Talking about this human self in third person, and release

 

A recent New York Times article, This is Your Life (and How You Tell It) on narrative psychology, which, in its essence, says the stories we tell about ourselves, others and the world, influence how we see these (in past, future, present) and our actions.

Psychologists have shown just how interpretations of memories can alter future behavior. In an experiment published in 2005, researchers had college students who described themselves as socially awkward in high school recall one of their most embarrassing moments. Half of the students reimagined the humiliation in the first person, and the other half pictured it in the third person.

Two clear differences emerged. Those who replayed the scene in the third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since high school — much more so than the first-person group did. The third-person perspective allowed people to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues, the authors suggest, and thus to perceive more psychological growth.

And their behavior changed, too. […]

The recordings showed that members of the third-person group were much more sociable than the others. “They were more likely to initiate a conversation, after having perceived themselves as more changed,” said Lisa Libby, the lead author and a psychologist at Ohio State University. She added, “We think that feeling you have changed frees you up to behave as if you have; you think, ‘Wow, I’ve really made some progress’ and it gives you some real momentum.”

Several things come to mind here:

  • We filter the world through our stories, which in turn color (determine, to a large extent) how we experience and act in the world.
  • By changing these stories, we experience and act in the world differently.
  • Yet, as long as we believe in these stories, at any level, we are trapped by them. We experience and act as if they were true.
  • So when there is a disengagement from these stories, seeing them as relative truths with truths in each of their turnarounds, a whole new landscape opens up. One that is less filtered through believed-in stories, one that is more nakedly perceived, and one that allows us to play with any story, and use any story as a temporary and practical tool for this human self to navigate and orient in the world.
  • Talking about this human self in third person allows for a disidentification with it, which in turn allows for (a) an easier rewrite of our stories about ourselves and the world, and (b) an easier disengagement with these stories in general. From seeing this human self, and our stories about it, as a subject and an “I”, it becomes an object and an he/she/it.

In terms of research, it seems that it would be good to explore the effects of (a) the type of stories used, and (b) the degree of belief in these stories. Are they taken as gospel truth, at all levels, included supported by society? Are they consciously not believed in, but believed in at deeper levels? Is there a release from them at more levels of being (emotional, behavioral)? What happens then?

In terms of therapy and practice, it is probably a good thing to include both the rewrite and disengagement aspects, especially as they mutually influence each other.

When there is a rewriting of our stories about ourselves and the world, for instance through finding the genuine, and relative, truths in each of their turnarounds, there is also an easier disengagement from them.

(The rewrite can happen in many ways, but the easiest, for me at least, is to fully acknowledge the limited truth in the initial story, and even the gifts in it, and also the limited truth in each of its turnarounds. Instead of denying the truth in one story and trying to hold onto another as true, there is more of a wide embrace and a wide open field this way. Denial brings a sense of struggle and precariousness, and a wide embrace a sense of ease and no truths or identities to protect.)

And conversely, when there is a disengagement from these stories, even temporarily, it is easier to rewrite them.

The New York Times Story is also a reminder of modern academic psychology still being in its infancy, which means that a large portion of it still is an examination, refinement or rediscovery of what is already known, even by regular laypeople. It is a necessary phase, and valuable in itself as it helps refine and clarify processes and mechanisms… and also sift out what is valid and what is not among what laypeople assume is so!

When this initial phase is more fleshed out, and the insights from many contemplative and body-oriented traditions are explored in a more modern (post modern, post-post modern) context, there is a great potential for a far more finely-tuned and practical insights into the mind, as the aqal map is only the initial – and very general – taste of.

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