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Want More Positive Outcomes in Life? Give Yourself (and Your Kids) a Coherent Narrative

August 6, 2021

 A coherent narrative is how we make sense of the stories we've created for ourselves about the events that have transpired in our lives.

If we can talk about a past event in a fluid, congruent, and logical way, our narrative is coherent. If our story is disjointed, confusing, or missing parts that would be critical to understanding it clearly, our narrative is incoherent.

Why We Want a Coherent Narrative

We sometimes have an incoherent narrative when we've experienced a particularly stressful and/or traumatic event. An example might be an unexpected loss of a loved one or a pet. We may have a sense that we're "all over the place" when we talk about it. We feel disjointed and discombobulated. We may not even be sure how we got to this difficult point in our lives in the first place; we just know we're struggling. It may feel really, incredibly, insurmountably messy.

Conversely, with practice -- and sometimes with professional support -- adults can create a coherent narrative for their stressful or traumatic events. Perhaps we debrief about a stressful situation with a friend or partner; we might journal, pray, or meditate about it. We might work extensively with a therapist, if appropriate. Regardless, we "get it out" somehow and make sense of what happened.

Regardless of our method and emotional state, many of us have learned from experience that when we can get things off our chest and feel heard, we feel better. When we release our wounds by not only telling our stories, but also making sense of them, we can gain a greater sense of peace.

Making sense of our stories and forming a coherent narrative helps us heal. This is why it's important to consciously and intentionally process what's happened.

How exactly do we heal, though?

For both adults and children, there's great hope of creating a coherent narrative through intentional storytelling.

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Children Need Support to Form a Coherent Narrative

We know that keeping a difficult memory from the past bottled up could negatively affect our present and future wellbeing. At the same time, we all know the power and importance of healing. Coherence often comes from being able to essentially dissect a memory and makes sense of it.

For young children, however, this can be tricky for a variety of reasons.

For starters, children are still developing their sense of self. They're learning where they fit into their family, their school if they have one, and their place in their community. Their family patterns are just being established for the first time. They lack enough past experience to understand the context of situations, and how their ability to process them matters.

"Is my experience normal?" children might wonder. "Does everyone go through what I just did?" As a mere function of their young age, they've not yet had the opportunity to decipher all the patterns and schemas that are essential to understanding how life is supposed to work. Everything is normal to them because it's all they know.

Further, their language skills are not as developed as those of an older child or adult. It's certainly hard to form a coherent narrative if they don't even, quite literally, have the words to describe their story.

Moreover, emotional regulation and communication in general are new to them, as is developmentally appropriate. In fact, the part of their brain that's primarily responsible for making sense of situations, helping them plan, and helping them understand the consequences of their actions hasn't even fully matured yet. This part of the brain is called the prefrontal cortex, and it won't be completely developed until the child is approximately 25 years old (source).

Just because children are young, however, it doesn't mean they're likely to just "forget" an event of the past and move on from a negative experience. The brain doesn't work that way (as helpful as it might sometimes be if it did).

Subconscious Memories in a Coherent Narrative

As Bessel van der Kolk explains in his book, The Body Keeps the Score (afflinks), our bodies do indeed hold onto previous experiences, both negative and positive; both actively remembered and "forgotten." Further research exists in Dr. David Sinclair's Lifetime: Why We Age and Why We Don't Have To. It addresses how our genes store our life events and can directly affect our longevity.

Interestingly, as we now know from neuroscience, we have not just one type of memory, but two: implicit and explicit. Both types of memories are stored in our nervous system in meaningful ways. They can affect our physical and mental health.

Our implicit memories are the ones we don't actively remember. Often, they include experiences from when we were very young. Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. describes how it works in this video interview. She and Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. also address the concept in their best-selling parenting book, The Whole-Brain Child. Explicit memories are the ones we consciously remember.

Creating Coherence for Implicit Memories

If you're wondering whether it's possible to heal from and create a coherent narrative for memories we didn't even know we had, the answer is a resounding yes.

Whether we, or our children, clearly remember our experiences is, in some ways, of little importance. Of course, it's easier to create a coherent narrative when we have an obvious memory of an event that's transpired. It's not required, however.

Whether for ourselves or for our children, when we experience a feeling for what seems to be "no good reason," we can shift from dismissing the feeling to letting ourselves feel it. We can interpret the feeling as a messenger.

If this feeling had a voice, what would it be saying to us?

As Drs. Siegel and Bryson often say,

  • "Name it to tame it." When we name the emotion we're feeling, it helps minimize its "power" over us, and
  • "Feel it to heal it." This means that the most effective way to heal is to allow our feelings rather than suppress them.

For example, if sadness comes up for you when you walk past a lake you've never wandered past before, you might be inclined to wonder, "Why do I feel sad? It's beautiful here. I need to get over it and distract myself. I should be thankful for this view. What's wrong with me?"

It's quite likely that nothing at all is wrong with you. The images in front of you may be triggering something that's entirely out of your control, yet according to the content of an interpersonal neurobiology course by Dr. Dan Siegel, dismissing them won't address your authentic internal experience. (source)

What if, instead, you responded to your sadness in this example with, "Hmmm. I feel sad. Sadness, thanks for joining me. I don't know what's bringing you here, but walk with me as long as you need to." Befriending all our feelings, even those that have traditionally made us feel uncomfortable, helps us feel safer with them.

When we feel safer with our feelings, we can hear their messages more accurately.

We no longer need to run from ourselves. Instead, we can meet ourselves with self-compassion and gentleness.

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Oftentimes, we fear our own anger, in particular. It's not necessarily that we're afraid of the repercussions of our anger. Rather, we often want the anger itself to go away as quickly as possible. It's uncomfortable. When we reframe anger as a messenger, however, we can get curious about it and ask ourselves things like, "What am I needing right now?"

Anger sometimes tells us, for example, that we have an unfulfilled need that only we have the power to provide for ourselves. It may also be telling us that we have some work to do around setting boundaries.

We are responsible for meeting our own needs. This isn't to say we don't need other people; yet, no other person can ever be singularly responsible for our wellbeing.

Moreover, allowing ourselves to welcome our feelings rather than suppress them is a key to releasing whatever patterns we've been carrying, even if the patterns are unbeknownst to us.

The same is true for our children.

If a child seems to be having an "off" day for no discernible reason, or expressing their big feelings in ways that catch us off guard, we can get curious about them. We can hold space for those feelings.

We can model for them how to trust and accept their feelings by honoring their emotional experience, whatever it may be. We can help them make friends with their internal lives; to embrace their emotional journey. We can teach them not to run from their feelings, but instead, to welcome the integration of whatever their full experience is telling them.

A child's ability to engage in healthy communication with themselves later, when they're an adult, often rests on their family's welcoming ALL of their feelings when they're young. They learn whether their feelings are "safe" or "unsafe" -- even when those feelings arise for seemingly "no good reason."

A Note about Intergenerational Trauma

Trauma doesn't have to have happened directly to us for it to still be significant. Above and beyond subconscious memories from our own lives, intergenerational trauma may come into play, as well. Intergenerational trauma is defined as this:

"...trauma that gets passed down from those who directly experience an incident to subsequent generations. Intergenerational trauma may begin with a traumatic event affecting an individual, traumatic events affecting multiple family members, or collective trauma affecting larger community, cultural, racial, ethnic, or other groups/populations (historical trauma)..." (source)

An example might be a grandfather who experienced trauma by being on the front lines of a war; his stress may be carried on epigenetically in future generations. (source)

It's important to process whatever feeling comes up, even if the triggering event doesn't seem related to whatever feelings are arising.

It may not be our "stuff," but it might just be our stuff to heal.

In this video, Dr. Siegel shares his research around forming a coherent narrative to create a healing story. 

Creating a Coherent Narrative for Explicit Memories

When we directly remember experiences that need processing, one of the easiest ways to create a coherent narrative is to "replay" the events in question for in emotionally safe ways. We can use language that helps form healing memories about whatever's happened, and the emotional tools to deal with them.

I'll share an example of a recent day in my life with my husband and child. I'll share the same story twice; once with the event in factual terms without much of a coherent narrative, and again with narratives that helped my child know what to do with the information. As the adult doing the explaining, I also benefit from making sense of the story.

The Event Without a Coherent Narrative

Our family drove up a mountain. We didn't know we needed reservations to hike so couldn't get past the gate. We had to drive back down the mountain to get Internet access and reserve our time slot. Then we drove up again and had to wait. It started hailing before we could even reach the trail. We chose the wrong trail. We hiked for hours longer than we meant to. A spider fell from a tree and went down my husband's shirt, and when he tried to shake the spider off his hand, he threw his wedding ring into the woods and lost it forever. The car wouldn't start when we got back to it. Plus, it was my birthday.

What in the world just happened? It sounds rather negative, doesn't it? It also doesn't make a whole lot of sense as is; it's just a string of bad news.

If my child and I stayed with this as our narrative, it's entirely likely that we'd not have a healthy or peaceful memory of that day.

Even worse than telling the story about the day like this, is if I say nothing. If I say nothing to my child about the day, we both lack the opportunity to form a coherent narrative around it. The bad day simply stays a bad day. There's no "story" to make it better; it just lives on in blah-land.

The Event with a Meaningful Coherent Narrative

On my birthday this year, our family drove up a mountain to go hiking. It was such an adventure! We didn't realize we'd need a reservation, so when we reached the top of the mountain, we were turned away by the forest ranger at the welcome center. Unfortunately, there was no Internet access at the top of the mountain, but it was easy enough to drive back down the mountain and get Internet access. When we drove back down, we were able to get a reservation. I'm so thankful we didn't have to cancel our plans!
We had to wait only an hour for our allotted time slot once we were back at the top, which was the perfect amount of time for us to have lunch and stretch our legs a bit before the hike. Waiting turned out to be a gift, though, because a hailstorm started and we were still close enough to take cover in the car rather than being hailed on out in the wilderness somewhere.
Once the hail stopped, we started on our hike, only to realize that we'd taken a longer trail than we needed to take. On the bright side, it was more exercise and more time in nature -- called forest bathing -- so doubly beneficial! The scenery was incredible and we all felt so connected.
Towards the end of our hike, we had a surprise visitor -- a spider fell down from a tree and landed in the back of my husband's shirt! When my husband grabbed the spider and tried to shake it off, he accidentally tossed his wedding ring into the wilderness. If there's a bright side there, it's that our 10-year-anniversary is coming up and we've been renewing and healing our marriage. The opportunity for him to get a new ring later this year will be the perfect way to celebrate the healthy changes we've made.
Once we got back to the car, we realized the battery in my key fob had died and my car didn't start. With some creative thinking by the forest ranger and my husband, however, we found a way to start the car and drive back home. Plus, rather than having to throw together a rushed dinner, it was a good excuse to stop at the new pizza place I've been eyeing. Overall, despite its challenges, it was one of my favorite birthdays ever.

What changed?

As you likely noticed in this coherent narrative,

  • The story is much more fluid
  • I've used emotionally positive terms for my child and me to attach to our memory of the day
  • For my child's and my own mental health, I've opted to suggest focusing on the positive aspects of the negative events that transpired that day

Making sense of our story in positive ways not only creates a coherent narrative, but it also offers us significant opportunities to see the good in all situations -- the silver lining, as it were.

To be clear, a coherent narrative doesn't have to have a happy ending. I choose to add positivity because we also know this to be true from neuroscience, and the work of Dr. Donald Webb and later Dr. Siegel:

"Neurons that fire together, wire together."

What does that mean? It means that the more we practice something (even simply practice repeating a thought), the more naturally our brains reinforce our chosen way as their default patterns. Related to this story, that translates to the more I tell myself that this version of the story is accurate -- with the happier perspective -- the more my brain will create neural connections that help me naturally remember it this way.

Also, the same principles as above apply for forming a coherent narrative and healing: "Name it to tame it" and "feel it to heal it." The remedy is universal.

Further Support for Children's Coherent Narrative

The more attuned an adult is to their child's inner world, the more they can help them create a coherent narrative that's free from the adult's narrative and unintentional biases. It's not always about the adult's coherence; it's about relaying accurate information from the child's perspective.

For example, let's say a child witnesses their parents arguing. A coherent narrative for one or both of the adults might include why they were arguing and what each of them brought into the heated discussion.

The child might not benefit from this being part of their coherent narrative. It might not make sense to them. Instead, the child's version of a coherent narrative might sound something like this, as explained to the child by the parent:

"You saw Mommy and Daddy yelling at each other. Mommy got upset and threw down the pen she was holding. That made Daddy jump. When that happened, it was scary for you because you didn't know what was going to happen. Then, Mommy calmed down and apologized. Daddy accepted her apology and then they hugged. Now they're peaceful again and everyone, including you, is safe."

Here, not only is the story accurate from the child's perspective, but the adult is clearly attuned to the child's unique perspective. Attunement helps children feel seen and validated.

Children need to feel that they're not alone; that someone "gets" their experience. Part of a successful and coherent narrative may include a feeling that, "My feelings make sense. I make sense." Validation of that for the child can offer them incredible emotional safety.

Whatever story we tell them about their relationships and experiences, especially those that they don't explicitly remember, is the story they'll carry forward through life.

Resource: Daniel Hughes, Ph.D., works extensively with childhood victims of abuse and trauma. His "PACE" approach focuses on Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, and Empathy from adult to child. More details for those who are interested are available on his website.

Creating a Coherent Narrative Offers Protective Benefits

As it turns out, we don't just feel better when we tell our stories to others. This storytelling is deeply healing and beneficial.

"Narrating about personal experiences in a coherent manner is...beneficial for one’s well-being." (source) Specifically, according to the research of Daniel J. Siegel and other mental health experts, creating a coherent narrative can be a key to integration, or a fully embodied acceptance, of our stories. This integration can be a key to

  • Reducing trauma
  • Promoting healing
  • Improving mental health
  • Breaking damaging cycles
  • Finding more joy in life (source)

These narratives don't just have to be recent events, above and beyond intergenerational trauma as covered earlier. Creating a coherent narrative around events that have long since happened in our own lives -- even those from years ago -- can still offer protective benefits. In other words, it's never too late to heal.

As an example of the longstanding opportunity for healing, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel shares, in his online interpersonal neurobiology course, a story of a 92-year-old man who finally heals from childhood trauma. He was able to reset relationships that had suffered for almost a century.

The brain holds our memories for as long as we need to process them. And when we process them with a coherent narrative, we can heal.

Needless to say, releasing our early traumatic experiences as soon as possible and allowing ourselves to heal is better than harboring long-term stress and trauma.

If there's any good news here -- and there truly is good news aplenty -- it's never too late to create a coherent narrative and benefit from the healing process. We can do this work for ourselves and alongside our children. From this work, everyone in our inner world is better for our healing journey. And it all starts with making sense of a story.

Note that all advice and guidance offered on this site is not medical guidance and should not be interpreted as such, and the owner of this site is not responsible for individual outcomes.

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