The Power of Narrative

I am an atheist: born, raised, and practicing.

I’ve mentioned this before, and eventually I’ll get around to writing a post on why I’m not religious (and react to the idea of being religious as vehemently as I do, AKA the Fax Machine Analogy).  But my secularism is relevant here.

See, I don’t believe in gods.  I take no comfort in the idea that someone out there knows more than I do about the way my life is going, or has any great plan, or values me– I have my family and my friends to love me, and I don’t know this Jesus dude.  I am very much alone right now, but I have no desire to find community in a synagogue or church.   Religion just does not do it for me.  But I’ve been coming to terms lately that there is something I believe in besides science and humanity.

I believe in stories.



I’m going to define narrative here as “a particular framing of real-life or relateable events”.  This refers to novels, but also to the stories we tell ourselves.  Every story ever told has been framed a certain way, with a positive or a negative or a even a decidedly neutral swing.

Narrative shapes the world.  It is quite literally the foundation of most major religions, political ideologies, even relationships to an extent.  It’s been proven that novels improve our empathy: quite logically, considering that a good book not only shows you but helps you experience for yourself the emotional path of the characters.

Religious texts use this to their advantage, since they’re primarily composed of stories that take millions of people through the same journey and to the same emotional conclusions. This is similarly the foundation of propaganda.  You ever see that “A storm is gathering” commercial? It has little to no actual content: it relies on scare tactics and familiar tropes to get people to come to the desired conclusion.  It fits the overarching narrative of the oppressed Christian in America.

But I’m not going to focus on the mass narrative here.  There are a thousand blogs that will tell you how we’re puppets of The Media and The Guvment.  Narrative isn’t restricted to propaganda and religion: it’s highly personal.


…We create our own narratives.

Think about the day you’ve had, if you’re reading this in the evening.  Was it good? Was it bad? Was it what you expected?  Or if it’s morning: what are you expecting your day to be like? Your week?

If I hadn’t asked those questions, would you think about it anyway?

We tell ourselves stories all the time. Every single day, every single minute.  And how we tell that story changes everything we see: it’s one of the reasons positivity is such an amazing tool.  Framing a bad situation in a positive light can get you through nearly anything.

But, you know, easier said than done.   People in bad situations– or with legitimate depression– don’t just “cheer up”.  And telling people to be happier, or to just stop being depressed, or even reminding people that it could be worse… That usually just trivializes how they’re feeling, and makes them feel worse.  So how can you go about re-writing that narrative without making the negative narrative worse? Is that possible?

I think so.  It’s all that gets me through sometimes.


What I believe.

The world is a strange and scary place.  It always has been and it’s never going to get any less so.  And everyone– religious, idealistic, everyone— uses stories to help face that darkness.

Myself included.

Tough times can be terrifying.  They can seem endless and dark, and it’s easy to get lost in them.  For me, that’s where the stories come in.  I’m not good at being relentlessly positive– I just end up berating myself.  And I’m not good getting out of my own head– I mean, I’m a writer.

So instead of changing the narrative, I change the tense.

When times get tough, I tell my story in the past.  Rather than dwelling on the situation, I try to reminisce.  I reflect on the strength it takes– took– to go through that time.  It seems silly, but implicit in that simple change is something that helps me deal with the problem.

If it happened in the past, I’m already through it.

And if I’ve already done it, I can do it now.

It’s silly.  It’s illogical.  It makes no actual sense.  But it works for me.

So here’s my question at the end of the post: do you have any tools like this in your arsenal?  What stories do you tell yourself?  And how do you use them?


2 thoughts on “The Power of Narrative

  1. I really relate to this. It reminds me of the fact that every time we recall a memory, we change it a little. It’s probably a survival mechanism. When we remember, we look back from where we are now. We have some hindsight bias, and we may not remember things exactly as they happened, but that might be somewhat better for our mental health. It also probably helps us learn from our past.

    I don’t consciously have a practice of telling stories to myself the way you do. I definitely try to talk about things that happened though. I process things better in conversation. I have two close friends who I tell pretty much everything to, so when something big and stressful is going on, talking to them helps me put it in perspective. Stories can sound a lot bigger and scarier in our heads than they really are. When I catch myself wanting to exaggerate to emphasize my stress, I realize I’m overreacting and everything’s OK.


    • That’s a really interesting connection, and it makes sense. We certainly emphasize the learning points in our life, good and bad. I think a little distance from things helps us not sweat the details, too.

      I like the idea of watching where you exaggerate in retelling an experience– I’ll have to try that now!


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