Stories We Tell, Stories We Are

Dec 9, 2021 | Building on others, Coaching

I use the word ‘story’ a lot to refer to the assumptions, concepts, interpretations and habits on which our lives are built. Much of the work I do with people is to help them look at their story in addition to the non-stop experience of looking through it. This wouldn’t be especially helpful unless we had the ability to change our stories. Luckily, we do, although they are stubborn.

I recently revisited one of the most interesting books I’ve read – Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made. I tend to read on Kindle and highlight the bits that grab me, so my re-visiting a book normally entails browsing through the ‘Notebook’ of colored passages. No book in my collection has more highlights than this one. It explains so much, so carefully, that the A-ha moments come thick and fast.

Feldman Barrett is a neuroscientist, and she explains how our experience becomes what it is. The process is a continuous one that draws on our body’s energy budget, internal sensations, and socially-constructed linguistic / conceptual ‘catalog’ as well as the obvious input of the external world.

Your brain has a mental model of the world as it will be in the next moment, developed from past experience. This is the phenomenon of making meaning from the world and the body using concepts. In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning.

Lisa Feldman Barrett 

At the heart of the explanation is the realization that our experience of any moment is not ‘taken in’ from the world but is created. Our experience of this moment is the prediction that our brains made an instant ago, based on that instant’s input, of what we needed to experience now to act appropriately. Life is a never-ending process of prediction and error-correction.

Those predictions are based on past experience–past experience that has been ‘filed’ as a finite set of concepts. So, our experience forms our concepts, and our concepts dictate our experience. A feedback loop filled with possibility!

Every experience you have goes into (and comes out of) that mix. That includes reading this post and taking any action from it. Among the available actions that would constitute taking responsibility for your story and potentially re-casting it are:

  • Read and learn new words, because words are the seeds to concepts. Prioritize content outside your comfort zone, including differing opinions. A more emotionally intelligent person has a more granular and nuanced emotional dictionary of concepts with which her unconscious meaning-making mechanism can work.
  • Move your body and attend more consciously to its sensations. With practice, this enables you to disaggregate a strong feeling into its sensory and conceptual components. You might then consciously consider alternatives to the default conceptual ‘assignment’.
  • Take care of your body’s energy prediction / regulation mechanism by eating well, sleeping well and moving.

And remember, our conscious interventions are not attempting to replace reality with something less real. Our ‘reality’ is created. It’s all created. The self itself is a concept. In my words, it’s a story. The feedback between our concepts and our experience means it is a story with the creative potential to alter itself. Ready to re-cast your story?

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