One of my favorite movies that wrestles with the topic of mental health is Silver Linings Playbook, a story of how one man rebuilds his life after a stay in a psychiatric hospital and losing his wife and job. Silver Linings Playbook portrays many aspects of mental health issues such as loss, trauma, and depression with honesty. However, like other romance-dramas it follows a familiar narrative. Our protagonist embarks on a journey toward recovery, and despite setbacks, achieves personal growth and development with the help of a newfound love interest. At the end, the audience is left with the impression the main characters have rebounded from their challenges and found happiness by finding each other.
But in the real world, recovery from mental illness is often a lifelong struggle. Progress can be made and lost, setbacks aren’t always easily overcome, and there’s no finish line or picture-perfect ending. New relationships don’t fix underlying mental health issues. In short, recovery is hard work. Nevertheless, stories remain an important part of how we view the world and our lives. And the narrative we tell ourselves — the inner dialogue we have about who we are — impacts how we interpret and respond to our experiences and effectively cope with life’s challenges.
Communicating Through Narratives
Our culture is permeated with narratives. All stories — whether they’re romance, adventure, or action — are built on an arc where the struggles, conflicts, and challenges introduced are worked out in a final resolution. As humans, we are naturally drawn to this story arc. It forms a recognizable pattern that we use to communicate with and understand one another. Research shows that when we hear a story, it captures our attention and we “tune in.” In fact, not only are the parts of our brain responsible for language and comprehension activated when we hear or read a story, we also experience it as the speaker would. Annie Murphy Paul states, “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.”1 Stories are so powerful and ingrained in our psyche that we see them even when they’re not there.2
We are also drawn to narratives because we see parts of our experience reflected in them. We are all the hero of our own stories. And as lead actors, we’ve grown to believe our lives can resemble the stories we tell each other. If anyone doubted this wasn’t true, note how accustomed we’ve become at crafting narratives through social media that convey to others we have our lives down to a script. Pictures and messages are carefully curated, perfect moments are fixed in time, and any details that are too depressing or unsavory are left for the cutting room floor. We’ve become experts at editing and publishing our story for mass consumption.
Good narrative can persuade you it’s true, it can inspire and make you believe, even when our lives often fall short. Stories are satisfying because they achieve closure that we can’t in our real lives. Life is filled with change — endings, if they do exist, are not the final word. Writer Raphael Bob-Waksberg states:3
Well, I don’t believe in endings. I think you can fall in love and get married and you can have a wonderful wedding, but then you still have to wake up the next morning and you’re still you… And that because of the narrative we’ve experienced, we’ve kind of internalized this idea that we’re working toward some great ending, and that if we put all our ducks in a row we’ll be rewarded, and everything will finally make sense. But the answer is that everything doesn’t make sense, at least as far as I’ve found.
Stories provide meaning and purpose to the loss and change we encounter. Life transitions can be difficult, and rarely include a final act that provides explanation, ties up loose ends, and works out problems with a neat ribbon.
Stories We Tell Ourselves
Just as we are impacted by cultural narratives, our perception of the world is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. We all have an internal narrative about who we are. This inner monologue often runs continuously — sometimes in the background or quite loudly — interpreting our experiences and offering opinions on the decisions we make that informs our sense of self. Sometimes, self-talk can be constructive and life-affirming, providing us with the perspective to bounce back from challenges and the resiliency to navigate life’s ups and downs.
But self-talk can also become distorted, creating a consistently negative point of view that’s detrimental to our mental and emotional health. Our inner critic can trick us into believing stories that aren’t true — for example, self-limiting thoughts like “I’m not good enough”, “I always mess things up”, or “It won’t work out.” Thoughts influence how we feel — and what we habitually think will affect how we habitually feel. If we have a negative inner dialogue, we will start to act out behaviors and ways of approaching life that make us depressed, unhappy, and unfulfilled.
Don’t believe all the stories you tell yourself. How you feel about your life, and the meaning of experiences in it, depends on your focus. Our internal narrative is like a radio station — if you want to hear something different, you need to change the channel. We can do this by fostering greater awareness of our inner dialogue. Start by trying to observe the thoughts and emotions that arise throughout the day without judging, reacting, or engaging with them. Practicing mindfulness can be helpful in cultivating acceptance of your experiences instead of labeling them as good or bad. Your feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, are not you. Second, challenge negative self-talk and cognitive distortions when they arise. When you find that your inner critic is starting to appear, replace disparaging statements with self-compassion and understanding. Adopting a more empathetic and kinder tone toward yourself can also help change how you feel.
This allows us to begin the process of telling ourselves a different story — one that will allow us to better manage life in a healthy, balanced way without falling into the trap of comparing ourselves to idealized versions we see in movies and social media. Our life will include mistakes and challenges. But we all have the power to flip the script on how we think about and react to the events we experience. While we may not have a perfect ending, by rewriting our inner narrative we can foster a more hopeful mindset that we can draw on in even the most difficult of circumstances. And that story is one we deserve to hear.
- Murphy Paul, A. (2012). Your brain on fiction. The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html
- Rose, F. (2011). The art of immersion: why do we tell stories? Wired Magazine. Available at https://www.wired.com/2011/03/why-do-we-tell-stories/
- Opam, K. (2015). Why the creator of BoJack Horseman embraces sadness. The Verge. Available at https://www.theverge.com/2015/7/31/9077245/bojack-horseman-netflix-raphael-bob-waksberg-interview