Step Back from the Same Old Story….and Check Out the Landscape

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Imagine walking into a neighborhood bookstore and discovering a novel with a familiar picture on the cover. Flipping through the pages, you are struck by the eerie sense that you’ve read this before. As you begin to recognize characters and scenes, wincing at some and smiling at others, you realize this is the story of your life.

Would you feel love and compassion for the main character, or would you think “what a schmuck?’ According to the latest psychological research, you are likely to view your life more favorably at a distance than up close.

A 2005 study reported in the Journal of Psychological Science illustrated that people who described previous scenes in their lives in the third person narrative (“he” did this and “she” did that) spoke about their past with more confidence and optimism than those who recalled similar scenes in the first person (“I” did such and such).

The study was described in a May 2007 New York Times article entitled “This is Your Life (and How You Tell It).” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/health/psychology/22narr.html
An excerpt from this article illustrates that, not only are human beings natural storytellers, but also that how we tell a story influences how it unfolds:

“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 re-imagined 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.”

In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to write about the current chapter in their lives in the third person voice the way an author would sketch a main character, freeing them to see beyond their usual point of view. The third-person gives them an elevated perspective on their personal narrative, as if the were watching their lives on a movie screen, reading their story in a book, or having an out-of-body experience.

While some participants give me strange looks when I ask them to describe a chapter of their life in the third person, the results are always affirming. Everyone is always surprised at how much easier it is to express themselves.

Why is this technique so effective? Our challenge often lies in getting past our ego – the big “I.”  While a good, healthy “I” gives us a sense of our place in the world, which is necessary to successfully navigate changes, the very letter itself oozes subjectivity and creates the illusion of permanence.

When we begin a sentence in the first person with “I am this” or “I think that,” we become automatically attached to the descriptors that follow. This can be potentially problematic. Statements like “I am a rich, successful stockbroker” or “I am a professional athlete” may evoke powerful emotional attachments that, if challenged by external circumstances like the market crashing or getting permanently injured, can trigger an identity crisis.

In psychological terms, writing in the third person essentially sneaks past our defenses by tricking the censoring ego into thinking that we are describing someone else’s life, even though we’re describing our own.

Being able to see our stories from an unfamiliar perspective can open our eyes to new insights that can transform ingrained behaviors. From the perch of the third-person narrative, we can step out of our stories, check out the landscape, and determine whether the roads we’re taking are navigable or need to be rerouted. And from there, who knows what we’ll discover?

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