The video of my July 21, 2021 Fireside Chat with Sandra Thompson of Ei Evolution about the stories we carry about ourselves and others, and how these stories can be used to understand the remote work/office culture dynamics:
This is the BEST BLOG POST THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN. Well, in truth, that’s rather doubtful. But, how often lately are we seeing claims in the news and on social media that proclaim that someone or something is the MOST (something) EVER? Far too often, in my opinion. It’s one thing for us to say that something is amazing or powerful, or that we think it’s the best, but by labeling something as the biggest, most, or best something the world has ever seen, puts it in a different category. Unless you have successfully accomplished a Guinness World Record or won the gold at the Olympics, or something of that nature, you are simply engaging in the lure of the absolutes. This self-aggrandizing narrative style is designed to construct the story of indisputable greatness or unquestionable “bad”ness, and often at the expense of reality. It is intended to impress and manipulate, often without earning the title based on facts and evidence.
So why do some employ these absolute narratives? For some, it may be that they feel the need to not only succeed, but to conquer any and all others who might garner the spotlight or challenge their view of themselves. In this place, it comes from a deep insecurity or narcissism, one that can only be filled with others’ admiration and/or fear. But there is also another reason for speaking in absolutes. This reason is also a false narrative, but it is more insidious. Sometimes absolutes are intended to gaslight, and to manipulate others by framing things into a more concrete, black or white way. It then becomes an all or nothing; complete domination or utter submission; the greatest economy ever seen by anyone anywhere ever, or the worst economy in the history of the world; the epitome of the good warrior savior hero who can do no wrong and is your only hope, or the most evil, corrupt villain who will rain terror down on you if you let them.
These are all just stories, of course, so why do people fall so deeply into these absolute versions of people and situations? There is a strange comfort in understanding and labeling everything and everyone around us. Most people, when asked, would say that they never judge and label people, but in truth, they would be mistaken. One of the mind’s jobs is to assess perceived threats in the world around us. It does this by taking in sensory data and running it through our memory stories and threads it through our current worldview. Then, it labels and packages those observations into stories; stories of: “This is good. I want more of this. I need to be part of this. I feel safe with this,” and: “This is scary. I need to stay away from this. This will harm me. I don’t want to be part of this,” triggering an emotionally-charged reaction narrative running through our minds. Many of our emotional reactions to people and places come from this internal labeling and classifying of people, things, and situations, even if we aren’t aware that it’s happening, or consciously wish it wasn’t. So, when someone provides the narrative messaging that simplifies the process for us, we may still feed it through our mind’s assessment system, but if we hear it often enough from someone who we may already have affinity for, or agree with on other things, and they say it so convincingly and repeat it often, it may just well stick and become a narrative we start believing too. And that, is one of the ways propaganda works, and we are all susceptible to it. However, awareness of the way in which it grabs a hold, is the key to seeing through it.
Propaganda loves to speak in absolutes. It is one of the clearest ways we can tell when we are being manipulated. And when those absolutes are repeated again and again, that’s another way propaganda takes hold in our psyche. There are other signposts of narrative manipulation to look out for as well, such as use of symbolism and imagery, but for now, the next time you see or hear someone using absolutes about themselves, a situation, or about someone else, start questioning the message being delivered. You may just break yourself free from a narrative that is not only not true, but is intentionally skewing your view of the world around you.
Have you ever experienced a time where you felt “between” things? Perhaps, between this phase of your life and the next? A time when there is no movement and no clarity on which way to go in your life, or no way to get where you think you should be. If so, you are in the liminal space, the threshold; the place where you wait. This place can be frustrating, disorienting, and scary, and can make you feel impatient to know what’s going to happen next, but there is a beauty to the emptiness of this space as well. It is the place where all possibilities live. From this spot, there are many potential roads and paths leading to all sorts of future moments.
“But, Nicole,” you may say, “I want to know where I will land next! I want to know where I will live, what I will be doing for work, what my life will look like going forward.” I get it. I’m in it with you. The place of liminality can create an anxiety that arises because we are not in control of what happens next. That can definitely be unsettling. We like to think that we can make a decision, make a plan to get it, and boom, it all unfolds exactly how we expected. But life is seldom like that. We have things we can control (to a point), by making certain choices and holding intentions for behavior and hopes, but life unfolds as it unfolds. It doesn’t always listen to our hopes and wishes, our commands, if it were.
The liminal space is clouded over with the haze of unseen paths.
Being in the liminal space where you’ve put out there what you hope for and then sit and wait to see what unfolds is an amazing challenge. It is the challenge of a surrender to your storyline. A surrender to the power of life to weave our story with or without our help. If you look back on your life as a story that has unfolded, where were those previous liminal spaces? What happened before them, and after them? How did you respond to life while you were in that space? It is an interesting exercise to see how our response affected what happened next…or didn’t. Or maybe, to see how our emotional reactivity and mental health was affected by how we responded in those moments. Right now, I am in between…in between the life I have and the life I feel is unfolding; unsure how to step from one to the other. How to make it happen. Can I actually make it happen? Or is it in the process of happening, and I’m just too blinded by impatience to see that it is? The liminal space is clouded over with the haze of unseen paths. We either run in one direction, risking the crash into the hidden brick wall, or we anxiously demand that the haze be lifted, so we can see what’s to be next. Or, and this is the really challenging courageous move, we wait, and breathe, and trust that we have put in motion all that is needed to move us along our paths, and carry on with our normal activities, allowing the path to clear when IT is ready to, and then move forward into the next space.
Right now, my liminal space looks like a concrete sidewalk with a concrete path leading forward off into the fog. There are flowers and birds chirping in my immediate surroundings at the center part of the space, but no matter how much I try to squint and see into the fog, I can’t. I pick up my phone and my computer and contact people and places, making calls and emails to connect to that next place, but each leads to a dead end, or…a “not yet.” If you are in this liminal space too, let me know what yours looks like, and we can breathe through it together.
In a school environment, a place where the education of the child is paramount, it is the attitudes and self-awareness of the teachers, administration, and parents that can often alter the atmosphere immeasurably, and allow real learning to take place. Learning does not consist solely of academic subjects, the arts, technical skills, and sports, but encompasses skills and ideas that can change an entire experience of a life down to its very core. Any school whose mission endeavors to be a “community of kindness” has its heart in the right place, but since a school community is made up of human beings, and human beings are complicated, sometimes minds can get stuck in stories of unkindness toward each other, without even being aware of the disconnection.
Building a healthy social-emotional school community involves several components: Identifying dysfunctional patterns, fostering strong interpersonal dynamics, clear communication skills and strategies, a conflict resolution plan, honesty, a focus on compassion and empathy, and a willingness to create a stronger school community for students, parents, faculty, and administration. By understanding the patterns of how and why we interact, with an emphasis on empathy and the stories we believe about ourselves, and each other, an authentic community of kindness can be realized.
Unstorying is a process in which a person, or a group, can first see these stories as constructed, and then, if willing, choose to see alternate stories, or eventually, be comfortable with no story at all; to endeavor to understand how and why the mind constructs these stories in the first place, and the vice-like grip it has on what we believe to be truth. The mind’s narrative is created through an initial experience, consisting of incoming sensory experiences, which in turn are interpreted through past thoughts and experiences – judgments, wounds, lessons learned – and then filtered through reactive thoughts, which consists of more interpretation, and then retold in a manner that best expresses the point you are trying to make to effect a response in the “other” on the listening end. If enough thoughts gel together closely enough, they create a construct – a matrix of identifications that form into the concept of a person and their personality, personal history, and interpersonal relationships. The thoughts create the reality, and the reality becomes the narrative that you live by. People see the world vastly differently from one another. And while the physical world may, for the most part, be seen to be the same, each person’s interpretations and derived meanings of objects and experiences vary greatly. This is where the concept of projection comes in. According to Anais Nin, “We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.” The particular wounds we carry in our own personal storylines inform the outward interpretation of the world around us, and these interpretive images consist of archetypal symbols and metaphors. Our identity, both internally and externally is guided by these images, and those same images projected outwards become our interpretations of others. According to C.G. Jung, “The effect of projection is to isolate the subject from his environment, since instead of a real relation to it, there is now only an illusory one. Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.” In other words, we experience others through this lens of our own story, whether we are aware of it or not. This circuit of reflections has no end, as our interactions with each other are experienced through this illusory view of the world, and therefore are indelibly linked to each other’s interpretive view of reality.
Unstorying contains these very simple, but very challenging ideas: When a reactive response occurs, and a judgment is made about someone or something, look to see whether it is absolutely true. Look to see why we might see it that way, and if what we are seeing is an interpretive assessment or an objective assessment. There are actually, surprisingly, very few objective assessments, much fewer than most of us would wish to imagine. If my opinion of myself or of another, or a situation, is a reactive judgment, then how do I know I am seeing them, or me, clearly? The second integral component is compassion. This compassion is not “niceness.” It emanates out of knowing that everyone is only operating out of his or her own stories, for the most part, completely unaware of this.
So how does this apply to a school community? Often, one group at a school will have an expectation of another group, such as parents towards teachers or administrators, or teachers towards administrators or parents, and so forth. When something occurs at a school, often there is an immediate reaction to how something “should have been done” or that someone “did something wrong.” This is often when an expectation of an action or behavior does not meet the expected response. Considering that our children are not only an important part of us, but we are tied in to them emotionally as well, everything becomes much more personal. When it feels that someone is not hearing us or that they are acting unfair, we react to that underlying story.
Many times, all it takes is a moment to ask why someone did something a certain way or made a particular decision. If one could step outside their judgment story, they might find that the decision made, or action taken, made sense and was a good call after all. Instead of giving people the benefit of the doubt, they jump to a story about why that person did that and assign malevolent or ignorant motivations when the truth may be much more innocent and benevolent. Ultimately, it once again boils down to stories.
What we believe about each other in our school community, or how we react to each other and others to us, affects the students’ school experience. What if everyone just assumed that we were all in this together? What if there were no us vs. them? That would be the epitome of a healthy school community. This is fairly common in any community, and that goes doubly so for educational communities.
What is important to ask ourselves is are we willing to step outside of our stories about each other and focus instead on what is most important – the education and well-being of our students and children. By being willing to look at how we carry around our stories of people and situations, we can more clearly and authentically interact with each other, and this, in turn, allows for more compassion and empathy in the school environment between all parties involved. So the next time a situation arises that brings about a strong emotional reaction, try to see what is the underlying story. Are you feeling like you bare not getting what you need, that you are not being heard, or that someone doesn’t care? If so, it may be that the current situation only appears that way because of the initial emotional reaction. Take the time to really find out, without the emotional charge, what has occurred, and then respond rather than react to whatever arises. This ability to respond clearly and productively can make the difference between a good decision and a poor decision, as well as perpetuate a constructed story of what you “thought” happened, rather than what was actually occurring. This process creates an authentic interaction, one in which compassion, empathy, and respect play a role. What a wonderful way to model healthy behavior and relationships with our children. What a wonderful way to interact in our daily lives. This is what enables a community of kindness to flourish, and in whatever community you may find yourself. Unstorying is not the absence of all story; it is the awareness that there is a story guiding how we are interpreting our world around us, and the willingness to have the vigilance to clearly see the stories we are living.
For more information, please contact Dr. Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org
 This quote has been attributed to Anais Nin, Seduction of the Minotaur, 124, although it has also been attributed to the Talmud.
 C.G. Jung, “The Shadow,” CW 9ii, para 17.
 Miller, Nicole. “Life is But a Story: A Depth Psychological, Religious, Philosophical, and Pop Cultural Perspective on Reality.” Not Ever Absent: Storytelling in Arts, Culture, and Identity Formation. Inter-disciplinary Press. 2013.
A student asked me: “I see my stories… So am I done?”
Un-Storying is not ultimately an intellectual process. The first stages can be seen that way, though, as we step back and see the constructed reality we’ve been living, and strive to understand how we’ve created it. That’s not to say necessarily, why things have happened TO you, but your perception of and interpretation of what it means. This part of the work can be rough, as we use the mind to look at the mind. But once this work has taken hold, and becomes the natural ongoing process, the next part begins.
If I am not my stories, then who, or what, am I really? If I am not a person with struggles, or a fortunate person, or a person who is happy/unhappy/victim/hero/etc, then how do I define myself.
THIS is the bigger work. Is it okay that you don’t have to know who or what you are? Must you have a definition in order to keep control over your experience of life? Can you sit still in silence with yourself and simply live? How does that feel? Is there resistance? If there is, then that points to the next underlying mind story to see and be with. Can you feel a deep compassion for yourself and for others, ALL others, even if your mind tells you otherwise? At this stage, the work focused on seeing that everyone and everything is made of that same stuff. What is THE STUFF? Well, that would once again cause us to intellectualize and label. Thereby separating ourselves from “the stuff”… Or that which simply is. This is not about anti-intellectualism, but about accessing a different type of wisdom. In this space, compassion fuels decision making, though it may not seem like a decision, as it simply becomes the natural response. It is jot about protection or fighting, it becomes about seeing,connecting, and feeling compassion.
This is not a hippy dippy, run through a field of flowers process. It is a rough road inward. One that does away with our beloved projections of ourselves and the world around us. It is at once brutal and liberating. There is no longer anyone to blame or rail against. There is only being alive. There is only the stuff of life daring itself to experience itself. THAT is the ultimate “goal” of un-storying. The goal to see that there is no goal. We are uncovering the reality within.