Narrative Excavation – Part 4

Narrative Masks

Do you behave differently in public than you do alone?

If so, why do we put on a mask when we interact with others in a social group?

In different cultures, people follow specific norms based on their own beliefs. In a country like Japan for example, a group is more important than an individual; and social hierarchy is strictly reinforced in the society. If you are younger, you must show respect to an older person. The concept of “face” (self-esteem) plays a huge role in a sense that behaviors adopted by the Japanese are based on making sure no one loses “face”. Let’s imagine you are a standard American. Now picture yourself having to put on this mask of “I am Japanese”, and therefore must follow all of the Japanese rules. It wouldn’t be a surprise that you felt reluctant to accept these rules if you did not believe in them. However, most native Japanese do not have other possibilities or options to choose from. Ever since birth, they have been educated to believe that it’s just the way how their society functions. Thus, they behave according to their beliefs.

Similarly, we all behave according to the stories that we believe in. Once we believe something to be true, not only will we act in a certain way that supports it, but also will protect it from collapsing. When we look at narrative, it is similar to a computer software that’s been running in our system since the beginning. Little by little, we construct our belief system on the top of this software. If we never became aware of the software, we would just behave according to the narratives we believe to be true. In the previous blogs, we talked about building awareness and distinguishing between Narrative vs. Fact. In this blog, we will take a look at the consequences/side effects (behaviors) when we believe in a narrative, the payoffs/motives (things we expect to get from the behaviors), and the possibilities (potential options when the narrative is absent).

1. Identify consequences/side effects

“What do I feel compelled to do when I believe the narrative is true?”

List out the behaviors once you believe the narrative is true.

For example, as a Japanese citizen, one has to bow to his or her boss symbolizing respect for someone who is superior in the hierarchy.

2. Identify payoffs/motives for narrative

“What do I expect to get from the things I do when I believe the narrative is true?”

List out the things you will get out of behaving in a way that supports your belief in the narrative. 

For example, as a Japanese citizen, by bowing to one’s boss, he or she would expect to get recognition as someone who follows the rules and therefore is a good employee. 

Narrative Masks

Narrative masks are exactly as they sound. They are meant to cover up or compensate for Seed Narratives (SN). We can look at it as an example of side effects. Narrative masks also allow SN to persist due to their ability to hide and mitigate their effects. In other words, they are there to protect our beliefs.

A seed narrative only remains functional if we believe it, but do not see it. 

A few types of narrative masks include:

1) Affirmative compensation: Layering a self affirmation on top of an existing SN to compensate for the detrimental effects of believing the seed. An example would be someone who acts funny in front of a group of friends in order to cover up his narrative of “I am boring”. Showing the opposite of what he believes about himself is going to keep him safe from confronting the emotional reactions if the narrative comes up. If he never believed in this narrative from the beginning, such behavior would not be necessary. 

2) Creating a bubble: Selecting for or constructing an environment in which one can avoid confronting SN. This is a subcategory of affirmative compensation. For example, Tom surrounds himself with people who only believe he is funny and interesting so that he does not have to deal with those who could “poke” his narrative of “I am boring”.

3) Hiding: Actively avoiding environments or opportunities in which one expects to be confronted by SN. For example, Alex refuses to go to a party or any type of social situation because he believes that he is an introvert.

4) Negative compensation: Attempts to negate external environments to compensate for SN. For example, Lucas will fight against anyone who calls him a clown in class. When in reality, he believes himself as a clumsy person.

The purpose of Narrative Masks is to cover up the SN and ignore all of their effects/consequences so that we can keep on believing in the narrative. But why is it that we want to mask/cover up the SN? Simple, because we think we are getting payoffs. Again, a seed narrative only remains functional if we believe it, but do not see it. If we can see the Seed Narrative and its consequences as well as payoffs of the behaviors on the table, we can now question the narrative whether it’s true or not. This then takes us to our third step: finding the possibilities once we start to ease up the attachment to the SN.

3. Possibilities

What are the possibilities in absence of belief in seed narratives?

For example, if Tom did not look at himself as a boring person, he would not have to act funny in front of other people. Instead, he could focus on being himself and look for friends who can accept him as who he is.

Time to practice. We would like you to choose a past event in which you had a traumatic experience. If you completed the work from the last post, feel free to use one of those events. Write it down and list out the following:

1. One Seed Narrative (SN) & Its manifestation

2. Consequences/side effects (Including any Narrative Masks)

3. Payoffs/motives

4. Possibilities

We will use Bruce’s example from the last post as a demonstration:

“Bruce’s first Math teaching experience”

1. “I am bad” – “I am useless”

2. Hiding: I wanted to quit this job and never go back to teaching math again. I skipped over questions that seemed hard to me. Negative compensation: I pretended to know what I was talking about.

3. If I quit the job, I could keep away from being uncomfortable. If I kept pretending, I would not get fired and no one would find out that I was not qualified to teach.  

4. I could be honest about the questions I did not understand at the moment, and study them hard later so that I can teach it to my students. I could focus on better solving the problems at hand instead of worrying about what my student thinks of me. 

A Narrative Excavation practice is meant to help us become aware of the effects of past traumatic events and also prepare us for any future circumstances when the narrative comes up again.

It is a very potent tool because we do not have to sit in a lotus position with our eyes closed for ten minutes when there is an emotional reaction; but instead it happens on the fly. At the beginning phase of the practice, like many other practices, we need to isolate the tools first and then learn to improvise with them later. In this case, writing down the process and seeing what is going on beneath the surface will help to train our brain in dealing with emotional reactions. As we get better at doing it, we should be able to take the Narrative Excavation practice and apply it in real life without pen and paper. It is going to happen within a split second because we are already familiar with the patterns of the narratives we tell ourselves again and again. Of course, just like practicing a handstand, there will be a lot of ups and downs, but the progress of this practice can be measured in many ways; one of them being less reactive to our emotions and more aware of what we constantly tell ourselves.


For the final assignment we would like you to carry something to write on for the whole day. Try to notice when a seed narrative comes up. Write it down along with the scenario, then repeat steps 1-4. If you find this to be helpful, start to make it a daily habit. It could be journaling at the end of the day, or simply just write down your feelings and thoughts using simple phrases. If we want ourselves to be better tomorrow, we need to act today.

In the next blog, we will wrap up the entire structure of Narrative Excavation practice with the understanding of a “give up statement” and “highest values”. We would like to honor Devin Kelley again for putting together this introspection practice that comes with a concrete structure making it so much easier to get into. If you are interested in more, follow Devin at his Instagram @devinpkelley.