Narrative, self-image, and self-communication

by Academian5 min read19th Dec 201251 comments


Narratives (stories)

Related to: Cached selves, Why you're stuck in a narrative, The curse of identity

Outline: Some back-story, Pondering the mechanics of self-image, The role of narrative, Narrative as a medium for self-communication.

tl;dr: One can have a self-image that causes one to neglect the effects of self-image. And, since we tend to process our self-images somewhat in the context of a narrative identity, if you currently make zero use of narrative in understanding and affecting how you think about yourself, it may be worth adjusting upward. All this seems to have been the case for me, and is probably part of what makes HPMOR valuable.

Some back-story

Starting when I was around 16 and becoming acutely annoyed with essentialism, I prided myself on not being dependent on a story-like image of myself. In fact, to make sure I wasn't, I put a break command in my narrative loop: I drafted a story in my mind about a hero who was able to outwit his foes by being less constrained by narrative than they were, and I identified with him whenever I felt a need-for-narrative coming on. Batman's narrator goes for something like this in the Dark Knight when he <select for spoiler-> abandons his heroic image to take the blame for Harvey Dent's death.

I think this break command was mostly a good thing. It helped me to resolve cognitive dissonance and overcome the limitations of various cached selves, and I ended up mostly focussed on whether my beliefs were accurate and my desires were being fulfilled. So I still figure it's a decent first-order correction to being over-constrained by narrative.

But, I no longer think it's the only decent solution. In fact, understanding the more subtle mechanics of self-image — what affects our self schemas, what they affect, and how — was something I neglected for a long time because I saw self-image as a solved problem. Yes, I developed a cached view of myself as unaffected by self-image constraints. I would have been embarassed to notice such dependencies, so I didn't. The irony, eh?

I'm writing this because I wouldn't be surprised to find others here developing, or having developed, this blind spot...

Pondering the mechanics of self-image

At some point in your life, you may have taken on a job or a project without knowing that after doing it for a month, it would negatively affect your self-image in some way. There may have been things that you always found very easy to do which, after some aspect of your self-image changed, you suddenly found yourself avoiding or struggling with.

It would be nice to be able to predict and maybe even control that sort of thing in advance. In general, I'd like a deeper understanding of the following questions:

  1. What actions might conflict or resonate with my self-image?
  2. What events beyond my control might threaten or reinforce my self-image?
  3. What might my self-image inhibit me from doing, or empower me to do?
  4. Could changing my self-image help me further my goals?

If you've never sat to ask yourself these questions genuinely, I might suggest stopping here and thinking about them for a while. Simply taking the time to ponder these issues has lead me to many helpful realizations. For example:

  • I used to be uninterested in how self-image worked because I didn't see myself as the kind of person who was affected by self-image!
  • I didn't like dancing until I was 22, when I found a way to view it as a function of my "musician" self-schema.
  • There were certain things I didn't try to learn about, like neuroscience, just because they didn't fit with my status-quo self-image as a mathematician. I noticed this acutely when I was was 23, after reading Anna's Cached Selves post, and I began reading a textbook on affective neuroscience.
  • An injury that prevented me from climbing this semester lead to me feeling chronically meh for about a month, until I realized it was because my self-image as a physically active and playful person was threatened. Realizing this, and reconstructing my self-image as more generally "health-conscious", was how I got over it.

I don't have anything like an inclusive, general theory of self-image, and I have lots of hanging questions. Can I come up with a reasonably finite exhaustive list of features to track in my own self-image, for practical gains? Does such a list exist for people in general? But even without these, asking myself the old 1-4 once in a while gives me something to think about.

The role of narrative

In my experience, personally and with others, the answers to questions 1-4 are not automatically transparent, even if we can find partial answers by asking them directly. So what other questions can we ask ourselves to understand our self-images?

It seems to be common lore that our self-images have something to do with narrative identity. I take this to mean that we process our self-images somewhat in terms of features and schemas that we also use to process common stories.

So, I've tried working through the following series of questions to get in touch with what aspects of my personal narrative cause me to experience shame, pride, indignation, and nurturance. I like to lay them all out like this to signal to myself what they're for and that I want to do them all:

  • Questions to understand shame:
    • I feel sad or ashamed when ...
    • When I'm sad or ashamed, I see myself as ... and I see the world as ...
    • Some real or fictional people, stories, songs, or poems I can relate to when I'm sad or ashamed:
  • Questions to understand pride:
    • I feel happy or proud when ...
    • When I'm happy or proud, I see myself as ... and I see the world as ...
    • Some real or fictional people, stories, songs, or poems I can relate to when I'm happy or proud:
  • Questions to understand indignation:
    • I feel angry or indignant when ...
    • When I am angry or indignant, I see myself as ... and I see the world as ...
    • Some real or fictional people, stories, songs, or poems I can relate to when I feel shame or indignation:
  • Questions to understand nurturance:
    • I feel caring or nurturing when ...
    • When I am caring or nurturing, I see myself as ... and I see the world as ...
    • Some real or fictional people, stories, songs, or poems I can relate to when I feel caring or nurturing:

Consequences. By asking myself these questions, I've come to some realizations that didn't result from asking myself the more direct questions 1-4. For example:

  • (Involving shame and pride) Doing physiotherapy exercises made me feel ashamed of being weak. Visualizing the anime character Naruto training to recover from injuries made me stop experiencing the exercises as a "sign of weakness", and I became less physically uncomfortable while doing them.
  • (Involving indignation and nurturance) Imagining my kind and inspiring 6th grade teacher speaking to me an indignant tone of voice seems wrong, and makes me think that feeling annoyed is not always a good way to help other people learn from their mistakes, because he was the teacher I felt I learned the most moral lessons from growing up. "Channeling" him makes me more curious about other peoples' motives and misunderstandings instead of feeling annoyed.
  • (Involving all four) Explicitly imagining myself as an <insert animal here> helps me to avoid taking myself too seriously — in particular, getting caught up in shame, indignation, and unhelpful instances of pride — while still caring about myself.

Does anyone have similar experiences they'd like to share? Or very dissimilar experiences? Or questions I could add to this list? Or well-reproduced psych references? HPMOR references are also highly encouraged, especially since I still haven't read it, and in light of this post, I probably should!

Narrative as a medium for self-communication

Like any method of affecting oneself, narrative is something one can over-use. But I think I personally have been over-cautious about this, to the point of neglecting it as an option and ignoring it as an unconscious constraint. To the extent that I now use it, I think of it as a way of communicating with myself, not to be used for trickery or over-selling a point.

To draw an analogy, if you tell your 2-year-old child "You trigger in me feelings of paternal nurturance", while this may be true, it's not communication. Hugging the child is communication. It's a language she'll understand. In fact, it's probably how you should teach her what "nurturance" means. In particular, it's not a trick, and it's not over-selling.

Likewise, when I'm convinced enough that something is true — like for once I should really try not feeling annoyed with a postmodernist to see if we can communicate — and it's time to tell that to my limbic system with some conviction, maybe it's worth speaking a language my emotional brain understands a little better, and maybe sometimes that language is narrative. Maybe I'll write myself a poem about patience. Maybe I already have ;)