Narrative Dissonance

In my previous post, I mentioned something I was trying to get better at:

I grew up with a lot of specific cultural narratives about how a lot of parts of life were supposed to work. This has left me with some weird subconscious expectations that don’t really materialize except as cognitive dissonance when they aren’t being met. Noticing these is extremely difficult, but weeding them out tends to be rewarding.

I want to expand on some of the stuff in there.

Scripts

A huge portion of our regular social interactions run on scripts without meaningful deviation. In North America, “How’s it going?” as a greeting is universally answered with “Fine”, “Good”, or maybe “Not too bad”. When you run into an acquaintance on the street, there are rules for that conversation depending on exactly what kind of acquaintance they are. Even within closer, more intimate relationships we often build up our own little set of custom scripts: habits, in-jokes, little snippets of call-and-response.

While a lot of these scripts are developed through practical experience and explicit teaching, they are also woven through our culture. Recall your parents teaching you to say “Please” and “Thank you”, and then realize that you also had that behaviour modelled for you in books and television, by neighbours, by teachers, and by random strangers in the grocery store. This is how children are socialized.

While “Please” and “Thank you” form a simple, consistent script that is relatively easy to apply, many scripts are much more complicated. Perhaps they’re simply more complex, and are used less often. Perhaps there is disagreement on how the script should go, depending on which segment of society you ask.  Perhaps we are even socialized into the script before we are given the opportunity to practice it.

Narratives

Everything that applies to scripts also applies to narratives: the stories we tell about ourselves and others that help us make sense of the world. Whether you believe conscious will is simply post-hoc justification or not, everyone narrates their life in some sense. “Everyone is the hero of their own story”.

As children we are presented with various narratives we can adopt for our lives. Broadly painted examples of these could be an academic narrative, an athletic narrative, a religious narrative. Every person tells their story differently, piecing together parts of the socially “standard” narratives and shaping these around their actual experiences in order to create a unique whole.

We may make the choice of our narrative, but our narrative then dictates the rest of our choices to us. While many people probably believe that they’ve thought long and hard about all of their major life choices, the truth is somewhat more mundane. As Sartre pointed out, humans have a rather radical form of freedom (assuming you believe in free will at all). Consider making a wild and unexpected major life change: quitting your job/education in favour of a radically different field, going to live on the other side of the world, or whatever it may be for you. The reason you aren’t making that change today is probably something about consequences and risk and how the life you have isn’t so bad. But you could do it. Whether you do it or not, you probably hadn’t even considered the option until you read this paragraph. In practice nobody actually evaluates all their options on a regular basis; there’s just too many of them. Instead, we only evaluate the things that fit in our narrative. In this way our chosen narrative guides our life much more concretely than we might believe.

Dissonance

All that said, sometimes life calls for extreme measures. Maybe you’re one of the few people who reached a breaking point today with their life and are actually considering making a major change to their narrative. Of course it seems scary.

It’s also hard. Forcing yourself to do things counter to your current narrative produces all kinds of crazy cognitive dissonance. You’re actively threatening your own identity, and the fact that clearly part of you wants to make that change ends up setting you at war with yourself. Unless you’ve fully bought into a new narrative at an emotional level, this can be extremely destabilizing both mentally and emotionally. (Tangentially, this is the fundamental flaw in stoicism for me – our minds have very limited control over our emotional buy-in to our own narrative).

This isn’t to say it’s impossible. People definitely do sometimes have epiphany moments where their whole outlook on life shifts at a fundamental emotional level. But it’s not nearly as simple as declaring it will be so. If you’re clever, and patient, you can make big changes slowly. A river can change its course dramatically and gradually, one pebble at a time. But if you get impatient and try to throw a big boulder in your river? You’ll just end up wet.

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