What stories do you tell (about) yourself?

Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experiences, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories.” So, what stories do you tell about your experiences?


As I learn a little more about my new field of study (Organizational Psychology), as with any new field of study, I find it delicious to browse the library bookshelves for something that looks interesting to take away for a little light reading.  It’s a way of tasting a new food, without committing to a whole meal.

That’s how I picked up the book Management Rewired by Charles Jacobs.

It’s pop psychology meets business, the same way that The Tipping Point, How We Decide, and The Black Swan all are, so you know the tone.  Breezy, lots of examples, a few easy-to-digest points about how you might modify your thinking, or tweak your own environment.  There’s usually a lot of moments you think “Oh! So that explains my experience in my last job/relationship/crisis.”

In this book, Charles Jacobs writes to let business people know a few things that us humanities folks have always known, and that scientists are now corroborating based on research studies.  That is, the brain organizes it’s thoughts around stories.  He quotes a cognitive scientist Mark Turner to make his point, “Story is a basic principle of mind.  Most of our experiences, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories.”  In fact, the way we tell our stories will certainly change the way that we perceive our world around, and help us to generate material which fits in with our conception of these yarns we are spinning. This in turn, changes our actions.

Then he goes on to talk about business management practices, feedback, cognitive dissonance, performance appraisals, task structure and a whole lot of other things which were interesting to me, but may or may not be interesting to you if organizational psychology isn’t your new thing.

However, what probably is your thing is framing your own life in a way that makes sense, that explains the way you live, act, and make decisions.  As I was reading, I was reminded of the sociological idea of roles, a set of connected behaviors, rights, and obligations that can be achieved or ascribed.  In fact, everyone has multiple role sets.  Some of my own include wife, student, mother, friend, blogger.  Most of use could generate at least a dozen of these roles in this list form to tell others with no thought whatsoever, but when it comes to living in our day to day life, it’s rare that we can present more than one or two roles at a time.

But, the underlying story we tell each ourselves about the way we live our lives is far more complex, partly, I think because it’s able to nuance these roles we have in a way that’s not always readily apparent to outsiders.  Though Jacobs on his book’s website says:

When Americans are asked what they do, they don’t respond with “I do volunteer work at the community center,” “I build ships in bottles,” or “I try to ensure the survival of my genes.” No, we answer with a description of our jobs. While other, more civilized countries may see us as a bit obsessed, the workplace is the center of our lives.

I think he’s neglecting to state the obvious, that we know our questioner is actually asking; “Where do you work?”

As soon as I read this, I realized it’s a particularly troubling question to ask of stay-at-home mothers (and it’s put to them often) because they can’t quickly answer with a role which is readily validated by society.  Everything must be framed around their child who they spend a great deal of time with.

But, what if the story they are telling themselves isn’t that they are first and foremost mothers?  How can they get that across in a way that isn’t acrimonious, especially since they have been put on the defensive from the start?  Probably by telling a story about what they view as the most important parts of their lives at home.  This is sort of a cop-out answer for now, but it’s as far as I’ve gotten in thinking through this idea.  In the meanwhile, I really like a quote from the preface of a book I recently skimmed which I think is applicable not just for mothers (though that is the context) but for anyone who feels as though they are defined by only one role in their life.

“When being a mom [or insert X here] looms so large that it obscures everything else God made me to be, other people are not seeing the real me” – Caryn Rivendeneira.

(Especially, I might add, in a traditional conception of what “mom” is: Such as the one pictured below.)

So, what do you see as your primary roles in life, or what stories do you tell about the way you live and act?

Author: Beth M

I love new ideas & information, connecting people, and discovering New England adventures.

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