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The Personal Myth

January 31, 2013 86 comments

“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, it’s the things we do know that just ain’t so.” —Mark Twain

MythsSome (very reputable) psychologists are absolutely convinced that DNA is destiny. Other (very reputable) psychologists are convinced that your personality is shaped by what happens to you as an infant – or perhaps even in the first few minutes of life. This is what I love about psychology: the theories are all over the map and yet somehow everyone is still credible.

One very interesting dimension to personality has to do with the stories that we tell ourselves. Research has increasingly revealed that our personal life stories – our mental self-narratives – contribute substantially to our personalities and behaviors. An excellent New York Times article from 2007 summarizes much of this current research.

As the interpreter of our world, the mind is very good at two processes: assigning meaning to events and ascribing value to things. But in order to make meaning, the brain needs a context. Research has found that our minds naturally superimpose narratives onto our lives in order to better remember and evaluate. This is why we absorb and process material much more easily if it comes in the context of a story.

As an example, I happen to be reading a book right now called The Goal. The purpose of the book is to teach non-fiction material about operations processes. The book is remarkable because it frames this information in the context of a story – a surprisingly well-written, first person story. The book is not only infinitely readable, but the lessons are easy to absorb and remember.

MythsUnconscious myths are always at play under our seemingly rational consciousness. In his 1988 Psychology Today article Stories We Live By, Sam Keen notes that, “In the salad years of our [20th] century, Freud and Jung warned that beneath the veneer of reason, mythic struggles between Oedipus and the Father, Eros and Thanatos, Ego and Id are always being played out in the psyche. And indeed they were right.”

Keen goes on to point out that myths celebrate certain values, personified in their heroes, but they also include an unconscious, unquestioned way of seeing the world. Our myths allow us to believe that we know a lot about ourselves and the world, most if not all of which is erroneous. As Twain said, they’re the things we know “that just ain’t so.”

These fables that we tell ourselves can effect how our personalities unfold. In the New York Times article from earlier, Benedict Carey highlights research that “…found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell.” He further suggests that the narrative themes in people’s personal myths are driving factors in their behavior and choices.

Neurotic behavior, for example, can be thought of as a kind of story that we tell ourselves over and over again. I’m not the kind of person who would do this or that. If I speak in front of people, I’ll be rejected by all of them. If I do some specific thing, I can get my parents to like me. These are the Limiting Beliefs we’ve discussed in an earlier post.

This research could, among other uses, improve the efficacy of therapy. Effective therapy, it could now be understood, gives people who are feeling helpless a sense of their own ability to confront their troubles. They are, in effect, rewriting the stories they tell themselves. People who come out of psychotherapy testing higher on well-being indicators tend to tell similar personal stories with themes of conquered demons and redemption.The newer story may be no more factually true than the old, because all personal stories are fables, but the newer version is healthier.

It’s also now thought that psychological resilience is based on the ability to turn a memory into a story. In 2005, Dr. Lisa Libby conducted a study to find out whether people assessed their personal growth differently depending on how they remembered a negative event from their past. One group was asked to recall the memory in first-person, and the other group to recall it in third-person. The third-person scenes where found to be significantly less upsetting than the first-person scenes. Putting a memory into third-person – which is to say, putting it in the context of a narrative – turns out to be a vital part of processing experiences. It’s what keeps us from reliving them over and over.

In the end, it’s good when we can question what we know about ourselves and the world. We typically find that our deepest assumptions are nothing more than a story we’ve been telling ourselves about how the world works. Without the ability to make stories, we could not process the world or function properly. We want to take care, though, that our stories are always evolving and taking into account new discoveries and distinctions. Mankind was stuck for a long time telling itself that the Earth was the center of the universe. What equally absurd stories are we telling ourselves now?