Self-Narratives: The Root Cause of Self-Sabotage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Personality Isn't Permanent" by Benjamin Hardy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do we sabotage ourselves by settling for less or doing things we know hinder our progress?

Self-sabotage comes from unhealthy self-narratives—or stories—you tell yourself about who you are and the events that happen to you. The narratives you tell yourself can either help you or hinder you in reaching your goal.

Keep reading to learn how unhelpful narratives are formed, why they hinder your progress, and how to heal your narratives and traumas.

How Narratives Are Formed

Most people think they see the world objectively. However, Hardy says this is untrue. Your memories and everyday perceptions are not just the objective things you observe: They’re the objective observations plus the narratives you tell yourself about them. When something significant happens, you consciously or unconsciously form an explanation for why it happened and what that means about you and the world around you. 

For instance, if you got into a car accident while texting, you would perceive the objective facts—you were texting and driving, and got into an accident—and you would tell yourself a story about what happened and what it means. In this example, your self-narrative might be that you got into the accident because you were texting while driving, that you have a bad habit of distracted driving, and that this means that you’re an irresponsible person.

(Shortform note: In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson clarifies that interpretation happens while you experience an event—and your brain usually doesn’t take all the objective facts into account alongside your self-narratives. Rather, your brain registers those objective facts that align with your narrative or that you deem significant, and it unconsciously tunes out the unaligned or insignificant objective facts. For instance, after the car accident, your interpretation would include only the details relevant to your narrative—such as the fact that you were texting—while omitting irrelevant details such as the color of your dashboard or whether there was a change in your cup holder.)

Unhealthy Narratives Limit What You Can Achieve

Your narratives have the power to shape how you see and feel about yourself as a person. Sometimes you’ll tell yourself unhealthy narratives about your life—narratives that frame you in an unnecessarily negative light or as incapable of overcoming an event. By doing this, you decrease your confidence, which gets in the way of meeting your primary goals in two distinct ways. 

First, people often tell themselves narratives that frame them as being powerless victims of a thing that happened and therefore unable to do anything about it. At a day-to-day level, this looks like seeing inconveniences as a bigger deal than they need to be. An example is sleeping through your alarm and telling yourself that this means you’re going to fall behind on your work and have a bad day. At a more significant level, someone who grew up with an absent parent might tell themself that their current problems are the parent’s fault and that they can’t do anything about it. 

Second, people also often see an event as proof that their limitations are fundamental to them and unchangeable. For instance, someone who tries speaking up in a social setting and gets spoken over might interpret this as proof that they simply aren’t capable of being assertive.

Pessimism Isn’t Always Unhealthy

Throughout the book, Hardy frames unhealthy narratives as ones that are pessimistic —arguing that focusing on the negatives and telling yourself cynical narratives makes you feel victimized and unable to overcome obstacles. However, pessimism—despite its negative reputation—is not intrinsically unhealthy. For some people, telling themselves pessimistic narratives actually empowers them to accomplish goals. Believing that things will go poorly can cause negative emotions such as anxiety that pessimists can use to their advantage; they don’t want things to go as poorly as they expect them to, and this motivates them to work harder for success than they otherwise would. That said, for most people, Hardy’s argument that telling yourself pessimistic narratives is unhealthy is true: Pessimism is associated with negative consequences for both mental and physical health. 

The Most Limiting Kind of Narrative: Traumatic Narratives

Hardy argues that the most limiting kind of unhealthy narratives people tell themselves are around traumas. When most people think of trauma, they think of horrific events that cause PTSD. However, Hardy explains that you can also think of trauma as any negative event that leads to lasting fear, shame, and unhealthy narratives about yourself. By this definition, everyone has trauma.

The Consequences of Expanding the Definition of Trauma

Some might argue that Hardy’s broad use of the word “trauma” is irresponsible. This broadening of the definition of “trauma” is part of a phenomenon called “concept creep,” and it comes with some negative consequences. Concept creep is where a word that denotes a form of harm—such as “bullying” or “neglect”—has its definition expanded to include other, less harmful things. For instance, people used to see bullying just as intentional harassment, but the term has expanded to include unintentional meanness and inconsiderate behavior. 

Concept creep makes people take some overlooked forms of harm more seriously by placing them in the same category as more serious things, which legitimizes them. By expanding the definition of “bullying” to encompass more than just blatant aggressive behavior, people start calling other kinds of mistreatment “bullying,” leading them to see these lesser forms of mistreatment as more problematic and harmful than they did before.

While this is helpful in some cases, it carries negative consequences. When we use the same words for both significantly and mildly harmful things, we equate them—meaning we experience them the same way. Thinking of an embarrassing moment in your past as a trauma, rather than just an upsetting memory, can actually make this event have more power over you—making you feel more disempowered and ashamed about it than you otherwise would.
Self-Narratives: The Root Cause of Self-Sabotage

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  • How personality is not fixed, but fluid and changeable
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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