When you learn to create an integrated narrative you will be more congruent and experience less anxiety in your life. You will have more compassion and empathy. You will be better able to regulate your moods. You will have healthier, more intimate and more sustainable relationships in your life.
The key to a healthy narrative is that it must be integrated
In Part I of this article I stated that a healthy narrative is integrated, which means that your narrative conveys the ways you have made sense of your life, or made sense of whatever situation you are talking about. This doesn’t mean you always know the answers, but at least you know the questions. It’s your story, how do you want to write it? What questions do you want to answer? What needs are you trying to fulfill? What are you missing and what will you do about that? What do you bring to the situation—to your life—and how fully do you acknowledge yourself?
Here are the key components that lead to creating a healthy, integrated narrative
Your narrative needs to be rational. It needs to make sense from a logical, linear, left brain perspective. If it does, you will relax and not feel defensive.
Your narrative needs to feel intuitively right. It needs to fit you, and not because it makes logical sense, but because the overall feeling of it, the big picture of it—the right brain perspective—feels right and doesn’t need justifying.
Your narrative needs to include multiple perspectives because all human narratives take place with other people. We are never alone in our narratives. Narratives have an interpersonal component, so make sure you talk about other people, as well as represent other people’s perspectives.
Your narrative needs to acknowledge your past and make sense of your past. If bad things happened to you, what did you learn or do as a result? If good things happened to you, how have you incorporated those in your life today?
Your narrative needs to focus primarily on the present, because NOW is the time that you are most able to influence. This is the moment you are shaping.
Your narrative needs to anticipate the future in a way that stimulates hope. A narrative without a bright future contributes to depression. A narrative with a compelling future makes each day exciting and something to look forward to.
Your narrative needs to be embodied—because our narrative is an expression of all of who we are and much of our wisdom comes from our body, not just our brains.
What follows are two examples of narratives. They come from the same woman, the first example was before I taught her how to create healthy narratives and the second one was after. Notice the dramatic difference. This woman was a client I was counseling—very bright and highly educated. She came to see me because she was having a hard time relating with her husband. Either she would crumble when he was mad, or she would escalate and become madder and meaner than she perceived him to be. In this process she was exhausting herself.
An Unhealthy Narrative
I asked my client why she didn’t have an adult/adult conversation with her husband and she said, “He reminds me of my mother.” She went on, “I remember when my mother would treat me poorly, like the time she told me I was dumb. I got upset and started to cry. I told my mother that she upset me. She got angry and said, ‘You always do that—you always blame me. I can’t do anything without being misunderstood.’”
My client told me, “I couldn’t believe she had made me wrong when she was the one who had told me I was dumb. All I wanted was her attention, and the only way I could get her attention was to be wrong, to take the blame, even when I didn’t do anything. My dad couldn’t live with her being upset, so he always told me to apologize to Mom. There was another time when my mother said, ‘I had a daughter once, but you’re not my daughter any more.’”
My client said, “I was furious, but because my mother was upset, my father told me to apologize.”
I asked my client, “When did this happen?” and she told me it had been over fifteen years ago. She had been carrying it around and continuing to relive these scenes and conversations for fifteen years. I said to her, “It’s time for you to stop wasting your energy fighting old battles. You’re no longer your mother’s little girl. You’re a grown woman. Your mother is no longer responsible for your well being, you are.” She asked, “How do I do that?” I explained that she needed to change her narrative. She needed to speak as an adult. She needed to face the present without hiding in the past.
The above example demonstrates a narrative that is not rational. It does not adequately answer my client’s original question, “How can I relate better with my husband?” Instead, her narrative justifies why she doesn’t treat her husband well. Her narrative does not make sense of the past, not in any constructive way, and it is an example of someone getting lost in their past instead of emphasizing the present. My client told the story when she was asked a question about how she relates to her husband today, and neither the present nor the future was addressed in her story. And, finally, my client took no ownership of her own story. She reported the entire thing as if she were a victim.
After teaching my client how to create a healthy narrative, I asked my client the same question, I asked her why she didn’t have an adult/adult conversation with husband. Here’s what she told me.
A Healthy Narrative
“For many years I chose to engage with my mother. In doing so, I chose not to get my emotional needs met. I tolerated what I now see as her narcissism. I agreed to play this crazy-making game, acting as though everything was about her. In doing so, I deprived myself and disappointed myself. I sacrificed my integrity so that I could have her in my life even though it wasn’t good for me.
“I even fooled myself with my father because I perceived him as doing nothing more than colluding with my mother. I perceived him as narcissistic in his own way, asking me to sacrifice myself so that he could have peace in his own life. And I remember him telling me this is all he wanted. I experienced him as extremely selfish, yet I chose to engage with him. He didn’t force me to. I chose to engage with people who could not give me what I wanted. I put up with my mother when she said terrible things like, ‘I had a daughter once, but you’re not my daughter.’
“I disrespected myself with this woman and kept going back for more. Why? Because I didn’t want to accept that I would never get what I wanted from her. If I could have accepted that, maybe I could have let go and stopped beating my head against the wall. If I had better self-esteem I would have refused to relate with people I perceived as crazy. If I stopped relating with such people, I’d have better self-esteem today.
“And, now, being with my husband is a chance for me to conduct myself in a totally different way. When he’s not emotionally available, for the most part, we can talk it through. Although I am responsible for picking a man who on occasion reminds me of people from my past, like my mom—and I threaten myself—I can break this pattern by conducting myself in a different way, even when I feel scared, because deep down I know he’s a good man. This means that from now on I won’t withdraw and I won’t get angry, because those are outdated ways of behaving that I used with my mother. They didn’t work well then. They won’t work now. I amaze myself that I have haunted myself with this woman who I perceive as crazy and selfish. I need to say goodbye to her.
“In doing so, in saying goodbye, I feel hopeful for the first time in my life. I feel that I have a chance to create a new way of relating with my husband and other people in my life. My body feels calm when I think of this. I feel relaxed and hopeful, and I know I’ll occasionally make mistakes, but I also know that the people closest to me will always give me a second chance when I make a small misstep. I am so happy to stop hiding behind my mother.”
In this second example, which was a response to the same question, do you see the dramatic difference between a non-integrated, incoherent narrative and an integrated narrative?
A Healthy Narrative Is An Integrated Narrative
In Part I of this article I started off by saying that a healthy narrative is integrated, but it’s also integrative. What I mean by this is that when we intentionally create an integrated narrative, we are developing more integrated brains—we are actually altering the structures of our brains in ways that expand our capabilities and our resiliency.
An Integrated Narrative Builds An Integrated Brain
An integrated narrative draws upon different areas of our brains. It includes logic that comes from our left hemisphere, intuition that comes from our right hemisphere, and gut feelings and bodily sensations that flow through our spinal column into our brain stem. A narrative that includes temporal integration—linking together the past, present and future—stimulates our pre-frontal cortex.
An Integrated Brain Results In Better Relationships
As we grow the fibers in the integrative circuits of our brains, which include the pre-frontal cortex, hippocampus, and corpus callosum, we increase empathy and compassion. We develop a greater capacity to regulate ourselves—learning to respond to situations instead of reacting—so we decrease tension and conflict in our lives. And with increased integration—in our brains and in our narratives—we form healthier and more sustainable relationships.
I urge you to take the time to write your own integrated narrative. It takes practice, but as you learn to tell your story—the big story of your life or the small story about what you did today—in an integrated manner, you will be reshaping your brain. If you are looking for a mindfulness practice, this is a powerful one. When you combine this with the use of Perception Language—you will free yourself from past limitations and be able to author your life.
Please send in any comments or questions if you need help.