The story of your life: on the genre and plot of your personal narrative

We all use narrative to tell ourselves (and other people) the story of our lives, to try to justify ourselves or make sense of the craziness. Have you ever had a friend who went from one crazy drama to the next? Sometimes all you can do is sit back and watch the soap-opera unfold from a safe distance, right? I was recently recalling the few friends that I have fallen out with over the years. Underneath from the incredible theatrics of our friendships ending, there were always similar tales they had confided in me: “Sarah and I used to be so close, then she betrayed me”, “Lucinda was my best friend, then she stabbed me in the back.” On reflection, it was the same story over and over. I’m so relieved not to have these people in my life anymore, especially when I hear through mutual acquaintances that even more shit has gone down. It does make me wonder about the narratives of my life – of everyone’s lives. What stories we are telling and repeating?

Listening to other peoples narratives

Have you ever reflected on the stories your parents tell you to make sense of their lives, or how your story is similar and different from theirs? Families often have repeating themes that cross generations: infidelity, wanting/trying to have children, failed career aspirations, trauma, being neglected or abused, winning, achieving, and so on. The way our parents make sense out of the world affects the way that we learn to see it as children, and sometimes it we never even question their truths. If we don’t question we just go on subconsciously living the same plot with the same villains, be they personal acquaintances, the government, rich people or criminals. We go on striving for the same goals without figuring out whether we actually want the things or not. It can be liberating to step out of ones family narrative and have a really good look at it. Are you stuck in the same kind of romance narrative trap or have you got your own unique brand?

Have you ever thought about the repeating stories your friends tell you? Are they the hero? Did they just discover the most awesome zombie apocalypse defense plan ever? Do they feel the urge to name drop in conversations and talk themselves up? Are they, maybe, overcompensating much? People sometimes feel the need to tell their story (at least outwardly) as if they are the best thing since sliced bread. This can be a bit exhausting if you want to chill and have genuine conversations about important things, like cats.  But at least people who are telling you all these great stories, like how they saw Elijah Wood once in the cosmic corner in Cuba St and he was getting his head massaged by an Orgasmatron, and, wait, look at me, I’m talking… these kinds of people are a little less difficult than the opposite kind of narrative…

“Why does this always happen to me? I can’t believe he would do this?” Can you hear the cries of the victim? Perpetual victims are also very exhausting, and everyone has an inner-victim, everyone knows what it feels like to be victimised, to be mistreated, to be hurt: c’est la vie. Most likely, people who are incessant victims can’t see the pattern very clearly in themselves, and perhaps if they could the gained perspective would be an invaluable asset.  Instead of projecting all that pain onto absolutely everyone who comes into their lives, maybe, just maybe, they could step slightly to the left and edge out of the vicious cycle consuming their lives.  It’s an interesting thing to think about, anyway: everyone has an inner victim and an inner hero because everyone is the protagonist (main character) of his/her story. These character archetypes tend to fit easily into a genre and follow the same plots over and over until something changes.

Comedy or tragedy?

There are two meta-genres that date back to at least the ancient Greeks. They would go out, in their togas, to see a play like Oedipus – that was all murder and incest and suicide, followed (thankfully) by a ridiculous comedy like Lysistrata – that was all sexually frustrated husbands and giant erections.  The tragedy plot is the one most sensible people want to avoid. It goes like this: Life is okay but a bit shit, oh it just got worse, oh dear, more worse, now it couldn’t possibly get any worse than that, but just when you think it might get better, from left field, comes something… something so horrendous you can’t even imagine, then it gets worse again. Sometimes it ends there, sometimes there is a bit of a resolution tacked onto the end. Think: 1984, Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, Biutiful, and just about every horror film ever made.

A comedy, on the other hand, is usually silly and amusing, much lighter and more palatable than it’s tragic cousin. A comedy used to be anything that wasn’t a tragedy, for instance, some Shakespearean comedies aren’t even funny, but no one dies, so it’s okay. Traditionally comedies end with people getting married or engaged À la Importance of Being Ernest, because marriage is funnier and more palatable than death, apparently. It seems pretty obvious that unless, you are a total martyr, you would prefer life to be a comedy than a tragedy, and probably if you are a very serious person who wants to be taken very seriously, you’d prefer a more contemporary genre, a modern drama perhaps. You could be the lead role in Grey’s Anatomy or something less medical but equally tense and pointless. Probably, you are too edgy for these kinds of mainstream things and are more like an indy/artsy film: some things happen, something is odd, there is food, roll credits.

What’s the plot?

The plot of one’s life tends to be a lot to do with aspiration, meaning and your ability to achieve.  If you’re trying to figure your plot out, think about: what is important to you? What are you trying to do? Is it working? I have come across people who are always on the verge of a big break-through. Every time I see them it’s something else that is almost about to happen – they are just about to be famous, just about to be recognised, just about to actually do a thing, but it never works out. There is so much energy thrown into this unrealised destination thinking, this great hope and expectation and then, into dealing with yet another disappointment. This one seems to be a dysfunctional plot because instead of actually doing all the things, a huge amount of energy is wasted in unrealistic expectation.  Other people have dysfunctional plots and sub-plots that center around always being too busy, being broken and trying to fix oneself *hem hem*, never being the one who is chosen, being left out, someone else is the bane of their existence, being betrayed/rejected/abandoned, being sick, being guilty/sneaky/a bad person, and so on.

Transformation and losing the plot

Obviously not all plots are a problem, but when they are, and when you start to see them in all their repetitive, cyclic glory, you have the opportunity to step back and get better perspective. Perspective helps, and when you start to change one part of a plot the rest will have to change too. Unfortunately you can’t fix other people’s plot dysfunctions, and most of the time, the really dysfuctional people are not interested in seeing outside of their circular universe because they’re so enthralled by the mounting drama, but you can try to point out the giant ice-berg beneath the water.  Either way, if you don’t buy into the drama, it has less effect on your life… and then what? Well that is up to you. How do you want to write the story of your life?

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Do you fall into the lottery trap? On real happiness and problems with fantasy/destination thinking.

If you reach the destination of life, then what? Then you will be very embarrassed. – Osho

When I was growing up us kids, enthralled by the deluxe smorgasbord of TV advertising, would continuously ask mum “can we go to Disneyland?” or other requests obviously out of our budget. “When I win Lotto” she would always reply. It took a while for us to realise she never bought lottery tickets. Despite that, she still had the fantasy herself: if I win lotto I’ll buy a place in the Coromandel…” I didn’t question it until recently when I started to wonder if this mass social delusion that more wealth (particularly if won) equals more happiness. Apparently it doesn’t.

Research on happiness suggests that people are generally no happier (or sadder) a year after winning the lottery – even if they win millions. Interestingly enough, people are apparently about the same level of happy, a year after becoming paraplegic, as they were before.  Now, that is something to really chew on for a while. If these things we wish for, long for, fantasise about are not actually associated with happiness, then what are we doing to ourselves?

We are projecting our happiness into the future. This is so appallingly common. We have been taught since childhood that when we get to the next stage happiness awaits us: when we finally get to school – when we can read/write/swim/ride a bike we will finally be happy.  When we have a friend, or a lot of friends, when we have a boyfriend, when we graduate, when we finally get a job or clock this XBox game or reach our weight goal we will surely be full of endless joy. Obviously, when we grow up we will be happy. Yes – because we can have ice-cream for dinner and no one will tell us what to do and we can have all these cool jobs and things: happy as! Wait, being grown up is just as much work. Making decisions is tricky. Money is tricky. I bet I will be happy when I reach that next goal: have a baby, get a promotion, get married, buy a house, sell a house, buy another house: happiness will abound! Oh, wait, I’m still chugging along. I know, when I get discovered for my real shining talent as a singer/actor/genius or win lotto or NZ’s Next Top Model I will then be happy… except it hasn’t happened yet, so where is my next goal? I know: when I retire I will be incredibly happy because I can do whatever I want! Yay! No job! Except that retired people often (not always) get depressed because they aren’t contributing to society as much as is satisfactory. They have removed the work from their lives and many interesting things can fill those empty hours, but real happiness is still only a goal away, or did I waste my life going from one goal to the next, projecting my happiness into the future instead of realising that happiness is only ever now? After all, what is the real destination of life? Death? Are you just biding your time ’til the Armageddon comes? Are you hoping for a blissful after-life instead of making the most of this one?

All the Zen dudes will tell you that: happiness is only ever now. They reckon now is the only thing that really exists anyway. The past is just muddled memories in the narrative we tell ourselves about our lives.  The past is often full or sad stories or nostalgia that we can re-live over and over to no-avail.  The future is just projections and uncertainty. Many an anxiety can be found in thinking too much about the future. Life is very uncertain (yes, I have been reading too much Osho).  All this is very obvious. Happiness is a choice, moment to moment. If our established thought-patterns are interfering with our happiness we can change them through therapy or self-help or bazillions of other methods. Thoughts can be changed.

The problem with the “if only”, lottery-type thinking is that it’s not in the moment. It comes from being unhappy with our jobs and our lives and our lack of options. We have been taught to think that money is the problem and that money (particularly a large lump of it right now) is the answer, but really, with more money just comes a different level of finance to deal with.  Don’t get me wrong, having not-enough money and struggling for survival really sucks, but unless your fantasies about winning lotto are a helpful coping strategy for dealing with real hunger and desperation they are probably doing you more harm than good.

For most people who read this, who are in the pattern of ‘lottery thinking’, it is a little escape from the drudgery of every-day life. You wake up, you go to work, you work, you come home, you *insert escapist media here, eg: Playstation, movies, TV series, Facebook*, you maybe get a bit of creative time to work on building that model air-plane, writing that screen-play, painting that impressionist take on the New York skyline, re-designing your poodle’s coiffer, you practice in your steam-punk death-metal band and so on… and you dream… you dream of all the poodling, steampunking, screen-playing you could do if only …If only you had more time, if only you didn’t have to work.

Well, here’s a thought: how about, instead of fantasies and escapism, you try making little baby steps toward genuine happiness. There are two ways to do this and you probably should do both:

1: Choose to be happy. Try it now. Just one moment of happy. Just one moment of letting go of the struggle. Relax those shoulders. Breathe. Good, now go on. Don’t grimace. Smile. Yes, yes! That’s it!  You’re doing it, baby. Every time you realise you’re in a yucky mind state, your going around in circles, you’re dreaming of that day you finally reach heaven STOP! Yes, now, relax. Smile. You don’t even have to smile, but find a tiny bit of happy just by dropping all the shit. I’m glad you’re so good at following instructions. The more you can choose happiness in moments, the more moments of happiness you may experience in your life. Don’t just depend on the external world for you happy, DIY it.

2. Make steps towards doing more of the things you really love. What really feeds you? Do you even know? If you’re not sure, think about the experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve created and done, that have given you moments of happiness. Don’t tell me you’re not creative. Creative is part of human. You are continuously creating the story of your life in your head (right now), how do you want your story to go? Try new things. Figure out what brings your joy, little by little. Write a list. Figure out what you want to contribute to the world in your lifetime. Make baby steps. If your job sucks the life out of you, look for a better one. If you don’t have a job, figure out how you can contribute to your community. Community can feed us when jobs can’t. If you love to paint, sing, write, draw, ski, ride, explore, love, share, don’t relegate your passion to: ‘if/when I have time’. Everyone has the same amount of time. Everyone. It’s how you use it. If you want to be happy, let yourself do the things that bring the happiness with them. Let go of your own internal barriers to happiness. It takes a lot of time to master an art so start right now. You never know, you could be the next professional poodle coifferer.

The insecure attachment trap

Are you too needy or too aloof in relationships? Are you constantly pulling or pushing, or are you involved with someone else who is? Do you avoid relationships and attachment altogether, or perhaps you are actually happily attached and not prone to these things at all but are occasionally caught wondering about why other people around you keep getting sucked into the insatiable drama of the insecure attachment trap…

Attachment

Attachment is the mother of all suffering, according to Buddhism, but it’s also a pretty necessary part of life that can bring deep fulfillment if you do it right. It is rather self-defeating to get too attached to detachment like those meditation geeks who feel super superior to everyone less enlightened and more pleasure-seeking than themselves. Attachment comes in many forms and the the kind we form to other people can be the most volatile and painful – and also the most wonderful and satisfying. In a close relationship, attachment is a lot like a rope that both people are holding. When the attachment is secure, the rope is not being pushed or pulled much, it can hold some tension or hang there comfortably. When the attachment is insecure, however, it gets to be rather like an emotional tug of war.  Attachment theory comes from the pioneering work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. This is a brief spiel about it that may reflect the original massive texts to a greater or lesser degree.

What is insecure attachment?

Attachment theory looks at the way children develop healthy or unhealthy attachments to their primary care-givers in childhood and how these patterns are transferred into their adult relationships. The following patterns are probably easily recognisable because they are ridiculously common and bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the romance narrative trap one encounters in Hollywood movies and other mass media.  Of course, it is entirely possible you have very secure attachment patterns, but if your emotional needs weren’t met as a child you are likely to fall into one of several categories:

  • anxious–preoccupied (pulling on the rope)
  • dismissive–avoidant (resisting the pull/pushing away)
  • fearful–avoidant (in denial of the existence of ropes and not wanting to hold on in the first place)

Anxious-preoccupied:

“I want to be with you/someone, why don’t you want to be with me? I need you. Please respond to my text. I’m going on Facebook to paste love songs on your wall. Why don’t you love me anymore?”

Anxious-preoccupied people tend to latch on to attachments easily. They are uncomfortable when not in a relationship and are likely to always have at least one person they are infatuated with, involved with or longing for. They experience a high level of anxiety over the other person’s behavior – especially when they feel neglected. They are likely to put the other person up on a pedestal while devaluing themselves. They are consistently preoccupied with the relationship, with circular patterns and anxieties around it and with trying to figure out what kind of action might generate the desired response from the other person. Anxious-preoccupied people tend to attract dismissive-avoidant people – or generate dismissive behavior because they are so over-anxious about the attachment, however, if the other person becomes too attached, an anxious-preoccupied person may flip and become dismissive, then transfer their anxious pattern to someone who is less available. People with this pattern are so afraid of losing or damaging their ties to the other person that they don’t say many of the things they really think. They withhold any information that might threaten the other person’s attachment to them and as such, cannot maintain an open, honest, genuine connection.

Dismissive-avoidant:

“I’m sweet as by myself. This person keeps texting me. Awkward. I don’t need anyone because I’m a super human machine. They probably write books about people like me. What I’m doing is way more important than you.”

Dismissive-avoidant people don’t need relationships at all, apparently. They want to be independent and tend to be quite critical of the people they are involved with. Instead of putting them on a pedestal they relegate them to the lost and found. They consistently put up barriers against the behavior of anxious-preoccupied people, and their aloofness and disdain is likely to generate anxiety in anyone who is attached to them – even people without strong anxious-preoccupied patterns.

Fearful-avoidant

“I hope I don’t have to have a genuine intimate human interaction, it might upset my equilibrium. I’m just going to hide behind this rock.”

Fearful-avoidant people tend to avoid relationships altogether. They are likely to have had primary carers come and go in their childhood and are afraid to form attachments lest the other person disappear. Fearful-avoidant people are not likely to get involved in them and when they do, it takes a lot of work for them to take down their emotional barriers of steel and communicate openly with another person.  When they do form relationships they may slip into either pattern above at various times, but as they are cautious and slow to bond, they may form quite secure attachments in time – they are also likely to be afraid to leave a relationship for fear that they will never have one again.

Secure attachment style

“Relationships are pretty awesome. Being single is pretty awesome. What’s the big deal?”

People with a secure attachment style probably had stable happy attachments in childhood. These people are mythical, like unicorns. You may occasionally stumble across couples who seem radically free from the underlying tensions most ‘normal’ dysfunctional’ relationships have. If you have never seen this, you probably don’t believe it exists, but as a true believer I can tell you that I have witnessed a handful of really good, healthy relationships in my time. Some of these people are lucky enough to have had happy childhoods, others just sort their shit out emotionally, drop their self-protective behavior, and learn to be good at relationships.

The usefulness of knowing

Wherever you stand on the spectrum, it is helpful to have some ideas about these patterns. Putting people in boxes can also come in handy when they are getting out of control and need to be contained. Some people seem to flip between different attachment styles, depending on their situation and the people they are involved with – pulling on the rope creates resistance after all. It is probably possible, with the benefit of greater understanding, to begin to resolve the underlying insecurities and childhood issues that create unhealthy relationship patterns in one’s life, rather than just projecting them onto other people.