To make sense of our lives, we create stories. Sometimes the stories are positive; we create a narrative of mattering: I feel valued most of the time, and I add value to myself and others. When one or both of these elements are absent from our story we are likely to feel despondent or disappointed with ourselves.
Story telling is a way to organize our thoughts, experiences, and feelings in coherent ways. We link social and mental events in a sequence to give them meaning. When the narratives help us feel valued and add value, everyone benefits. But when our stories fixate us or others in dysfunctional patterns or identities, it is time to consider a new story. To author a new story about your life, it is useful to challenge negative assumptions. Consider the following scenario. A friend of ours grew up in a house of holocaust survivors. Her parents went through the war and experienced horrendous trauma. As a result, their ability to parent was impaired. They were not able to create a nurturing environment for their child. They conveyed messages of inadequacy to their daughter. She could never be good enough for her parents. As a result, our friend grew up with a story that she will never be good enough, period. If you hear denigrating messages often enough, you internalize them and they become part of your story. A voice within your head tells you I’m unlovable, I cannot do math, I’m uncaring, I’m inconsiderate, I don’t know how to prepare a meal, I will never amount to anything. When you review all the negative messages that people punish themselves with, often unconsciously, they fit neatly into two categories: I’m not a worthy person, or I’m incompetent. Think about all the prejudicial messages that circulate in our culture: Girls cannot do math, Jews cannot be trusted, immigrants steal our jobs, poor people are lazy, and the like. Research and history tell us that minorities often internalize these messages, perpetuating an oppressive story. It is much easier to think that poor people are lazy than questioning structures of injustice. It is much simpler to blame women for not being assertive than challenging male dominance.
We all play a role in story-telling. When we don’t challenge stereotypical stories about ourselves or others, we play the role of a passive audience, providing tacit consent. Qui tacet consentit is a Latin phrase meaning whoever keeps silent consents. If you don’t challenge oppressive narratives about yourself or others you are relinquishing your moral obligation. You cannot let dominant figures in your family or community colonize your mind with stigmatizing notions. You have to author a mattering story about yourself and others. There are psychological ways to do that.
Question the dominant narrative. Similar to challenging negative assumptions, we have to question the grand narrative that shapes our lives. In the Italian movie Happy as Lazzaro, a tobacco landlord manages to isolate sharecroppers from the rest of the world, keeping them in virtual slavery. When by chance a policeman comes to the village to investigate a possible crime, he looks in disbelief at the condition of the poor farmers. When he questions them about their condition, they reply that they belong to the marquise, and they have to follow her orders. It never occurred to them that they can escape or contemplate another life. In many ways, a lot of us fail to imagine a more empowering scenario.
The first step in challenging the dominant narrative is to separate the problem from the person. In the movie, sharecroppers could not separate poverty from their personhood. They thought that their decrepit conditions had to do with their personal and communal deficiencies. Abused children and oppressed people often think that they are the problem. Instead of locating the problem in the external world (abusive parent, systemic poverty, human rights violations), they come to believe that they embody the problem. Children are especially vulnerable to this automatic pairing of problem with person.
Find exceptions to the negative story. To persuade yourself and others that the problem is different from the person, find exceptions to the narrative. If the dominant conversation is that you are unlovable or incapable, think of situations in which you defied the stereotype. Are there situations in which you demonstrate strength and ability? The more exceptions you find to the oppressive story, the better able you are to challenge convention and compose a healthier narrative.
The fact that you have a problem does not mean that your entire life is problematic, or that you are problematic. Consider situations in which you were able to resist or overcome the problem.
By finding exceptions to the negative story you begin the process of re-authoring your life. Is it true that you cannot do anything? Is it true that you don’t deserve to be loved? The very act of contending with oppressive conditions is an act of dignity. Finding exceptions to totalizing depictions of yourself as either unworthy or incapable provides evidence that you are resilient and have strengths. As Toni Morrison said in her book The Sources of Self-Regard, we find meaning in agency.
Imagine a better future. Just like writers compose various scenarios for their characters, you can imagine a future free of your burdens. What would that look like? What would it feel like to get rid of this affliction? This visioning exercise is crucial. You may come to the realization that it is not you who is the problem, but the situation. You may be entrapped in an oppressive relationship, or may be the subject of social injustice. What would it take for you to leave such a relationship? What can you do to challenge lack of fairness?
Act a new story. Ultimately, competence is realized in actions, and not just in thoughts. If you wish to act according to your values, you will have to take some concrete steps. If you value self-determination, you will have to do something to break the chains of oppression. If you value fairness, you will have to do something to protect the rights of vulnerable people. Granted, acting a new story is much harder than imagining a better future, but to make the task doable, you can use proven techniques to help you with setting goals and creating new habits – techniques we reviewed earlier in other blogs. You do not have to wake up one morning and tackle all the challenges in your life at once.
Isaac Prilleltensky is an award-winning academic and humor writer. His latest books, The Laughing Guide to Change, and The Laughing Guide to a Better Life, co-authored with Ora Prilleltensky, combine humor with science.