People often shoot themselves in the foot, and so do characters. There’s a narrative reason for it. Happened to me today, but THIS time I dodged my own bullet. Here’s how I stopped following that storyline – something you can use for yourselves and for the characters in your stories as well.
On a diet this morning (as always). Got caught up in conversation and poured too much milk in my Honey Bunches of Oats. It’s only a few calories, but then I know I’m over my limit right from the get-go and it will hang over my head all day: diet ruined at breakfast. So, I feel like I’ve failed and spend the rest of the day trying to make up for it by cutting back everywhere else. In short, I’m miserable all day long.
That’s my usual narrative. But then I realized that wasn’t the only narrative I could create. In fact, I didn’t create this one at all. It was all based on being raised not to waste food or money. So even though it was just 15 cents of milk, once it is poured, it must be consumed.
THAT narrative was so long and practiced that it became a given – a storyline that filtered my thinking and eliminated potential options and solutions before I even considered the issue at hand. And so, the simple notion of simply pouring out the extra milk to lose the calories and feel good about my breakfast would normally never even occur to me because it violated the first narrative of never wasting food or money.
You see we, and the characters that represent us, are full of justifications. These are not bad nor good but just narrative that we have learned to rely on to get through life, to protect ourselves, and to streamline our decision making processes. But when we’ve engaged in those narratives long enough, they never come to the conscious mind for reconsideration. They become blinders that limit our alternatives to only those that don’t violate the governing narrative. So, every new issue becomes a subordinate sub-story to the guiding narratives of our lives.
How do you bust out of that storyline? For that matter, how do you even recognize that their might be other alternatives when experience tries to keep you from thinking outside the narrative? Simple. Whenever you encounter a situation that appears to be a dilemma (e.g. I want to diet but there’s too much milk), stop before acting and ask yourself when did the problem start? I had no problem with my diet. The problem only began when I poured in too much milk. So, fixing THAT is the first place to look for a solution.
How can I make my breakfast the way it needs to be? Just pour out fifteen cents worth of milk. But I can’t! But then I think, I eat it as is and am miserable all day. But if I waste fifteen cents of food and money, My bowl of oats will be just the way I want it and I’ll be happy all day. So, in essence, I can buy a whole day’s worth of happiness for fifteen cents, or I can hold onto that money and be unhappy. Gee. Gosh. What should I do? Right.
I can buy a whole day’s happiness for a dime and a nickel. Isn’t my happiness worth fifteen cents?
Imagine, then, as I look back and think about all the times I’ve allowed myself to be in a bad mood for hours or even days when some little inexpensive fix could avoid all that if I’m just willing to violate a narrative code I don’t even know I’m limited by?
Now sure, in case you are wondering, sometimes the right choice is to eat the cereal and go off the diet – there’s no right or wrong choice as it all depends on context. But, if you have a long-term commitment going (like a diet or earning a degree or finishing a jig saw puzzle) one single moment of exception isn’t likely to indicate you need to junk your whole plan. Rather, keep alert to see if a series of exceptions begin to crop up, as that is usually the best indicator that maybe you need to change plans or change course.
But, for a single exception – a dilemma where you face displeasure if you stick to your guns – then consider changing the exception side of the equation – the figurative bowl of cereal with too much milk. Often it will turn out that the only reason you have an apparent dilemma is because you are locking two points, not just one. You won’t go off your diet and you won’t pour out the milk.
Try to listen to your thoughts when you say, “Rats! I poured too much milk in my cereal. Now I have to go off my diet and eat it.” Ask yourself why you have to eat it. “Because I’m hungry.” Why not eat part of it? “Because I can’t waste food.” And the minute you hear yourself say “because” or “I can’t” or especially, “Because I can’t” you know there’s another narrative at work beyond the one you can see.
When faced with a dilemma, always question your givens. Then you choose: Which is worse, making an exception to my diet narrative or making an exception to my “don’t wast food” narrative. Almost always, one narrative will be more flexible than the other – more acceptable for making exceptions.
And if you can’t bring yourself to make an exception in either narrative. Well then you’re pretty much screwed. But how often does that happen? Mostly you just need to train yourself to see that there are two sides that can give on a dilemma. When you find yourself unhappy with a situation, before anything else, identify those two sides: Desire to diet and too much food already served.
Then, test each side to see how resolve the issue – side one, go off diet (at least today) and side two (waste some food).
Today, for the first time ever, I put my hand over the bowl leaving a little open area and poured out the excess milk. I did this without guilt and without regret AND without permanently disbanding the “don’t waste food” narrative. I simply chose in which narrative I would make an exception.
And THAT is the fifteen cent happiness fix: One, identify the conflict that is the source of your displeasure. Two, identify the narrative that drives each side. Three, choose the side in which making an exception will be the least unacceptable.
The character is your story can suffer those kinds of dilemmas forever, because that is what we as real people do ever day and all day long. So use this kind of justification to create characters who are troubled in realistic ways. But in your own life, why not use the fifteen cent happiness fix to unload the gun you use to shoot yourself in the emotional foot?
–Melanie Anne Phillips