Home > Social Psychology > The Personal Myth

The Personal Myth

“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?

  1. February 2, 2013 at 11:03 AM

    Reblogged this on waywardspirit and commented:
    Love it when someone else does the writing heavy lifting! Strong guy here.
    Taking the day off. : )

  2. February 2, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    The old debate – biological predetermination vs environmental influences just like in philosophy and theology, predestination vs free will and do we really have free will at all. In both case probably a combination of both.

  3. March 5, 2013 at 8:12 AM

    That bit about telling personal experiences in the third person was particularly interesting to me. I’ll have to try to use that one time if I find myself dwelling on an unpleasant memory.

  4. March 5, 2013 at 8:17 AM

    This really got me thinking about what my narrative has been, but more importantly what I want it to be. Regardless of the “answer” to the debate, I think the things we say to ourselves are so important. Whether it will make a difference or not, I’d rather the things I tell myself be positive. It can’t hurt right? I’m sure a lot of people will learn something from this. Thanks for sharing.

  5. March 5, 2013 at 8:19 AM

    Excellent. And just what I needed to read today. I’ve been struggling with the feeling that I’ve been blowing things out of proportion and taking them out of context, and this may be why. I’m going to put this into action this week by retelling upsetting events as stories in third-person narrative. Nicely done, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  6. Zyriacus
    March 5, 2013 at 8:47 AM

    How true this is, I observe every day from my mother in law (88) who, afflicted with dementia, seems to re-live daily the same story of being left alone, being abandoned, to live in a strange place (albeit living in the house for more than 30 years). Maybe in this way she is explaining to herself, why she doesnt find her ways around the house, forgets her place at the table, where the toilet is, or her own bed, Your post explains to me much of this (at times very straining) behaviour..

  7. March 5, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    it is strange that i could cattegorise my self in waht you wrote when i acctualy thought i did know my self,,,perrplexed! though awesome revealations

  8. March 5, 2013 at 8:59 AM

    Yes, there is a lot of power to our personal narrative. One of the strategies for helping people with PTSD is to let them re-work the ending of the trauma they experienced, so that in their mind, they gain greater control over the emotions evoked by the event. For example, someone who got attacked and bitten by a dog, may develop a vivid image of fighting back and leaving the scene unharmed.

  9. March 5, 2013 at 9:01 AM

    A person who doesn’t know something is cautious, a person who incorrectly believes they know something can make a big, confident mistake, right?

  10. March 5, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    Well written and thought provoking. I love that you address personal narratives from both first-person and third-person perspectives as well as plural; a series of stories intricately woven into a singular lifetime.

  11. March 5, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    it is strange

  12. March 5, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    Great, well-written post about a topic that interests me very much. It’s amazing how much our perception of the world is dependent upon putting it into words. Wittgenstein said “The limits of language are the limits of my world,” and this becomes more and more evident the more we think about how we perceive our worlds. Thanks for provoking some thoughts!

  13. March 5, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    Nature or nurture, the ultimate argument. You should read The Third Twin by Ken Folett. I think you’d quite enjoy it. =)

    • March 6, 2013 at 9:59 AM

      Third twin is great. So agree, a good read.

  14. March 5, 2013 at 12:02 PM

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post. I just wrote a response to it on my own blog. http://architectofthejungle.wordpress.com/
    Rock on!

  15. March 5, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    I really enjoyed your perspective. My husband, a software engineer, refers to the brain as a computer running on environmental programming. If we want to change anything in our lives, we need to rewrite the program in our brains. Sometimes, we get stuck in a loop, and it takes an active attempt to override it.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • Christiano Kwena
      March 6, 2013 at 3:22 AM

      Now this is an analogy that I understand

  16. March 5, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    Some of what you describe sound like rules based on patterns, rather than narratives–more like if 2 lines intersect, their vertical angles will be congruent rather than “once upon a time…” It seems like two ways of assigning meaning are being conflated: observing patterns of cause and effect and considering character and myth. I’m not sure how closely related these phenomenon are, or why there’s reason to think they would amount to the same thing.

  17. March 5, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    I’ve been toying with writing my non-fiction in 3rd person …. so much great information you’ve given and such strong content! Thank you so much for this … reading it again.

  18. March 5, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    Great, great post, thanks for giving me something so interesting to read over my lunch break!

  19. March 5, 2013 at 1:32 PM

    really interesting, is something of a matter I have great interest in. It reminds me a quote of an Italian writer, Michela Murgia, who said (forgive the probably less-than-perfect translation): “No narration is without consequences. Not even the smallest fable leaves the world unchanged”

  20. March 5, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    This article is so ironic!

  21. March 5, 2013 at 1:36 PM

    Great post! Although the nurture vs. nature debate will live on indefinitely, I think that ultimately it comes down to nurture for every day life. However for the extremes in characters (ex. Hitler, Ghandi, Khan) nature must play a bigger role as there is no way that the environment leads them to do this

  22. March 5, 2013 at 1:37 PM

    As a writer of mostly children’s fiction, one often is led to believe that telling a story in the first person is more affecting and effective, but now you’ve made me wonder. Maybe, in this context, the first person needs to be used with some discretion; if the story is too upfront and personal, the writer leaves the reader with no breathing space. Thanks for the thought provoking piece.

  23. Patricia Laurenson
    March 5, 2013 at 1:47 PM

    As everyone else has said, very interesting blog.It sounds as if it could have important practical applications in helping people recover from trauma.
    Funnily enough I just wrote a blog on a similar topic

  24. March 5, 2013 at 2:01 PM

    I particularly like the reference to the study illustrating the impact on ourselves based on the perspective (first or third person) that we associate with our memories and experiences.

  25. March 5, 2013 at 2:10 PM
  26. March 5, 2013 at 2:11 PM

    Reblogged this on Just one chick and commented:
    Terrific. One of the best things I did for myself was to get rid of the personal narrative of disappointment or failure as in “I always…” and “I never…”

  27. March 5, 2013 at 2:31 PM

    Reblogged this on georgeforfun.

  28. March 5, 2013 at 5:01 PM

    You said, “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.” This is a very interesting idea. I’ve never thought of it that way before. Now that you’ve put the thought into my head, it makes complete sense!

  29. March 5, 2013 at 7:25 PM

    @”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….” I totally agree it is very good for us to question ourselves..Thinking outside of the box; or least considering other beliefs can be good. Excellent deep, heavy post that made many of us “think” about the way we “think” and the whys..2 thumbs UP

  30. Art
    March 5, 2013 at 7:25 PM

    Excellent blog. This post reminds me a lot of some specific ideas in Nietzsche that I have been researching. If you are interested in Nietzsche’s approach to this subject, I recommend the book “Nietzsche: Life as Literature” by Alexander Nehamas. Here is an excerpt from a Library Journal review on the book’s Amazon page: “The unifying theme is provided by two central features of Nietzsche’s work: his perspectivism (the view that there are only interpretations) and his ‘aestheticism’ (the tendency to view the world as a literary text and people, including himself, as literary characters).”

  31. March 5, 2013 at 7:34 PM

    I’ve been accused of repeating the achievement narrative of our family. I guess I have done that. I also think that it’s helpful to do some future narrative, especially when raising kids. Not if, but when. When you go to college, when you get your own apartment, when you find your calling, etc. (I try to avoid saying “when you get married.”) I definitely have a narrative of my life, both past and future (what will be the next ten year turning point?). My kids roll their eyes when I tell them stories from my life.

  32. March 5, 2013 at 8:44 PM

    Makes you wonder. Can a lie you tell yourself sometimes be healthier than the truth? Like Hicky in The Iceman Cometh.

  33. Jeff Nguyen
    March 5, 2013 at 8:58 PM

    Men and women are the ultimate myth makers, both useful and otherwise.

  34. March 5, 2013 at 9:00 PM

    This is a very interesting post about how we view our lives and how we live them. And I guess that’s right – the way we live our lives is highly correlated with our personal narratives. It is always based on what we think our lives should run, so it is always important to think in a positive light. Optimism is key to satisfaction.

  35. March 5, 2013 at 10:09 PM

    Excellent post.

  36. March 6, 2013 at 4:11 AM

    I find it so fascinating that some people still have a difficult time believing in the power of story telling when everything in life is a story being revealed or told.

    Excellent article, enjoyed it.

  37. March 6, 2013 at 4:17 AM

    Amazing article! I recently met a taxi driver who told me that he was on the verge of suicide after losing all his money gambling. He was convinced that God told him not to jump and so he didn’t. Subsequently he recouped his loses and now has grand children living all around the world. Yes, the stories we tell ourselves are vitally important.

  38. March 6, 2013 at 6:13 AM

    I’m very interested by your point about processing memories by turning them into stories. it has opened up a whole lot of ideas in my mind

  39. March 6, 2013 at 8:22 AM

    Reblogged this on Longhorn Web Design.

  40. March 6, 2013 at 8:31 AM

    intriguiing – one of my grandfather’s essays tells the story of his capture in the First World War in the third person. Very interesting – thank you!

  41. March 6, 2013 at 8:33 AM

    Great post and congratulations on being “Freshly pressed”. About psychological resilience and the ability of turning memories into stories: it really makes sense. Perhaps, that’s why “blogging” can be so rewarding and comforting; I know it is to me in my life situation.

  42. March 6, 2013 at 8:37 AM

    Reblogged this on relativelyfrank and commented:
    Ccame across this blog post and thought it was really interesting in the light of ‘A Dramatic Situation’ (post: 19/0/13 Flunk, Bunk, both or neither)

  43. March 6, 2013 at 9:07 AM

    Several years ago I bought a book on a similar subject after seeing the author’s interview on a morning news show. I found this post far more interesting than the book.

    The rest of my response was pretty lengthy, so it may become a post of its own. Thank you for the thoughts.

  44. March 6, 2013 at 10:02 AM

    So correct on the mythical characters and the image we create inour minds. Has left me analysing on the third person vs first person viess.
    Kodus and congrats

  45. March 6, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    Brilliant article. I’m a coach who works predominantly with people who are recovering from various forms of addiction. The most powerful methods I use involve symbolism and story telling. Because many of my clients have had traumatic backgrounds one of the first things I do is have them retell their life “story” as if they were the hero of some great, epic adventure who had to face all sorts of odds and yet survived to tell the tale as opposed to telling their story from a victim perpective. Thanks for a great, well written piece.

  46. March 6, 2013 at 5:04 PM

    Reblogged this on ysbang68.

  47. March 6, 2013 at 5:54 PM

    Great post!

  48. March 6, 2013 at 6:51 PM

    Reblogged this on Apple of Life.

  49. March 6, 2013 at 10:41 PM

    Interesting post. You reminded me there are some stories playing in my head that I need to rewrite.

  50. Dragonflyboy
    March 7, 2013 at 4:43 AM

    Reblogged this on nealstotts.

  51. March 7, 2013 at 6:37 AM

    Good article. I was trained in counseling in 1998 and we always said, “If it isn’t in the session, then it’s not what the client is dealing with right now or is it something that he or she wants to.” Now, that my training has gotten deeper and I understand more about different clients, I agree that we must re-look at learning, lessons, and journeys when we reflect on difficulties. You are also correct that when thoughts are distorted, they require a reframe. You made many therapeutic concepts comprehensible in this entry. Good work.

  52. March 7, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    Wow- loved this! Really agree with” In the end, it’s good when we can question what we know about ourselves and the world.”

  53. March 7, 2013 at 12:04 PM

    Excellent post. Not tired of hearing that yet, are you? One point in particular stands out to me…”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.”…This has been my exact experience. Writing a fictional account of real life experiences is therapeutic. Projecting, in some instances, the trauma of events as a means of breaking the cycle of negative emotions. Very well written post.

  54. March 7, 2013 at 4:11 PM

    Great post that deserved to get Freshly Pressed.

    Made me recall James Hillman’s “Healing Fiction,” 1983. In chapter one, “The Fictional Freud,” Hillman points out that Freud’s nobel prize was in Literature, and he argues in the case study, Freud created a new literary genre.

    Later in the book, Hillman says that most of the time in his practice it was not the patients that were dysfunctional but their stories that were dysfunctional.

    Some of that is intuitively clear – at a certain point we stopped calling people who have suffered abuse “victims” and started referring to them as “survivors.” The words themselves imply vastly different stories about the same events.

  55. March 7, 2013 at 4:26 PM

    Reblogged this on hiddenintheshadow's Blog and commented:
    I like the idea of 1st and 3rd person and the mental changes it creates

  56. March 7, 2013 at 4:48 PM

    Taking this idea and moving a bit further with it, we might find that people who tell their own stories in ways that are not “acceptable narrative” do not get the same positive response from others. In telling our own stories, paying attention to narrative construction can help others understand. It can help us understand and imagine a result.

    Just as we watch movies that tell the same kinds of stories over and over, we listen to people and try to figure out what kind of story they are telling. A story of redemption? A story of loss? A story of romance?

    Yes, it means that the best storytellers take poetic license with their own lives. But it also means that if we want to change our lives, we might need to cognitively “change genres.”

  57. March 7, 2013 at 6:22 PM

    :) like it as thas what I try to blog about bring out experiences ,views via imaginative stories http://xdmello.wordpress.com/

  58. March 7, 2013 at 6:57 PM

    Reblogged this on The First Gates and commented:
    Scott Fenstermaker’s blog, “People-Triggers,” aims to “Understand what makes us do what we do.” In a fine article called, “The Personal Myth,” Scott explores some recent research on the importance of the stories we tell ourselves in shaping and creating our experience of self and world. “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.” In 1983, James Hillman wrote Healing Fictions, a book with a similar argument. This article quotes and links to some up-to-date research emphasizes the importance of the “screenplays” we’re always composing in our heads.

  59. March 7, 2013 at 11:17 PM

    Thanks for that! Enjoyed the New York Times link!

  60. March 8, 2013 at 2:53 AM

    Reblogged this on BRAINONDATA.

  61. March 8, 2013 at 2:56 AM

    I have experienced learning through stories with ‘rich dad poor dad’ and many other books. This is a very good observation… Reblogged

  62. March 8, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    The only way I could get through part of my childhood was to tell myself the story that when I was dreaming I was awake, and when I was awake I was dreaming.

  63. March 8, 2013 at 7:38 AM

    Love this – I’m currently studying this topic at the moment in class and find it all very fascinating. From a one psych person to another: good stuff!

  64. MikeBonnLMI
    March 9, 2013 at 7:49 AM

    Really enjoyed this post.

  65. March 9, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    Reblogged this on Lucid View and commented:
    WONDERFUL Piece!

  66. March 10, 2013 at 11:34 PM

    Reblogged this on no form.

  67. March 10, 2013 at 11:37 PM

    Very interesting. I reblogged on my blog. Thank you. I will now give third person dimension a try.

  68. March 12, 2013 at 7:57 AM

    interesting topic and very well written

  69. March 12, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    great post..

  70. March 13, 2013 at 6:18 AM

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  71. March 16, 2013 at 7:06 PM

    Reblogged this on Following Indigo.

  72. March 17, 2013 at 12:21 PM

    Serendipitous that I choose to read this next from the list of “Freshly Pressed”
    Read why: http://blogagaini.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/744/
    I am fascinated by this. Is it that we create stories and live by it? Or were the stories created by our experience and we live them out? My continuing quest in life. More to read. Thanks for the references in the article.

  73. March 22, 2013 at 7:37 AM

    Reblogged this on vshantale's Blog.

  74. March 27, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    I don’t think it’s either/or but both. Obvious to me, but I have no position to defend.

  75. March 28, 2013 at 7:50 PM

    I absolutely love your blog. Very reminiscent of my undergraduate debates in Psychology class. Keep blogging and I’ll keep reading. Can’t wait to read more from you.

  76. April 11, 2013 at 3:11 AM

    Reblogged this on Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant and commented:
    Powerful insight into the power of the story, both in terms of recall but more importantly in terms of rationalising key and challenging events in our lives…really interesting

  77. April 11, 2013 at 3:12 AM

    Really powerful stuff, takes some challenging themes and makes sense of them in the context of our daily experience…keep it going

  78. Lelana
    August 8, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    There are a number of scientific studies that prove that DNA can be altered by environmental stimulus. In essence, ones experiences and behaviours can alter the physical body. There is therefore a very direct correlation between what you do and what you become. This proves the importance of making all experiences positive ones. One way to do this, as described in this article, is to tell yourself the right stories. Health is therefore created by our own mental procesing of our lives. What we think about ourselves motivates what we do, which determines the environement that we expose ourselves to, which affects our very physical being. My mom used to tell me I am what I eat, but I believe more and more that we are mostly what we think.
    How does this relate to marketing? Story-telling. The stories a brand tells are also what define their personas. A good brand needs compelling and positive stories.
    Great article! Great food for thought.

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