Most of us have narratives or story lines we’ve constructed over the course of our lives about ourselves. Some of these story lines serve us better than others. The narrative “I’m a fighter, not a quitter,” can boost resilience and motivation to persist in the face of difficulty. But, “Nothing ever works out for me,” “I can’t get a break,” would probably have the opposite effect. Telling yourself, “I’m an outsider,” or “I’m not a relationship person” is likely to kick up feelings of loneliness. It may also influence your behavior in ways that increase the odds of being alone.
Cognitive science shows that people process information in biased ways. This means our narratives are often not strictly factual or completely accurate. One overarching bias in our thinking is the consistency bias—the tendency to overlook the information that doesn’t fit with our narrative and focus only on what confirms it. This strengthens it and makes it challenging to change.
How can we break free of negative narratives?
Cognitive therapy teaches us how to offset for the negative biases in our thinking. By learning to take note of the information that contradicts our negative narratives, we can eventually weaken them and form new, more realistic ones.
Another more radical option, is to just drop the narrative. Stop assigning arbitrary meanings and interpretations to the things that happen in your life.
Not everything has to mean something. The DBT mindfulness skills of nonjudgmentally observing and describing experiences are great ways to practice letting go of story lines. Observing nonjudgmentally means just attending to experiences without evaluation or judgment Then, nonjudgmentally describing them means putting them into words without interpretation or color commentary. Just the facts. As we keep practicing these skills, it becomes easier to let go of our narratives.
So, stop interpreting everything or giving it meaning. As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Drop the narrative and free yourself.
Dr. Lisa Napolitano is an expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and other mindfulness-based treatments. A licensed psychologist in New York and Florida, she is the Founder and Director of CBT/DBT Associates, a boutique psychology practice group. Dr. Napolitano is an expert in the treatment of stress, anxiety, worry, and emotion regulation problems. She has specifically designed her treatment approach for executives, attorneys, and other high-functioning individuals whom she believes shouldn’t have to sacrifice their careers to manage their stress and work on developing their potential.