Nov 202008

Stories do something to us as human beings, and I’m just learning about that power. On one level, stories tend to be causal narratives that divide the world into causes and effects to help you to understand what works and what doesn’t. So, in a way, stories are theories. They essentially say, this happened, or I did this, and this and thus this happened. They can provide you with a model, as well, of how to achieve certain goals, or perhaps the “right” way to behave.

There is one big difference between theories and the stories we use to explain our lives, though, and that is that while theories tend to be observational and simply try to explain the events as best as possible, stories and a consistent style of story-telling can affect future events, and multiple stories are just as valid or “right” as each other. As an example, psychologists have identified an explanatory style that people use to tell the stories of their lives.  There are three components, and I quote:

  • Personal. People experiencing events may see themselves as the cause; that is, they have internalized the cause for the event. Example: “I always forget to make that turn” (internal) as opposed to “That turn can sure sneak up on you” (external).
  • Permanent. People may see the situation as unchangeable, e.g., “I always lose my keys” or “I never forget a face”.
  • Pervasive. People may see the situation as affecting all aspects of life, e.g., “I can’t do anything right” or “Everything I touch seems to turn to gold”.

People who generally tend to blame themselves for negative events, believe that such events will continue indefinitely, and let such events affect many aspects of their lives display what is called a pessimistic explanatory style. Conversely, people who generally tend to blame others for negative events, believe that such events will end soon, and do not let such events affect too many aspects of their lives display what is called an optimistic explanatory style.

You’ll notice that personal development offer a consistent explanatory structure to use, that you are the master of your life (personal internal), that you can and do change things (impermanent), and depending on what you read, may promote having a singular personality, or learning to recognize your intrinsic worth as a person is not tied to your actual effects. The second two are also examples of beliefs including both limiting or positive ones.

There is a problem with theories and thus stories, though. The facts can support an infinite number of theories. Broadly speaking, then, there are two ways that people can tell their stories–optimistically or pessimistically. To help drive this point home, here are my stories:

Ever since I’ve been a kid, I’ve felt like I didn’t really belong. I was born in Saudi Arabia to Pakistani parents. My father was a guest worker and the Saudis generally didn’t like us very much, so I grew up as a perpetually expat Pakistani. I draw a large part of my identity from being a Pakistani but I’ve probably never spent more than a year total there. When I was 11, I was taken away from all my friends and the life I knew and brought to Canada, a foreign and cold land. I grew up in a mostly white neighbourhood and the darkest person in my class was a half-black, half-white kid that I befriended, probably because he was about the most familiar thing there. Being the new kid and being different were marks against me and I was bullied and made fun of by the other kids for the first 5 years of coming here. I’ve lived most of my life as an outcast, not quite fitting in anywhere.

This story makes me feel depressed just thinking about it. However, it is just about as true as the next one:

My parents lived in Saudi Arabia and I was born in an excellent hospital that was part of my father’s benefits. It was better than any hospital I would have been born in in Pakistan, and there’d already been a stillbirth before me so I’m appreciative of the better medical facilities. I also got much better schooling than I would have, and the standard of living in Saudi Arabia was higher than in Pakistan. My parents desiring the best for us decided to bring us to Canada, where the standard of living is much higher, the education is world reknowned, the opportunities are vast and we had a shot at actually becoming citizens of this country. Through trials and tribulations, which are a normal part of life, I’ve grown up to become the person I am today. I may still feel a bit like an outcast (I have come to enjoy it), but I’ve built a strong network of friends who make me feel like I am part of something. I’ve also learned to build an identity as a Canadian-Pakistani and, in some ways, I finally belong. Currently, I’m going to one of the top 50 universities in the world, on my own terms. I am also engaged in improving myself and my life, and I am building a successful future for myself.

Which story do you like better? They’re both true and cover most of the same facts. Life is so complex that you necessarily have to highlight some facts versus others. I like the second story better because it is one of hope and it is empowering. With this story, I can feel that my life is going well, and since there’s no real “objective” data on that, I’d rather feel that things are going well rather than badly and that I am improving things.

How do you tell your story if someone asks about you? What do you say when someone asks you what you do? Do you tell the victim story, the martyr story, or the story of hope and empowerment?

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