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If telling stories makes us human, are emotions the culprit of our addiction to our narratives?

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

Photo credits to S O C I A L . C U T
If telling stories makes us human, are emotions the culprit of our addiction to our narratives?

Pass the Mic Podcast Series is an unscripted group discussion born out of AcornOak’s belief in the power of many voices.

Each episode begins with one question asked of a small group of open-minded and passionate individuals who explore complex and difficult concepts with curiosity, uncertain beliefs, and the willingness to objectively listen and learn from the shared insights of others.

Our fifteenth episode discusses the power of narratives.

Starting the Conversation

As the podcast host, Virginie Glaenzer paved the way for this conversation led by Aditi Khorana about the nature of stories and the ways they shape our understanding of the world.

Welcoming Our Guests

We were honored to welcome our panel of special guests eager to discuss how many of our narratives as a society have been centered around heroes and their conquests.

Aditi Khorana is a former journalist and author of novels: Mirror in the Sky (Razorbill/Penguin, 2016) and The Library of Fates. She spent parts of her childhood in India, Denmark, and New England. She has worked as a journalist at ABC News, CNN, and PBS, and most recently as a marketing executive, consulting for various Hollywood studios including Fox, Paramount, and Sony. The upcoming Library of Fates (July 2017) is feminist historical fantasy, set in ancient India, and tells the story of a louche, misogynistic dictator overthrowing an idyllic kingdom, and the women who fight to wrench it back from his hands.

Lisa Gill is an organizational self-management coach and Reimaginaire. She is an accredited trainer for Tuff Leadership Training. Lisa helps companies become self-managing entities. She facilitates leadership courses in a more adult-adult coaching style of leadership. Lisa also hosts the Leadermorphosis podcast, where she interviews thought leaders and practitioners from all walks of life.

Jonathan Cook, Commercial culture researcher and consultant. Jonathan specializes in using immersive methods to uncover and explore the deep cultural patterns, emotional motivations, narrative structures, and ritual experiences that enable enduring value in an increasingly disconnected commercial culture. He hosts This Human Business, a podcast exploring the place for human experience in a world of commerce increasingly characterized by automation, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.

Listen to the tour de table introduction of our participants.

Key Shared Insights & Perspectives

What is the relationship between narratives and emotions?

We’ve told stories since men were men. Narratives and language shape our social order and create the world we live in. Telling stories allows our brains to operate as a collective by working cohesively. In that sense, storytelling binds people together. “Stories are a neutral technology that can be used in many different ways,” adds Aditi.

Yet, stories can also manipulate us by being more than informative about our state of being. “Emotions are stories”, says Jonathan, “We choose emotions to tell the story of whether we are to be hopeful or we should feel despair. Stories and emotions become our ready tools to find meaning in our experiences.

Listen to Aditi describing the purpose of telling stories.

When is it time to move away from a story?

When we are faced with a story that lacks meaning or doesn’t feel right anymore, it’s time to choose another kind of story.

Changing our stories and finding another narrative is not an intellectual process. Instead, a new story is an emotional experience and needs to be embodied.

Many authors are offering various perspectives worth checking out, including:

  • Theory U is a change management method and the title of a book by Otto Scharmer presenting “Seven Essential Leadership Capacities.”

  • In Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Matthew D. Lieberman explores the surprising new science of social interaction, investigating how our perceptions of others affect our cognition and how social interaction and its absence can produce the same mental responses as physical pain and pleasure.

Listen to Lisa sharing her view on our current paradigm.

What is the ego-death of a story?

When a story loses its utility and function, it means that we’ve reached the end of that story and to birth a new one, we must experience “ego-death” to separate ourselves from the attachments formed to the story. This process is physically like death because our body is changing as we shed into a new identity.

Stories have infiltrated everything, including science, where we’ve habited the hero story and accepted the hierarchy in nature with humans at the top. In the same way, the ever-popular Odyssey is an example of propaganda of the linear story model that always ends with a victory. As an example, the story, telling us that people change through willpower alone and courage relates to muscular strength, is a lie.

To craft a new story, as Aditi describes, it’s important to reconsider what courage means and find the energy and determination within ourselves to transform.

How can we deal with our emotions?

Everyone struggles with emotions in their life. In a previous episode on Anxiety, we discussed how learning to cope with our emotions is a personal responsibility and a path to freedom and personal growth.

Today, our group discussed how we tend to over-rationalize our emotions and, as a result, we’ve been conditioned to suppress them along with our natural physical reactions. Raising our awareness through mindfulness and meditation, can help us overcome this tendency. “If we can allow our emotions to be noticed, be with them and then sort of reorient,” says Lisa, “it’s like having your emotions instead of them having you.”

Recent therapies have been developed to help alleviate the trauma that is literally stored in the body resulting from emotional stress. Somatic experiencing is a form of alternative therapy aimed at relieving the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental and physical trauma-related health problems by focusing on the client's perceived body sensations. It was developed by trauma therapist, Peter A. Levine, author of Waking the Tiger.

If we allow our body to do what it's designed to do in times of distress, like uncontrolled shaking, we might not allow other people’s stories to hijack our nervous system by lying to ourselves. Lisa suggests the book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk M.D. that addresses the call to resist our emotions and “pull ourselves together” at the expense of our overall health.

One of the most taxing activities for the brain is to identify an emotion and then tell a story around it because the process involves connecting both hemispheres. Since men have traditionally been socialized to bury their emotions, they can find this difficult and often allow the hero story, in which they are powerful and can do anything, to take over.

In a way, we are addicted to avoiding our emotions. In How Emotions are Made, author Lisa Feldman Barrett presents the idea of “emotions granularity” which is similar to seeing many colors. Without sufficient vocabulary to name the wide range of emotions, we fall back on narrow explanations for our emotions which limits our ability to connect the experience with our deep feelings and self-care.

Listen to Jonathan share the reason behind why men are expressing the emotion of anger.

Is the story of loss a story of more?

We've been taught, since we were children, that the unknown is something to avoid at all costs. It's so wired into our systems that we have structured our lives and our bodies to outsmart uncertainty, granting us a false sense of security.

If narrative shapes our understanding and connection to the world, is there a story that could reestablish our lost connection to our body, nature, tribe, or trust in ourselves?

Today, we can clearly see that the hero narrative is fundamentally a singular, individualistic story that no longer serves us and it is time to let it go.

We’ve entered into an era of disillusionment as we learn that we’ve been living in fictions all along. Stories like American exceptionalism and the American Dream are falling away, so we feel grief and a sense of loss.

While the hero story has a singular, linear focus, its replacements must be multi-dimensional and feature varied protagonists. By letting go of the “Me” story for a “We” story we make room for others to lead as new collective and individual stories emerge, such as “What makes us a good global citizen?”

Listen to Aditi and Jonathan describing the story of loss that rocks us to our foundation and why it might be the exit we’ve been searching for.

Individual Take-aways

As we came at the end of the hour, our group concluded the discussion in the same way we started, with a tour de table. Each participant had the opportunity to reflect on what they heard and share their take-aways from the conversation.

Final Thoughts to Consider

Covid-19 is breaking many of our age-old societal narratives centered around the hero and its conquests. In most of these stories, we are the hero trying either to embrace a new role or to shake off an identity that is obsolete.

Yet, when we attempt to construct a story based on our emotions, it is often misleading because most people lack the language to fully understand the granularity of their feelings. With our current knowledge of neuroscience and psychology, we know that the stories our brains tell us about reality are extremely compelling, even when they are flawed.

So how are emotions tied to our narratives and are those emotions to blame for our addiction to our stories?

Jonathan pointed out and our group agreed that “emotions are stories.

The culprit in this relationship might be our attachment to those stories that turned into our identities, which we feel driven to protect.

The key is to recognize the false sense of security our familiar stories provide and summon the inner courage to give them up. The resulting sense of profound loss will enable us to embrace new narratives for our personal and collective future.

Only then, can we see storytelling more objectively - as a human tool with the power to bind people together and cultivate empathy for the greater good.

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