Trapped in Stories?

Last weekend, the psych blogger at Had Enough Therapy? blogged about a very sad woman who, to sum up a lot of mess, had her life dictated by the stories she found around her. Her existence post-college was determined by the stories she latched onto. This was not healthy, and I don’t think she will do well as time passes. Her story would have been fine – as the plot of a modernist literary novel. For a real person? Not good.

So, why was she trapped in such terrible stories? I use trapped, because that’s what the blogger, Stuart Schneiderman, uses. “She is trapped in fictional roles, and thinks that that is all there is.”

I am not a therapist of any sort, nor do I have any training in psychiatry. I have read some Freud and Jung. I am an author, and a historian, someone who spends her time surrounded by stories. Some are true, some are True, others spring from my imagination. What struck me about the woman in the article was this: she’s her own main character. She puts herself into plots and stories, and lives life for a while as if those plots were everything, and that she had no choice but to follow the script.

At one point, she starts playing Strong Female Characters (modern version), and gets very unhappy because they are just, well, guys with female anatomy. At which point I sort of rolled my eyes and sighed. Yes, that’s what Hollywood is writing, because that’s what the women’s movement’s fringe has been declaring (at least until they started declaring that male and female are purely social constructs completely determined by your biology. [Don’t hurt your brain trying to follow the logic, please.]) So that’s the plot-line she will be asked to play.

What struck me through all of her sad litany is that she never, ever, looks around to see if there is anything greater than herself. She never asks if there is something else at the center of the world, of existence. She is the main character, the focal point, the omphalos. Everything that is, is around her, and the narratives that she adopts. Right there, I realized, is the core of a lot of her problem.

When you are not the center and cause of everything, then you don’t have to be tied to “the Narrative.” You have a lot more stories to choose from, a lot more ways to shape the roles that you choose to play, a lot more ways to see the world.

People all live first person singular. That’s just how we are. We’re not a hive mind, we’re not telepaths who can see through or into the minds of other people. But we don’t have to spend our lives as the victim of the stories around us.

Stories are powerful. They shape us in ways we know, and in ways we never quite understand. Look at how Western Civilization is still shaped by Christianity, even as “traditional religion” is being pushed away. That’s a mighty narrative. The stories we choose to live by are very, very important to our mental and even physical health. Which character do you choose to play? The class clown? The strong, silent hero? The office mother? The loner who notices what others miss? Mother? Father? Spiritual seeker and servant? Yes?

Some years ago, an aquaintance asked how I could be so certain about my beliefs. I replied that it was because I knew who I was, what my core identity was. With that and my religious faith as a foundation, it was relatively easily to discern what fit my world, what didn’t, and what I was and am content to let stay unknown or to ignore. The woman in the New York Times article has yet to find that core, so the stories around her steer her. I fear that she is not alone in that problem. I hope she finds help, and learns what script will bring her some peace and health.

Scripts are powerful. Choose them with care.

9 thoughts on “Trapped in Stories?

  1. Something common among many authors I enjoy (including a certain cat rotator) is that the protagonists are all based to or tied into reality, know their rocks or anchors, and also know or acknowledge limits. Some of these characters learned limits the hard way from pride, accumulated wear, or conflict. Their antagonists, most of which are evil or weak/influenced by evil masters, believe in a Narrative where they are not to blame for their place or outcomes in life. Someone else is to blame for it; it’s never their doing or their fault. Their personal story revolves around Someone or Something bad happening to them, that has to be fixed – usually right now, at great cost to someone else. These stories are very different, but most come to a similar conclusion: the Narrator has the book snatched from his hands, and gets whacked figuratively or physically with it; and the protagonists try to get on with life but now keep additional wary eyes out.

    Some folks need to just put the script down and go for a nice walk on a sunny day.

  2. I was trying to think of a metaphor to describe this woman’s problem, and all I could come up with was ‘self-licking ice cream cone.’

    She is trying to come up with a self based on stories, but a self is required to select the right stories in the first place…so we have a problem of infinite regress.

  3. Stories are a reduced order model, and so are a bunch of other things. History. Psychology. Economics.

    I’ve gotten a lot of good from some of these.

    Some sort of filter is essential. It is as fundamental a part of self defense as the physical techniques.

    When your core identity has information dependencies under the control of others, you will be unhappy. If they do not realize the dependency, simple churn will eventually happen on a combination that is unpleasant for your. If they do realize, the malicious will manipulate it for their ends. Relying on others knowing and controlling their information manipulation for your benefit is a fool’s game.

    Of course, the normally functioning sorts have the additional problem that their instinct is to assess the group consensus, and adjust some of their perceptions to that. Instinctual behavior is very hard to step back from, analyze, and then only do in a controlled fashion when you choose to.

  4. Did the blogger mention if there was any kind of therapy to help her? How did she get into this frame of mind? I can understand being influenced by stories but not trapped by them. However, I have problems that other people wouldn’t understand.

    • Schneiderman doesn’t say. When I skimmed the original article, I didn’t see any reference to Brit Marling (the original author) seeking any sort of help. She does mention trying to make films that portray the “right” sort of woman, one who is strong but is not a quasi-male. Perhaps that is a start.

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