Narratives That Heal, Narratives That Hurt

4 min read
Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

Source: Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

Personal narratives are declarations we make about our lives and experiences. They often serve as tacit explanations for experience. For example, “the resourceful me” and “the victimized me” narratives declare and explain experiences with far-reaching effects on self-building. If we think about our experiences deliberately, they seem like narratives because the conscious mind molds various symbols into coherent connections of events, much as it does with dreams. It elevates coherence over accuracy.

Expressing experiences—or merely putting them into words—weaves a tighter coherence, with more room for inaccuracies. Expressions tend to be declarative: This is the way it is. True or not, conscious declarations create an illusion of truth.

Descriptions of experiences are subject to something like the observer effect in physics, which holds that we cannot measure a particle without changing it. For example, “I feel sad” does not express my actual experience; rather, I’m changing it by interpreting it with words. In addition, my brain loads into implicit memory; other times, I feel sad and weave a coherent, if inaccurate, narrative from those varied experiences as I speak.

There’s good news in the elusive accuracy of narratives: We’re free to create those that repair mistakes and promote health and well-being as they build a stronger sense of self.

The Narratives We Create

Narratives that hurt make us repeat self-defeating mistakes. The following is an example of a client’s narrative about his failed marriage:

I own that my behavior was emotionally abusive to my wife. But that’s not the reason the marriage failed. We were incompatible to begin with. She never appreciated me, how hard I worked at a job I hated or how hard it was in my childhood. I’m being brutally honest with myself now. I never stood up for my own needs, and I don’t blame her for that. I’ve learned from my mistakes and will look for someone I’m compatible with, who will appreciate me and meet my needs.

The above was pieced together from unconscious fragments of hurt and vulnerability embedded with cognitive biases and ego-defenses. The result is coherent but inaccurate and guaranteed to cause more hurt. Uncorrected, it will lead to more failed relationships and more emotional abuse.

Narratives that heal are those that repair mistakes and promote health and well-being. The following is my client’s revised, therapy-inspired narrative about his marriage:

My marriage was a series of mistakes. I never saw my wife through the haze of my self-obsession. I thought I was generous, but I only gave her gifts to manipulate the response I wanted from her. When she understandably felt manipulated, I became enraged and emotionally abused her.

I resented that she couldn’t see me when all I revealed to her were symptoms and defenses. We may have been incompatible from the start but there’s no way of knowing that because I never knew the real me, much less showed it to her. Even now, I struggle to peer through my own remorse and grief to see her as the complex person she is.

I’ve learned that I can escape the prison of self-obsession through self-compassion and desire to heal and improve my life. I will heal my hurt, rather than blame it on her. I will turn my guilt and shame into compassion for myself and for the people in my life.

The above was also pieced together from unconscious fragments of hurt and vulnerability but was fused with a desire to heal and improve. Therapy provides an enhanced form of coherence to fragments of memory. You can accomplish this yourself if you forego blame and instead focus on healing and future repair.


  • Brainstorm a narrative about your troubled relationships or failures.
  • Redo the narrative with a focus on healing and repair.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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