How we see ourselves depends on the story we tell ourselves about who we are. If you change your story, you can change your experience. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are especially important in the midst of fear and anxiety.
In this conversation recorded as part of WBI’s Lunch and Learn series with the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, WBI Founder Megan McDonough speaks with Margarita Tarragona, PhD, a leader in the field of narrative therapy, about why story matters and how to shape your story towards a better future.
Margarita is president of the Mexican Positive Psychology Society and a lecturer for the University of Pennsylvania and for the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and the University of Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. She was also on faculty for WBI’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology offered in Mexico.
Highlights from the Conversation
Megan McDonough interviews Margarita Tarragona
Megan: I’d like to start with what might seem like a simple question: What do we mean when we talk about narrative and about our personal story?
Margarita: A narrative is basically a series of events, occurrences, phenomena, that are connected over time [and] make sense in a cohesive or coherent way. So our personal narratives are the way in which we connect our experiences so they make sense to us. They feel like a story. We don’t have just one personal narrative; we have many that coexist, just like a good novel or a good movie may have several subplots, intertwined with one another. For me, the most important aspects of narratives is that they are not just one event, they’re a number of events or experiences that are connected and happen over time. It has a history. It starts in the past, there’s a present, and it usually includes something that we’re thinking about the future.
Megan: I think what’s hard to recognize is how embedded and invisible our personal narratives can be in everyday life. Give us an example of how a personal narrative shapes how we see the day and the decisions we make.
Margarita: Well, if I may take a little detour … there are some authors, like Dan McAdams from Northwestern University, who specialize in studying their personal narratives. He says that actually our self, our sense of self, is a narrative about each of us. So you’re right that it’s not always evident, but it does shape the way we understand ourselves, the way we see ourselves, and the way we interact with others. For example, to make a caricature, somebody who says, “Well, I’m not really smart, I’m very awkward, I make a lot of mistakes, I am not very good at anything.” If you repeat it enough, it becomes a way of seeing yourself. So how do you behave then? How do you present yourself at work or with other people that elicits a reaction from them? So the way you think about yourself obviously impacts the way you interact with others, and that in turn interacts with your way of defining yourself.
Megan: I’m going to give you a personal experience from my own life. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is how the world is crazy, different and uncertain and changing with COVID and [the protests] and what we’re seeing in the world, and I’ve been finding myself wanting to give more, you know? So the the personal story I hear coming up is, Oh my gosh, if I tried to do that particular thing it would take too much work, I wouldn’t be able to do it. It would exhaust me, I can’t do that. So I recognize it as it’s coming up, but that’s part of my story—if I were to do something, that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Is that part of the personal narrative?
Margarita: I think so. Of course, this is not a therapy session—and narrative work, by the way, is not just for therapy, it can be used in coaching and education—but if you want to give something, one thing you could do is have a conversation about what motivates you to give. What value is that desire linked to, the desire to contribute? And then maybe look at examples. I smiled when I heard you say that would be too much, because I know you and I know that you take on big projects! So maybe a conversation that could take place would be about whether you have had experiences in which you’ve taken on things that require a lot of effort, and how did you do that? What was it like? So you would find evidence of stories in which you have been very capable of taking on big, meaningful projects.
Personal narratives do not occur in a vacuum; they are, of course, in the context of the culture that we’re part of, the family that we’re a part of, so our stories are personal, but they are part of or they are constructed within the possibilities that our context allows us.
Megan: So there’s the understanding that there’s a social fabric and then there are some ways to shape that personal narrative in ways that are perhaps more helpful. Let me just see what’s coming in from the chat. One story is, how do I figure out how to be an activist at this time? I think that’s a story a lot of people are talking about. With all this stuff happening, who am I in the face of this? And another story is being scared that the country will not heal. So perception of the future, the stories we’re telling ourselves about what could be and what could happen. So we have these stories and then what do we do with them? How do we think about not only being aware of them but using them to shape who we could become or how we could see what’s happening? What are some ways that we could become aware of our narrative or use tools to reshape our narrative?
Margarita: I think it’s useful to make it more specific because, at least for me, it can be paralyzing if somebody asks you, “Tell me your story”—it’s too big! Like, “Tell me about yourself”—it’s too big! But tell me about you as a mother, or tell me about you as a doctor or as an activist, or tell me about your experiences with hope, or tell me about your experiences in couples relationships. So if we narrate a little bit it’s easier for us to elicit our experience. But something I find helpful that is often done in narrative practices is to separate the person from the obstacle, if it’s about an obstacle, or it could also be about something positive. I find that it’s very generative to ask somebody about their relationship with hope instead of just telling me about hope. You can think about hope as a presence or as a character or as something in your life that you relate to. Do I like to have it around, but keep it at bay? I don’t like it to be too close or I hold on to it for dear life. What helps me nurture it?
In the case of hope, that’s something beautiful. But oftentimes when something is an obstacle, it’s even more helpful. For example, if somebody’s talking about, I don’t know, feeling paralyzed. So tell me about paralysis. What is paralysis doing to you right now? How does paralysis work in your life? What keeps paralysis strong? What can make paralysis smaller? So I know it sounds a little strange or artificial but it really has an impact because it puts some distance between the person and whatever is getting in the way of their being the way they would prefer to be. And this brings us to another concept that I really like in narrative work, which is the idea of a preferred self, that we have some choice in terms of how we want to be. Our dear friend Maria Sirois often uses the phrase, “How do you want to show up?” I love that idea of how do you want to show up, how do you want to be in these circumstances? Of course our options are not infinite—you know, if I decided I want to be a world-class gymnast, well, I can’t. But how do I want to be in this situation? Do I want to be more involved or do I want to be more brave? Do I want to be more cautious? How do I want to be, or what’s my preferred self in the current moment that I’m living in, the circumstances that I’m facing.
Megan: We’ve talked a lot about the different selves and choices in previous webinars, and I love this one about using the noun—the thing or the obstacle—as a separate self, right? That’s such an interesting mental construct. It’s like a brain teaser.
Margarita: And you’re right in saying it as a noun—an exercise we sometimes do in workshops is if somebody uses an adjective that is restricting them too much, that is getting in the way of how they would prefer to be—for example, if somebody says, “I am shy, I am anxious, I am disorganized,” the exercise is to identify that adjective—shy, disorganized, anxious—and turn it into a noun—shyness, disorganization, anxiety—and then you can think about it differently, how you interact or relate to that anxiety or disorganization or whatever.
Megan: Let’s take a real-life example from what [one listener] wrote in as part of her story of imposter syndrome. So use that tool, using the word imposter, how would one go about doing that?
Margarita: She already put it as a noun, not that “I’m an imposter,” but “I deal with or suffer from imposter syndrome.” So there’s a lot you could do about it, depending. Playfully, you could say well imagine this imposter syndrome was a character in your life, what would it be like? Would it be a cartoon? Would it be a scary monster? Is it big? Is it little? What is it like? Would you like to give a name to that imposter syndrome? Maybe you’ll just call it syndrome or maybe you’ll call it Harry or something. And then when did imposter syndrome enter your life? Did it arrive with a bang or did it slowly seep into your life? How can you tell when it’s there? Can other people see it? And what would be the arch-enemy or the antidote for impostor syndrome? Maybe it’s, I don’t know, self-confidence. The person has to come up with it. But the idea is to either gain some distance, put it in its place, and also it’s very useful to make an account of the occasions in which the impostor syndrome has not gotten away with its objectives. When have you been able to do things successfully, beautifully, despite the imposter syndrome? So those are just some ideas.
Megan: I like the name Harry for the imposter syndrome. When you name something like that it does sort of lighten the load—I automatically started thinking that I would say call the imposter syndrome Harry, and I would call self-confidence Sally, and when Harry met Sally … It’s lightening the load you’re mentally addressing, because people have been telling us is that it feels lighthearted, what we’re doing, and maybe it doesn’t meet the seriousness of what we’re feeling. How do we actually hold the whole? This concept feels both lighthearted and serious, like you’re seeing impostor syndrome and you’re trying to find out more about, you’re trying to explore it, you’re not trying to deny it and make it something else. So talk a little bit about narrative as being able to see more clearly that which we’ve been perhaps wanting to avoid or push away or overcome, versus holding the whole.
Margarita: One of the keys of any good relational practice, whether it’s coaching, whether it’s therapy, is this difficult balance of holding with all seriousness what’s painful, what’s difficult, and at the same time what’s right, what’s going well, what’s luminous. When somebody’s going through a lot of pain, it is also useful to find those little glimpses, or those little slivers as Dan Tomasulo says, about hope, for example, so if somebody has experienced a lot of inadequacy or a lot of hopelessness it’s important more than anything to really be present and listen with care and respect to what the person is experiencing. And then after the main issue has been identified—for example, hopelessness—then ask questions about times when they may have seen or experienced a little bit of hope or seen a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel. And then, when those are identified, with curiosity, ask more and more questions to expand them so they can be part of the story, too. They cannot disappear or deny the other aspect, but to help them gain force and be there so the person can have a fuller view of themselves or their possibilities.
Megan: I just want to recognize for people that I didn’t have to work at hope right when you were explaining something—I engaged in hope naturally. It wasn’t something I forced, it was by being open to what you were saying, being elevated by someone else that elevated my hope.
Megan: When you think about narratives, I mean, if you were to read a book that was all dark and didn’t have any glimmer of hope …
Margarita: You would put it down, of course! And if it’s too light, then …
Megan: It doesn’t engage you! So when I look at something like imposter syndrome and knowing that it’s there, and calling it Harry, you’re really weaving into the narrative, just making the ingredients of a good story for yourself, one that you can recognize and live into and also grow from.
Margarita: [There’s] a metaphor that is often used in narrative work that’s born from anthropology and it talks about thin descriptions versus thick descriptions. A thin description is a story about a person or a group of people, but it’s just based on one or two features or ideas, and it’s not very rich. Whereas a thick description weaves many aspects of a person, of a group, of a culture, and it’s much richer and sturdier, of course. So that’s a metaphor that is often used in relation to narrative work. How can we make our stories more multifaceted, thicker, tapestries.
Megan: Sometimes when we look at those ones that feel thin, that have been with us our entire life, that we can’t get over or haven’t yet gotten to build that sort of bigger picture, it can feel really exhausting. Oh there’s the imposter syndrome, oh, there’s this thing again. And I guess I should shout out, this is Phoebe Atkinson’s sister who made me this.
Margarita: [Another listener] has pointed out that a story can have a lot of conflicting options, right? Like, I want to go out and be part of the protest, I’m afraid of COVID, I’m also a solo parent. These are all different selves or narratives that may not be playing together. How do you integrate all of that? There are many different threads and there’s no one right answer. There is a richness to the tapestry.
Margarita: Somebody has a clarification question about what imposter syndrome is. It’s when, for example, you get a good review from your boss, and you think, But he doesn’t really know me yet, if he really knew me, maybe he wouldn’t have such a good impression of me. Or, Oh, should I go ahead with this proposal, or this project, I don’t know, people think I’m capable of it, but I really don’t think I’m very capable of doing it. So that’s why it’s called imposter syndrome. Here’s an interesting one about that there are many ways to be an activist and protesting is just one. Take your skills, what you can contribute to this moment, and move slightly toward a more positive future. I love that. I think that’s a really beautiful way to put it.
Megan: [Another listener] asked a great question that was actually one of the questions on my list, too, that, as we write about our personal narratives, are there writing prompts that would be helpful?
Margarita: Depending on the purpose of what you want to write about, in general, I think it’s useful to inquire, to explore areas that we know have to do with well-being. So, for example, we know that people who live in a way that’s coherent with their values have a fuller and more satisfying life, so what are the most important values for me? What actions have I taken that are aligned with those values? Is there something that I would like to do and how is that related to the most important values? We know that relationships are probably the most important factor for happiness and well-being. So what are the most important relationships in my life right now? What are the relationships that sustain me? How can I nurture these relationships? Who can I count on to take on this bold action that I want to take? If you are curious about what gives most meaning to my life at this moment, what have been the sources of meaning in the past, how can I be in touch with people who share the same sources of meaning that nurture me? We also know that people who set goals and pursue them tend to have fuller lives, so what are my three most important goals for the rest of this year? What are the steps that I can take? What from my previous experience can give me the confidence to move towards reaching these goals? I think the idea is to take a concept or a phenomenon and see how it is connected to our experiences over time.
Megan: Can you tell us a little bit more about whatever started the field of personal narratives? What’s the genesis for looking at who we are through the lens of our own story?
Margarita: Within psychology, it was started by the work of Jerome Bruner, who was a cognitive psychologist from New York. He died a couple of years ago at over 100 years old. He was a cognitive psychologist, and at the time there was a big boom in cognitive psychology that compared our minds to computers and saw all the interesting knowledge we can derive from that, how in many ways our minds are like computers and the way we process some information. He started to think about the limitations of that analogy and how there’s some things that computers couldn’t do—I don’t know if they can do it now—which is to narrate, to create stories and to find meaning. So he started a movement called narrative psychology that focused on how we construct stories and how through story we ascribe meaning to our experiences. So that’s how it was it was born in the world of psychology. And in the world of psychotherapy, narrative therapy was started by an Australian social worker, Michael White, and a Canadian-born anthropologist David Epston, who had moved to New Zealand. And they were very critical of the most dominant ideas in psychotherapy that tended to pathologize people, and they tie this in with the idea of narratives. How when people are suffering, sometimes their suffering can be understood as being constricted by a narrative that is too limiting, too overwhelming, or simple like, He’s a bad kid, or We have a terrible marriage, or I am depressive. They thought that those narratives could be expanded and they questioned the professional narrative of pathology. That’s why they started to separate the person from the problems—they would talk about somebody dealing with depression instead of thinking this is a depressed patient. So in my opinion, that’s the genesis. On the one hand, from the research in cognitive psychology that highlighted the importance of stories and meaning making, and on the other hand, from a critical movement within the field of psychotherapy that saw therapeutic work as a labor of expanding personal stories to give place to their preferred selves.
Megan: And I’m curious, I almost think that there’s two stories, at least. One of which is a story of who we see ourselves to be, and another story of that which we want to become, sort of an aspirational story of self. How is it that people can first determine the stories they’re telling themselves? Like, is this a writing exercise? How do we actually discover our story?
Margarita: I think we’re doing it all the time. When you introduce yourself to somebody at a meeting or when you’re talking with your best friend and talking about your relationship with your daughter from another angle, even though you’ve talked about it many times. It’s not a work that is like a thesis that’s finished and then it’s done. We’re constantly rewriting our stories, metaphorically speaking. At the same time, there are writing exercises—literally writing—that can help us strengthen or change our stories. James Pennebaker has researched the usefulness of writing about traumatic experiences, for example, and he has seen that when people write their deepest thoughts and feelings about a traumatic experience, after doing it for a few days for about 10 minutes a day, they actually improve and they have less symptoms of depression, for example, and they even have better health. And then there’s people, like Laura King, who have studied the effects of writing about the future, about writing about your best possible self, and seen when people write about a moment in the future in which things have gone right, when life has unfolded as they would have liked it to unfold, when they feel they have reached their goals, when they write about that, they experience a lot more positive emotion and other indicators of well-being. … We do it informally through conversation, more formally through professional conversations with a coach, or therapist, or counselor, and also using the written word, either by journaling or by doing some of these interventions that are based on writing.
Megan: When you taught the course on personal narratives at Wholebeing Institute, you did these fun exercises and then you had an award that you would give people, do you remember that?
Margarita: Towards the end sometimes in narrative therapy, and it can also be done in coaching, people get a diploma or a certificate. This was started when Epston and White worked with children and, for example, they often worked with children who had fears. So they created the Australian Association of Fear Busters and Monster Tamers. [LINK to https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1987-28923-001] So towards the end of their work with a child who used to be fearful and now was not as fearful, they had this diploma. The Association gives this award to Johnny Smith in recognition that Johnny has been able to tame his fears and he’s able to give good advice to other children who may be afraid of monsters. It’s funny and playful, but it’s also used with adults. I remember once we were working as a team of therapists in the context of a class with a woman who was suffering from depression and other difficulties and towards the end, we worked for eight sessions and at the eighth session, we did write a diploma in which each of the therapists that had witnessed the process wrote down something that they saw, something positive that they appreciated about her. Somebody said like she was like the phoenix who had arisen from her ashes because she had experienced tremendous trauma. Somebody talked about her intelligence and they wrote that in the diploma. And several months afterward, another colleague was doing a research project about people’s experiences in therapy and she was one of the participants in the research and she said. “You know what? Once in a while I take out my diploma, which is in my drawer, and read it again.” And the researcher said, “Why do you do that?” And she says, “Because it reminds me of who I am.” So these documents can be testimonies to the best of what people can be.
Megan: It reminds me of what we do in the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology with the reflected best self. You ask a spouse, a significant other, what do you see in me? And the stories that are reflected back are like these gemstones and touchstones of the truth of people’s stories that they forget about, because not only do we gloss over or heighten the difficult challenges in our story, we miss the gemstones of what’s helpful, what strengths we bring to bear.
Margarita: That reminds me of another metaphor or image that’s often used about narrative work: They say that it’s like panning for gold. You know those images of the Gold Rush where people would have these sifters and they would sift through all the pebbles and rocks in the water of the river looking for little nuggets of gold? That’s kind of like the work that we do. Those nuggets of gold are the exceptions to problems or the best features of people that sometimes are not appreciated or seen with clarity.
Megan: Here’s another question: Do we need to write it all down when we’re understanding our narratives? It’s so multi-layered, how do we weave it all together?
Margarita: I think there are ways you can, for example, keep a journal, that are very useful. You can maybe attend a workshop. But I don’t think we need to write it down. I think it actually happens more in everyday conversation. It reminds me of the image of natural movement versus going to the gym. You go to the gym to strengthen certain muscles with specific exercises, but if you move naturally throughout your day, that’s also really good for your health. So I think that if we try to bring out the best in other people in our conversations with them, that’s like a natural strengthening of positive personal stories.
Megan: When we taught this in CiWPP, [we talk about] the different selves: We have our authentic self, we have an aspirational self, we have an ought self. But you’re saying all of those selves are just different narratives or stories we have, using different perspectives?
Margarita: I think that’s one way to put it. I think like any analogy, there’s limitations to it and of course the idea of the self as a story is an analogy. But I think that it also helps us account for our identity. Even though the word identity, from the Latin, means “one” or “unified,” our identity is not so unified. You used the word gem—we have different facets and different aspects of ourselves that are not always completely congruent. So if we think of our life as a novel, that allows us to think of different plots—it doesn’t have to be one super unified, totally coherent self. Like Walt Whitman said in his famous poem, “We contain multitudes,” right?
Megan: I love this whole quote, you know, “Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” I love that, I use it all the time when someone says, “Oh, but you said it differently before.” Well, I changed.
Margarita: It doesn’t work with my kids though.
Megan: That’s right! So I wonder if you could give us an example of anyone that you’ve worked with that you’ve seen weave a whole new story as they begin to understand the narrative that they were writing for themselves.
Margarita: Yes. At the same time I think most of the times at least in my experience changes are not like super dramatic. They tend to be more subtle but meaningful. A person I was working with came to see me because she felt she was a mediocre professional and she had surprised herself by this realization because she had always been a very good student. She did really well but after several years of working in a field she felt she was mediocre. So this was a very clear, dominant story. And we talked about why did she feel that way and feel that she hadn’t accomplished much, and in conversation we were exploring her professional work and what she was doing. And then she mentioned that on the side she was very involved with a community organization and that she had realized a few weeks ago that the director of the community organization couldn’t attend because of some reason. She had taken on the leadership spontaneously, and changed some of the procedures and they were a lot more productive. So she started to see how she did really well in that, doing something different that was not what she had chosen as her profession, and she decided to explore that more and more and realized that’s what she was really good at. And actually within a few months she changed from what she had done for years to becoming very active and ended up formally leading an NGO. So that’s one example. So the story of mediocrity was still there but what started to emerge was a story of competence, of leadership, of a deep passion to help other people, especially the group of people that this NGO was serving. The mediocre story was still there but weakened compared to this growing identity of her as a community leader and and leader of an NGO.
Megan: Wow, what a great story. When we tell ourselves stories, we forget the good so easily. Can you talk a little bit more about that—the brain’s negativity bias?
Margarita: Rick Hansen in the field of positive psychology famously has said that our brain has Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. So I think that actually “storying” is one way to develop Velcro for the positive. Let’s say your kid comes home and says, “Mom, I got an A in my biology exam!” Maybe you just say, “Oh, that’s nice, Billy.” That kind of, you know, slips by. But if you say, “So tell me more, Billy. Tell me how you got your A this time? Did you study differently? How did the teacher tell you? Was this a topic that you were interested in?” If you inquire, if you have curiosity about it, then the grade turns into a little story about a success in his biology class and he’s more likely to remember it and hopefully then he will also study hard for his next biology class.
Megan: I wish I had known all this when my kids were younger. These are the times I realize I did everything wrong!
Margarita: Oh, come on! See, that’s a dominant story in itself!
Megan: Oh that is a dominant story! Yes, yes, oh my goodness!
Margarita: Have you seen that video that circulated last year on social media where they interview mothers about how they are as mothers and a lot of them talk about how guilty they feel, how they don’t do things right, how they don’t pay enough attention to the kids, and then they bring in their children who are four or five, one by one, and they asked them to describe their mothers. And it really made me cry, it makes a lot of people cry, to see how the kids saw their mothers and never once mentioned the things that their mothers thought they were doing.
Megan: Oh my gosh, I would like to find that. I do remember the Dove commercials where people were asked to describe themselves and this is, from a position of storytelling, how we often tell our own stories. We notice everything that’s wrong, every wart, every freckle, everything that seems out of place and we miss the beauty within, which is what I so appreciate about your narrative work—you’re always trying to pull out from people the emerging goodness that’s held in the whole.
Margarita: Thank you. [Here’s a comment that] one of the most powerful aspects of narrative is seeing ourselves as the author of our story and directing our lives versus simply reporting on things. Absolutely, absolutely. It’s often said that people like to be in the driver’s seats of their lives and that’s true, you know? The sense of agency is so important. When we’re telling others about our experiences, we’re not just reporting data or facts as we do it, we’re creating stories and influencing our own view of ourselves.
Megan: [Another viewer] asked the question, What if the story is the opposite of the impostor syndrome, when your child is told they can do anything, that they can and they go into the world and they start to fail? And they fail over and over amid some success. How does one deal with that?
Margarita: Good point. It reminds me of the research by Carol Dweck on fixed mindsets and and growth mindsets. What she found, in a nutshell, is that when children are praised about their innate skill or intelligence … For example, they did an experiment in which they had to do a puzzle and one group was told, “You’re so good, you’re great, you’re great with puzzles, you’re so smart.” And then another group got feedback about the process of what they were doing: “Oh, so you’re looking for the corners first. Oh, I see that you group them by color. Wow, it’s nice to see that you don’t give up.” And then they asked both groups of children if they wanted to try a harder puzzle and it turns out the ones that were praised about their smarts were not as likely to want to take on a challenge, whereas the ones who were given feedback about what they were doing were more eager to take on a challenge. Your question reminds me of that. It’s hard to know what to say because it depends a lot on the circumstances, on the child, but my first thoughts have to do with what’s the meaning, whether it’s really a failure, what’s the meaning of it, about how sometimes we always constantly “fail” in life. What can we learn from that experience? I think what would be important is how not to let those failures define completely who they are, but how they may balance the exaggerated sense of extraordinary ability.
Megan: Is there something you would like to leave us with to remind us about the positive aspects of using our narratives in a way that is helpful for us?
Margarita: Especially in these times that are so, so difficult in many ways, how do we want to be? What grain of sand do we want to contribute, or can we contribute to the difficult world in which we’re living? And if we can have access to the best of ourselves, we may be better able to get closer to what we want to achieve or what we want to contribute. I think right now, the way I see the things, contribution is probably more in our minds than achievement.