s worth asking yourself, every once in a while: Is this really the way things are? Or is it only how I’m telling myself they are?
Readers of this blog will know that I’m a pretty big fan of leveraging the narrative of our lives to augment reality. Whether it’s putting on my combat boots and reminding myself that I’m a hard-charging devil dog or pretending that the driving snow simply means that we’ve made the jump to hyperspace, I love manipulating the stories I tell myself about my life.
In particular, I like the fact that when I put my life into a Grand Epic, I can see the people in it as more than my friends and family – they are my Allies.
Metaphors are Important
It’s funny how words matter. What if I’d said “cohorts” or “cabal”? If I were writing this blog during the Victorian era, perhaps I would talk about creating your personal “Empire” and describe your friends and family as “Colonies”, with no ill effects. But somehow I don’t think a personal development essay about the “Axis of Conquerors” would quite resonate right now.
One of the metaphors I do use is “Mastermind” – which is a common enough technique among personal development folks. My friend Ben and I were in a Mastermind Group for a brief time in Seattle, and the result was the table of contents that became the first draft of my Defining Moment book.
More recently I’ve been meeting once a week with a hypnotist entrepreneur friend of mine, an author and hypnotist Lee Allure. I asked her to sum up the benefits (if any) of our time together. Here’s what she wrote:
Our mastermind group helps keep me focused on the important tasks I have to get done. A regular weekly meeting and the reminders we set for each other moves me forward with new tasks and makes me happy to share what I’ve done. I’m equally happy to hear about the groups successes and to help remind them of their important undertaking.
Now, as a big fan of comics, can you imagine how awesome it feels to have a super-hero like a hypnotist in my corner, once a week? To share in her triumphs and share mine with her?
Or how about the Pepper-Potts style heroine that I live with? Or the courageous Writing Partner who is braving the slings and arrows of masculine stereotypes to forge his own path? Or my progeny, who have surprising skills and unexpected bravery in the face of unusual obstacles, who are all working on becoming the Ultimate BadAsses of Adulting?
You may be sitting there thinking that this is nothing but hyperbole, that this is somehow missing the Important Issues of Real Life. I got news for you, my friend: you are one of billions of tiny lifeforms on a rock hurtling through space around a sun that will eventually go nova and consume every molecule of anything that you ever did.
That’s reality. Anything less that’s labeled Real Life or Important is already hyperbole, given exactly as much significance as we choose to give it.
So why not choose to give your Allies – or your Federation, or your Rebellion, or whatever – the significance they deserve? Yes, you write your own story – but you don’t have to be the only character.
“Spoilers!” – Riversong
- Rosebud is his sled.
- Bruce Willis is a ghost.
- The Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks.
For those who haven’t seen the movies that the first two spoilers refer to, I apologize. If you don’t know the third, you’ve only yourself to blame. One of the biggest reasons we love stories is because to some extent we want to be surprised. I read somewhere that the formula for a good book was to give the reader 75% of what they expect and 25% of what they never saw coming.
Do you read the last page of a mystery whodunit? Do you fast forward to the end of some Joss Whedon series to see which character he decides to kill off? Do you just want to hear the score before you get a chance to watch the game you recorded? Or are you the person who posts “No spoilers! on their status update the day after the latest Sons of Anarchy episode?
I suspect most people don’t want to know the ending of the stories they enjoy beforehand. There are certainly joys to revisiting tales even after you know the ending – how many times have you read your favorite book, watched your favorite movie? But when you find someone who hasn’t experienced it, don’t you feel a twinge of envy? They get to see what happens for the first time, and that can be such a joy.
The Narrative Life
“What suprise? ‘Vader’ means ‘father’ in German. His name is literally ‘Darth Father’” – Pitch Perfect
This being the case, why do we stress so much about not knowing what happens next in our own lives? Do we really want to know? Sure, we can have plans, just like we plan on reading a thriller or a mystery or a self-help book. We can root for the protagonist and hope that the villain gets their due. But why on earth would we want to know where we’re going to end up?
Not only that, why would we stress about it? Instead, I think there’s a responsibility for the author to make sure that it’s a good book. One of the more frustrating things about some movies are when you get to the “big reveal” and you say to yourself Wait a minute. That doesn’t make any sense. The teller of a tale has a responsibility to lay out the pieces of the story in a way that when you get to the end, you did see it coming – or at least can find it plausible.
The nice thing about reality is that it’s not deterministic. There are many different endings possible from each set of circumstances (watch the movie “Clue” for a brilliant illustration of this fact) and that means that there’s always room for a “twist” ending, for the story to be whatever the director decides.
Surprise! The Director is You
Ok, not much of a surprise. You probably saw that coming a mile away. Or maybe it is a surprise, as it is to me, since I started this little commentary with the idea that we are the writers of our own tales.
Upon reflection, though, it’s far more like being a director. You are given a script, and various influences – locations, costume designers, lighting, actors – to make the movie look and feel the way you envision it. The more complex the movie, however, the more rewrites and revisions and edits and new scenes you need…but that’s how masterpieces happen.
Sure, there are directors whose vision goes directly from first draft to screen almost unchanged. Just as there are some people whose lives seem to simply be planned out from birth, with few surprises or twists. But if you listen to the director’s commentaries or read books about the process of making movies, you hear about the changes, the surprises, the serenditous coincidences and world-ending obstacles that had to be overcome.
Not all movies are good. Not all directors are open to the input of others. And some movies just don’t work out due to things like budgets or actors dropping out. You can take the metaphor as far as you like, but what it comes down to is this: you are in the process, right now, of directing the story of your life.
It’s fine to have an idea of the story you want to tell – in fact, that’s probably a good idea. But don’t stress about the ending. It will inevitably reveal itself. Do what you can to make this chapter, this scene, more beautiful and moving, and trust to the process.
Leave the spoilers to the ones who come after.