Life as a narrative driven by dominant thoughts

Life as a narrative driven by dominant thoughts

When I first encountered cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) along with concepts like cognitive distortions, mental biofeedback and emotional accounting, I started to pay really close attention to all my beliefs, thoughts and everything else that was happening in my mind.

By paying close attention to my thoughts I finally saw the main connections. Your thoughts really are closely connected to your emotions. The more distorted and weak your thoughts are, the more you must deal with self-sabotage, negative feelings and low self-worth.

Your thoughts also greatly influence your future. They’re kind of small instructions or commands for who to become. They impact your selection of words, phrases, responses and finally actions. That’s where the wisdom that you become what you think comes from.

By being more attentive to my own thoughts, I became also attentive to the (expressed) mindset and thinking of other people – the people I coach, people I have intriguing discussions with or even my close friends.

Asking them thousands of questions helped me identify their core beliefs, values and dominant thoughts. Two very interesting patterns emerged.

Dominant negative thoughts

As a rule, people who experienced any kind of severe negative emotions for a longer period of time (anger, sadness, anxiety, greed etc.), also had a very strong inner critic together with impossible standards, and very convincing cognitive distortions supported by false beliefs (and contamination narrative as we'll see).

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Consequently, all the distorted thoughts and impossible standards towards yourself make reality appear much darker than it is. There’s always something that isn’t good enough, no matter how favorable life is. You are constantly at war with yourself.

But over time, I noticed one even more interesting pattern. You have probably heard of the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule. The rule states that for many events, roughly 80 % of the effects come from 20 % of the causes.

Practical examples of the Pareto principle are: 80 % of your sales come from 20 % of your clients, fixing top 20 % of the most reported bugs also eliminates 80 % of related errors and crashes, you wear 20 % of your clothes 80 % of the time.

I noticed that the Pareto principle also rules cognitive distortions (or negative thoughts). There are a few negative thoughts that people think over and over again in a specific time frame.

Some more permanent cognitive distortions are connected to identity (negative self-labeling, for example), other more fluid negative thoughts to specific negative life situations. But even fluid negative thoughts find a way to persist – when one negative situation passes, there is always something new that the negative mind fixates on.

There are negative thoughts that you’re repeating in your head over and over again, every single day. These are your dominant negative thoughts that support your core harmful beliefs. Even more, they often keep you caught in a constant negative emotional state and feeling of low self‑worth.

Beliefs thoughts habits

How to identify your dominant thoughts

Our brains love patterns (we see them even where there none) and negative thoughts are no exception to that. Your brain loves to repeat negative (or positive) thoughts.

The big irony is that even if you think the same thoughts over and over again, you are often not even aware of them. They are just present in your head, they stir your life in a negative direction, but you are rarely consciously aware of them.

Dominant thoughts are the ones that shape your life the most. Positive thoughts in a positive way, negative thoughts in a negative one. Consequently, identifying your thinking patterns can be extremely beneficial. And it’s actually quite easy to identify them. Here are a few suggestions how to achieve that:

  • Every day, write down your first thoughts when you wake up
  • Observe your thoughts when you’re alone or when you’re driving in a car
  • What are your thoughts before you enter the office
  • Write down your most frequent words and phrases in discussion with people
  • Identify your thinking patterns when you’re experiencing negative emotions
  • What are your thoughts when mini frustrations happen – somebody cuts you off on the road, you wait in line for a longer period than others, your computer freezes etc.
  • What are your thoughts when you meet a person you know
  • What are you thinking about most of the time

You usually have the same debates with the same people. It can be business, kids, sports, whatever. You talk about 20 % of things, 80 % of the time. People usually complain about the same things over and over again. A job they hate, kids that take too much energy, a lack of money etc.

Every single time you meet them, they bring up the same or very similar complaints. The same goes for you, just from other people’s perspective.

Here are some examples how to identify thinking patterns:

Event trigger Thinking pattern (automatic thought) Underlying belief
Somebody cuts you off What an asshole I’m being treated unfairly
You see your boss What an asshole Nobody respects me
You wake up Not another day Life is dull and boring
You make a mistake How could I have made such a mistake? I never do things right

After a few conversations with a person, you can quickly identify their main thinking patterns (or your own). Then you can analyze how distorted their thoughts really are, what kind of beliefs they support, and how they drive values and actions. The 5 Whys technique can help you to easily find a connection between automatic thought and underlying belief.

Humans fancy that there's something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next. – Robert Ford, The Westworld

Identifying the main thinking patterns quickly exposes personality chunks like:

  1. Identity – How you see yourself
  2. Beliefs – Main ideas about life that you agree with and validate.
  3. Values – All the ideas that are important to you, things you like or those you tend to avoid
  4. Attention – What you focus your limited mental resources on the most
  5. Behavioral habits – Behaviors that you repeatedly perform
  6. Thinking habits (thinking patterns) – Repeating thoughts that go through your head most of the time
  7. Emotional habits (emotional states) – Dominant emotional states you are experiencing most days

Now do a simple analysis. Write down 2 – 3 things you think and talk about with other people most of the time (career, money, sports etc.) – that’s where most of your attention is. Why are these things important to you? What are the thoughts that you think about these things over and over again? Are they negative or positive? What kind of beliefs and values do these thoughts support?

Then analyze how your actions are congruent with your words. Things that you mention in conversation are always somehow important to you. Find out why. And there is always some gap between your words and actions.

What you talk about is who you ought to be, and what you do is who you currently are.

My thinking patterns are shaped more or less around proving myself with intellectual creating. I constantly ask myself how I can be more productive, which new things I will create, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that, until it escalates to the point where I forget to enjoy life, or when my self-worth suffers because I don’t get enough praise and admiration.

Understanding what your mind is focused on and what your dominant thinking patterns are can reveal a lot about how your mind is programmed; and that gives you a chance to reprogram yourself. But let’s take everything even a step further. Let’s look at how your dominant thoughts shape your life narrative and your life story.

Life as a narrative

Life as a narrative is shaped mostly by your dominant thoughts

I’m a big fan of the TV show called Westworld. If you don’t know the show, the scene is set in a Wild West themed futuristic amusement park populated by androids called hosts. The park is meant for rich paying customers to live out their fantasies without any consequences. It’s a brilliant conjunction of the past, future, human nature, and technology.

One very intriguing part of the show is how hosts are designed. At first glance, it seems that hosts (AI robots) follow their daily lives in interaction with real people more or less by following carefully prepared scripts with little to no improvisation.

They’re repeating behavioral patterns (or loops) based on the dedicated role in a specific park’s story. But there is much more to the host’s roles, which gives them more human nature. These human elements also help them to slowly develop self-consciousness during the show’s episodes.

Here are the human elements I have in mind:

  • Purpose: Each host is driven by something particular, something that gives it a purpose. That which gives the hosts purpose, can also drive them mad, if they don’t find a way to fulfill it.
  • Backstory: The hosts are always given a backstory, with cornerstone memories that anchor their lives. These backstories are usually tragic and painful events. They provide obstacles and the host’s job is to overcome them. These backstories support the fact that a little trauma can be illuminating.
  • Identity layers: The rest of their identity is built around the backstory, layer by layer. It influences all other aspects of their lives – from beliefs to values, understandings and decision making.
  • Thinking and behavioral loops: They repeat very similar phrases, react in the same way to similar life situations, and they have a default outlook on life that defines their main emotional states.
  • Awakening: The main thing that led the hosts to their awakening was suffering explicitly – the central trauma caused by the pain that the world is not as they want it to be.

The dialogues in the show, especially when the park’s creator Dr. Ford is involved, extensively discuss the basics of human nature, especially in relation to droids and how they’re built.

Understanding basic human nature is a very important puzzle of the show’s story, since hosts are slowly developing consciousness and becoming more human-like. Namely, with consciousness comes free will and that also brings the additional burden of primal human instincts.

In summary, these main human instincts presented in the show are:

  • The will to survive and dominate others: We humans are alone in this world for a reason. We murdered and butchered anything that challenged our primacy.
  • The urge to be attractive and reproduce: The human intellect was like peacock feathers. Just an extravagant display intended to attract a mate.
  • The desire to transcend death by creating: An old friend once told me something that gave me great comfort. Something he had read. He said that Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died. They simply became music.
  • Dealing with internal and external conflicts: I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden, a weight, and we have spared them [droids] that. Anxiety, self-loathing, guilt. The hosts are the ones who are free.
  • Character weaknesses: Never place your trust in us. We're only human. Inevitably, we'll only disappoint you.

Now let’s explore how these android behavioral designs can help you explore and understand your own life. Seeing yourself as an android (or an AI robot with your body as an avatar) can give you a unique perspective and help you analyze your beliefs, thinking patterns and even more importantly understand yourself better.

Westworld host

Around which things is your identity shaped?

Let’s start with a simple exercise. Take a 3rd person perspective and imagine yourself as a droid. Imagine that you are a robot, imagine that your body is nothing but a piece of mechanical equipment.

Your current environment is the amusement park where you play a very particular role dedicated only to you. Imagine that someone wrote the code for how you behave and respond, who you encounter and what you experience in life. Nothing is random and everything is carefully scripted.

Now comes the main question – what is your identity shaped around? Especially think about the purpose that is driving your “android” and the backstory around which your identity is built. Take a piece of paper and write down the main narrative, as if you were describing yourself as a droid in the modern Westworld.

You could go very broadly in this analytical exercise. You could list down your main beliefs, the hierarchy of values, cognitive strategy, strengths and weaknesses, list of knowledge and skills and other competences, and so on.

But that is not the point of this exercise, since those are very common self-analytical exercises. You want to discover something new, something that is very focused on how your life is unfolding and towards what your thinking patterns incline.

Thus, focus only on the following:

  • Your purpose – what drives you through life the most but also sometimes drives you insane
  • Your backstory – which past tragic or painful situations marked your life the most
  • Your life narrative – how is your life narrative shaped around the backstory and how are your personality layers built around the events that marked your life the most
  • Your repeating thoughts, patterns and emotions – what kind of thoughts, responses, habits and emotional states do you repeat throughout the day
  • Awakening – based on your painful backstory, what do you have to learn about life, which obstacles must you overcome and what kind of wisdom can you develop

Focus exclusively on these five elements. Describe every bullet point in one or two sentences, not more. Try to focus on the main idea of your life’s narrative.

My big realization when I did this exercise was that my childhood was shaped extensively by different kinds of psychological suffering – I witnessed severe versions of all four types of unhealthy psychological coping mechanisms (fight, flight, freeze, fawn), unhealthy attachments and toxic systems.

The backstory is painful, as it ought to be, but it also represents the way to salvation and illumination. It gives me a chance for a unique contribution to the world.

[As humans we can be caught in] A prison of our own sins. ‘Cause you don't want to change, or cannot change. Because you're only human after all.

Past and future

The contamination and redemptive narrative

I was struggling to end this article in a more practical way, until an email with a link to “The two kinds of stories we tell ourselves” from the TED blog landed in my inbox at that very moment.

Reading the TED blog post showed me a very solid connection between Westworld sci-fi and a very practical use of life narrative and stories. It’s very surprising how well droid design fits with real life.

Psychological research (or more exactly the research of Daniel McAdams) shows that with storytelling, we make sense of our identities. We put different stories from our life into a narrative, which enables us to understand our lives as a coherent whole. And coherence gives meaning to life.

The coherent story you’re telling yourself about your life is called the “narrative identity”. Like every good story, the “narrative identity” also has positive and negative events that determine the plot, challenges that need to be overcome, people who help and block efforts, and the denouement of some form of pain, conflict and struggle.

Understanding “narrative identity” and stories plays a key role when it comes to human empathy. We share parts of our life stories with others when we want to be understood, and to better understand others, we need to know their life stories. Life stories and identity narrative help you better understand yourself and others.

Even more importantly, your life narrative is not a sum of everything that happened to you in the past. You tend to focus on a few extraordinary events, positive or negative ones.

These are the experiences that shape your personality the most. But a very important difference is how you interpret these life events. That makes the key distinction of how your identity, beliefs, values and life narrative are shaped.

In general, based on Daniel McAdams’ research, your life narrative can unfold in two different ways:

  • Redemptive narrative: The redemptive narrative tells the story of a life where tragic events brought something good with time. For example, how poverty brought a family closer together. In other words, the suffering and pain bring awakening and redemption.
  • Contamination narrative: In the contamination narrative, people see tragic events as a turning point where their life went from good to bad. They tend to end the stories with a negative connotation and don’t see the awakening potential in tragic events.

Logically, people who tell themselves a redemptive narrative about their life stories tend to have a stronger meaning (purpose). Even more, their lives are defined by growth, they contribute more to the society, and they are generally more proactive. They are also less prone to anxiety and depression.

The more aware we are of the story we want to tell with our lives, the clearer our choices for the future can be. – Dan McAdams

The best news is that your interpretations of your life stories and narrative (or frame) are not fixed. With cognitive reframing and other cognitive exercises, you can find more positive interpretations of your life stories. You can make small edits that will have a great impact on your life. If you read my life narrative, you can see that it goes from bad to good, it’s focused on redemption.

You have the power to edit, revise and find more positive interpretations of your life stories (in other words re-frame them), while still being constrained by the reality and facts of the past. You can always rewrite your life stories, including tragedies, in a more meaningful and positive way. In the center of everything is finding meaning in your hardships by adopting a positive identity.

Maybe we weren’t talking only about fiction after all?

Contamination or redemptive narrative

Homework

Rewrite your thinking patterns and reframe your life narrative

It’s time for me to share concluding thoughts and for you to do the exercises. First, describe your life narrative, purpose and backstory as if you were a droid; then identify your thinking patterns (negative and positive) that you repeat over and over again. When it comes to negative thinking patterns, you can help yourself with the categorization of cognitive distortions.

After the analysis, it’s time to rewrite your thinking patterns and reframe your life narrative:

  • With emotional accounting, make sure to turn your negative thinking patterns into positive ones
  • With cognitive reframing, find a more positive note to your life stories
  • Finally, make sure that your life narrative is a redemptive one, and that tragic (or positive) events that shaped your life the most lead you towards wisdom and awakening

Remember, your thoughts and interpretations of life events shape your past, present and future. You repeat 20 % of the thoughts (when you are alone, in discussions etc.) approximately 80 % of the time. You can see your extraordinary life events as either positive or negative.

That is driving your life in a certain direction. With different cognitive exercises, you can make sure that the direction is a positive one and that your life is full of meaning.

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