I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately! I’ve always loved psychology, and I love learning more about how the mind works. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is just how much our thought patterns can affect us…and others!
You’ve probably heard the term “personal narrative” before. In school and in English class, it meant a story told in first person, talking about a person’s feelings and experiences from their perspective. Essentially, it puts you in the main character’s mind, giving you a “behind-the-scenes” look at their life, the way they process it.
We’ve all got our own inner narrative running in our heads. It’s like we’re the narrator and our mind is always trying to watch, make sense of, and narrate what’s going on in our life! It can be helpful for us in our day-to-day lives…usually. Our perception often becomes our reality, for better or for worse. To give an example: if someone has wronged us in the narrative in our mind (how we’re perceiving things), then to us, the reality is that they have wronged us (regardless of a more objective look at things). Or if we store up examples of our failures in our mind, then our reality becomes one in which we believe we truly are a failure. Basically, the mind is an incredibly powerful thing! I didn’t really take this seriously in middle school and sometimes even in college. But now that I’m in my mid-to-late 20s, I’m realizing just how important it is for me to watch my thought patterns.
Having an ongoing narrative in our head is something we can’t really escape from. But we can watch it closely and train ourselves to have healthier thought patterns. Disclaimer: this post isn’t meant to be about mental health (of course, because I’m no expert); I’m just sharing on a more casual level what I’m learning about myself, in hopes that it can encourage you as well!
Our inner narrative plays out in our relationships with others, and oftentimes, in our “down” or blue moments, we assume and then believe that someone doesn’t like us. Has this happened to you, too? I can get caught up in my head all day long if I don’t watch myself and act with intention. We tend to believe all sorts of things that run through our mind: that she isn’t talking to me because _____. That he’s mad at me. That I somehow offended her because she’s so quiet around me today. That we should’ve and could’ve acted in a certain way long ago, and that’s the reason he is acting this way towards me now.
It’s a deep, swirling line of thought to get caught up in, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’re believing these things until we voice our concerns and the person says, “What? Not at all! I’m not frustrated with you in the least! I’m just tired today!” I’ve found myself feeling sheepish many times in the past. Have you done this, too? Wondered if something was wrong, only to find out it had nothing to do with you? (I know I’m not the only one!)
I want to offer a couple pieces of advice (or at least some things to ponder). And know that I’m reminding myself of all of these points just the same! 🙂
How I’m Rewriting My Inner Narrative:
First of all, we should realize that people just plain don’t think about us as much as we think they do! It’s rather humbling, isn’t it? 😉 What I mean is: people are usually not as concerned with watching, analyzing, and potentially being offended by you as you might suspect they are! While it’s humbling in some ways, I find it’s also quite reassuring! I’m a true INFJ – constantly in tune with my own emotions but also watching the reactions, motivations, and emotions of others. So honestly, it’s a comfort to me to realize that I’m not forefront in others’ minds! 🙂 So, when I go home from an event where I met new people and felt I handled myself awkwardly in one conversation…I’ve learned to remind myself that they’re definitely not all going home and thinking about how Hannah handled herself so awkwardly for a second there. 😉 Whew! Applying this has helped me to be okay with just being myself and not overanalyzing or criticizing myself later – something I used to do a lot of.
Know that we’re not always super accurate at reading others. This means that some supposings and wonderings that are going on in my head may not be entirely spot-on. Here’s an example: I’m married to a man who is not the most grinny, gushy person out there. Bjorn and I show emotions and process our feelings in very different ways. In fact, our relationship is well-exemplified most days by this goofy meme:
It’s pretty accurate for us, so seeing this cracks me up! I know not all women and men are like this, but it’s a good example of my husband’s and my different ways of emoting. 🙂 I mean, Bjorn gets animated about history, about funny stories with friends, and goofing off in the living room with Sophie! Even inside jokes with me! He’s a blast to be around! But he just doesn’t show crazy swirls of up-and-down emotions all day long and that’s okay. Earlier in our marriage, I used to misread him a lot more!
I would wear myself (and Bjorn) out asking if he’s okay, if he’s sad, if he’s happy, what’s wrong…. you get the picture! He’d be baffled by me trying to figure out what his straight face meant. He’d typically answer me, “I’m fine. Can I be just fine? I just feel normal!” And I’d sheepishly agree. Haha! You can just be “fine,” not super up or down all the time. It turns out, I was reading waaaay more into his emotions than I should’ve been. He was fine. He still is fine. He’s just an extremely emotionally steady guy. (And he balances me out perfectly!) I just would allow an inaccurate inner narrative to run rampant in my mind, causing me to wonder if he was upset, if he was thinking about something, if he was anxious, or any other emotion that I named in my mind for him! That’s where my narrative was writing the wrong story for what was truly going on. It’s important that we don’t stare too intently at our own views of what someone else’s feelings are! We can skew others’ feelings/motivations pretty quickly in our own minds. And honestly, that can go so far as to hurt relationships and friendships.
The next piece of advice I want to offer (to you AND to myself) is this: Give others some grace. Are you frustrated with them because of something they said 10 years ago? Well, is there any chance at all that they’ve grown up or had some character-building experiences since then? Sure, some people stay the same and don’t really grow that much, I suppose… but chances are, the person you knew back then has since grown or mature in some way. We don’t all get the opportunity to grab a megaphone and announce to everyone in our past that we’re doing a lot better now, that we’re trying hard to be more God-honoring now, that we’ve actually matured and grown and we’re sorry! Right? If only we could all rewind time and apologize to everyone we may have offended when we were younger or more flippant. So give people some grace and work towards forgiving them. Consider whether the narrative you have in your head about them is truly accurate today. Have you continued to narrate their life in your head based on who they were? Not who they are now? There are people in my life who have said comments to me or made fun of me in high school and college…and I’ve had to just let go and give them grace, trusting and hoping that they’ve grown since then. After all, I know I’ve grown since then, and I sure hope people see that I’ve grown up a little, too! And then I don’t need to think about those things day after day. I can give people grace, forgive, and move on.
Finally: move forward. Write a new chapter. If a relationship or friendship is actually over, that’s okay. Some people come into our lives for just a season. But if you’re letting your own emotional or mental “noise” get in the way of relationships with people in your life now… maybe you need to lovingly step out of your own way. Sidestep those assumptions you’ve had about them. Assess whether or not you’ve been accurately narrating stuff about them in your mind.
One of the coolest things that I’ve learned from my grandma and watching how she interacts with people is to assume friendship. This is her approach with strangers, with acquaintances, and of course, with friends. Assume that you’re going to get along. Don’t be watching for things to sour, for ways you’re tripping up. Don’t, don’t, be keeping a mental list in your mind of their reactions and comments to mull over later. Stop keeping score in your book. There are definitely times to reflect back on conversations, but not to the degree that we’re starting to build up an inaccurate inner narrative. We have the opportunity to be friendly and kind and open with everyone we interact with along the way. Why not toss aside our petty fears and musings about if people really want to get to know us, if we’re being awkward, or if they don’t like us?
Now that I’m a parent, I’m engaging with this topic even more, because I wholeheartedly want to teach my daughter positive and God-honoring ways to process the world around her – and accurate ways to speak to herself!
As we shift away from negative or inaccurate inner narratives, we can really embrace relationships with others and step into a real-life story of a journey together!
Have you had to work with yourself regarding your inner narrative? How have you learned to be less self-conscious? How do you have more positive thoughts and interactions?