Narrative Excavation – Part 2


In the last blog post we talked about narratives. Narrative is a story we tell ourselves about events; and a way of understanding, describing, or explaining experiences. It is essentially a software that’s been running under the operating system also known as our brain. It is there to help us navigate through our daily life. This software program was installed into our operating system on the day we were born. We can also look at it as an integral part of the foundational operating system. Many other programs installed after it are highly dependent on this software called “narrative”. There is constant communication between the new programs and this older one, and in a certain sense many of the new ones have to depend on the old one to even run smoothly. Now unless you are a senior programmer, or in this case, expert introspection practitioner, you probably don’t even know this original software program is running in the background. All you see are the new ones running, so if anything goes wrong, you probably would just blame the new program and try to uninstall and reinstall it, or maybe patch it.

So as a beginner, in order to understand what is going on with this old software, we need a third party tool to dig out the software and examine the code in detail. However, this software is so complex that it would be impossible to read every single line of the code. In other words, the point of this introspective practice is not to become aware of every single narrative that we tell ourselves since that would be impractical and silly. The aim here is to find the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves in response to traumatic events (characterized by emotions of fright, fear, pain, anger, sadness). The process we are going to introduce you to is called narrative excavation, and it will serve you as the third party tool mentioned earlier.. Basically, it is going to help us first underline all the narratives in response to traumatic events. Think of it this way, when we have bugs in the code or misspelling words in word documents, you will see red wavy underlines indicating mistakes. In narrative excavation practice, similar tools that we use to find these bugs/mistakes include narrative indicators, implicit narrative and core emotions. They can help us distinguish between an actual event vs. narrative. 

Narrative Indicators

1. Descriptive terms: Descriptive words that are relative to perspective/context. Their meanings can change drastically based on point of reference. A few examples would be “fat”, “ugly”, “tall”, “short”, “beautiful”, “silly”, “smart”, “quiet”, “slow”, etc. 

2. Vague temporal quantifiers: Attempt to label events by quantifying their time, but lack precision/specificity, or lead to absurdities when interpreted literally. Definition depends on perspective. A few examples would be “always”, ”never”, ”every time”, etc. “I’m always late”…now in order for this to be literally true, you have to be late to everything, all the time, forever.

3. Vague quantifiers: Attempt to quantify event number or frequency, but lack precision or specificity. A few examples would be “none”, “every”, “all”, “nothing”, “a little”, “a lot”, etc.

4. Typifiers/classifiers/categorization: Placing people/events in categories by what we perceive as their “type”. Limit or mislabel the individual person/event. A few examples would be “This is just the way I am”, “She was born to become a singer”, “He is the type of person who will fail”, etc. “She’s not the kind of person who will say something mean”…now once you said this, you are limiting this person in a certain behavioral pattern. However, one day this person might change, or maybe she has been fooling you this whole time, or maybe there is some specific scenario where she wouldn’t behave that way. In general, these phrases fail to acknowledge the possibilities and potential of variations in human behaviors.

5. Privileging events that did not occur: Biased favoring of one event (which did not occur) over another (which also did not occur). Can indicate binary narratives/false dichotomies. For example, “Tom went to a yoga event” is a fact, but to say “Tom went to a yoga event instead of a Pilates class” is a narrative. It might be true to say Tom did not go to a Pilates class, but he also did not attend a movement workshop, and he also did not go on a date with a girl. So why would we privilege the fact that he did not attend a Pilates class over all the other possible things that he also didn’t do. When we ask this question, often a narrative is revealed beneath the surface of our choice to privilege this information. 

6. Assumptions of causality: Assuming direct and isolated causation between two events or sequences of events. A few examples would be “because”, “because of”, “that’s why”, “as a result”, etc. To say one event is the cause of another event is often just an assumption, because in reality there are so many other variables that are connected together and contribute to the occurrence of the event.

7. Grouping events across time: Grouping events together that are not inherently connected or similar. Then, use them as evidence for a statement/narrative. For example, he did not donate any money to the fundraising foundation last year, he asked his girlfriend to pay for the dinner yesterday, and now he is buying all the video games for himself, he must be so selfish. However, there is no clear evidence that these events are connected to one another or similar therefore the statement does not stand true. This is also very common in an intimate relationship, behaviors and events are grouped together over time to support a judgement about a person or their behaviors.

Implicit narratives

Such narratives are hidden beneath the surface therefore require extraction of implicit meaning to reveal the narratives themselves. Sarcasm is a good example of implicit meaning, because there are other layers of information beneath what is being said. However, only the person themself knows exactly what they mean by saying such statements. Here is a concrete example:

“I couldn’t care less about my neighbor singing in the middle of the night, it’s not like I have 5 exams in the morning, he has such a soothing voice for sleep, thanks asshole.” In this example, there are both facts and narrative. “My neighbor is singing in the middle of the night” is a fact. The narratives could be “I cannot stand my neighbor singing at night anymore” and “I am going to fail my exams.” The implicit meanings of saying these statements might look like “my environment is toxic.” and “I am not prepared for the exams.” Again, this is an imaginary example, only the person who says it knows exactly what he or she meant by saying it. In the end, only I know what I really mean by such statements. It’s important to ask the question: “What type of meaning am I giving to this event?” In this case, so that we can pull out the real meaning of what we said and start to look beyond the surface of the narratives.

Core emotions

Occurrence of the feeling is an actual event instead of narrative, but they always indicate certain narratives underneath them. Like we mentioned before, the point of this introspective practice is to become aware of narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves in response to traumatic events. During traumatic events, we experience one of the following emotions: fright, fear, pain, anger and sadness. These emotions are very good indicators of some type of narrative. As we become better at this practice, we want to develop a sensitivity for a “feeling” vocabulary which is much faster, more intuitive, and skillful way to observe from moment to moment rather than using language, logic or rational analysis. Here are some brief explanations of these 5 core emotions. 

1. Fright: A sudden intense feeling of fear. Can be described as an experience of panic, elevated heart rate, heat, perhaps accompanied by shaking and sweating. Compared to fear which is deeper and longer lasting, fright is sharp and sudden. An example of fear would be a beginner who tries to learn kick up to handstand. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell him or her to kick higher, they experience some kind of resistance or loss of body control. On the other hand, fright would be an overconfident beginner who got into a handstand, then lost control and fell over backwards. The reflex kicks in, body tenses up and heart rate jumps up rapidly.  

2. Fear: Fear can be rational or irrational, but it is typically associated with an impairment of rational processes in relation to the object of fear. It is distinct from “fright” in that fear is deeper, longer lasting, and is generally carried through narrative over time. What we call ‘anxious’ is a subset or form of fear. Often accompanied by unsettled or ‘knotted’ feelings in the area of the stomach and intestines. Often this feeling arises when ruminating on the past, or anticipating a negative circumstance in the future.

3. Pain: Describes a tactile experience of literal pain in the body. ‘Pain’ is described by the International Association for The Study of Pain as, “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”

4. Anger: An experience of fundamentally rejecting some element of reality. Typically accompanied by heat in the chest and face area as well as elevated heart rate. This term encompasses words like rage, fury, frustration, annoyance, outrage, hate, etc. Anger does not seek understanding; it is a fundamental rejection of an object, idea, circumstance, or event, and is aimed at stopping the event from occurring or occurring again.

5. Sadness: An experience that can encompass words like lonely, grief, loss, depressed, disappointed, low, down, devastated, heartbroken, hopeless, etc. Sad is associated with feelings of heaviness, low motivation, and low energy, crying, etc. 

Now that we have all the tools to identify narratives, the next step for us is to distinguish between Fact vs. Narrative. In order to do so, we need to create a Fact vs. Narrative chart, it’s going to look something like this.

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Here is an imaginary story we made up, go ahead and read it a few times. Use the tools we’ve given, write down the actual events in the fact column and the narratives in the narrative column. Try not to look at the answer first.

Joan is going to a wedding this Sunday. The bride named Jully is one of her best friends since high school. They used to play basketball on a team together for 4 years. Everyone thought they were going to be picked by the top athletic university in Arizona. However, it did not turn out that way because Jully broke her ankle in her senior year. On the other hand, Joan successfully got admitted to the school she always wanted to attend. Yet, Joan is not the type of person who would abandon her best friend to fulfill her own dreams, so she decided to go to the same college as Jully. Looking back, everyone feels pity for Joan because she could have graduated with a science degree instead of business management. But Joan doesn’t care what others think at all. Her friendship with Jully is unbreakable. Now that Jully’s wedding is coming up, Joan is ready to congratulate her on her next step in life. 

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If your answer looks a bit different from ours, don’t worry too much because this is merely an imaginary story. In the next blog, we are going to introduce you to the three seed narratives. Seed narratives is a structure that helps you categorize narratives into patterns. Almost every narrative we run into during a traumatic event can be boiled down into at least one of the three seed narratives. Once we start to go into more personal levels, this structure will make more sense.

Before this blog ends, we’d like to credit a great teacher, Devin Kelley, for devoting many years of his life putting together this introspective practice that he calls Narrative Excavation. The entire framework that we use here comes from the man himself as well as teachers he has learned from. If you are interested in the details of the practice, feel free to follow him on instagram @devinpkelley where he shares most of his physical and introspective practice.