According to Yuval Noah Harari (Homo Deus, 2017), the psychic ‘self’ consists of two parts—the experiencing self and the narrative self, corresponding to two brain states and two brain functions. The experiencing self experiences and reacts to the world through the senses and bodily sensations. It is the present moment ‘self.’ The narrative self is my ‘story’ about myself, part of the linguistic, narrative part of the brain. It is my memory, narrative autobiography, family history, identity, and so forth. The narrative part of the self maintains a sense of integrity by having a consistent ‘story’: I am a good person; I am successful, I am secure; I am likable; I am talented, I am smart, I am effective in my life; I am loved, I am ethnicity/gender/sexuality/religion/political views etc. When we encounter statements from other people who tell us something different, something that challenges or negates the consistency of our ‘story’, we find it very disturbing. It says that our narrative may not be consistent, it may not be entirely true.
We manage to fool ourselves most of the time into thinking that our narrative self is a consistent story that makes sense. In other words, we are able to suspend disbelief and believe in the story. But when our narrative is challenged, when someone contradicts our story, we feel threatened, disturbed. “Maybe it’s true that I’m not what I say I am”. For a brief moment, we can no longer suspend disbelief. We lose faith in our story. This is very anxiety provoking, and we quickly find some way to suspend disbelief and restore our belief in the story. We engage in inner dialogue that reaffirms the story (they’re wrong about me; I know X about myself is true). We seek support from other people who reaffirm our story about our self. We escape or numb the anxiety of disbelief through distracting and comforting behaviors (the usual addictions: drugs, alcohol, food, sex, shopping, watching shows, social media, etc). The distractions sooth us and buy us time until we can re-compose ourselves, literally re-write the story, suspend disbelief, and believe in our narrative self again. After a traumatic event in life (loss of a loved one; loss of a career, severe illness) we have to rewrite the story to include the losses and new parts of our lives into our narrative of self. Failure to integrate these traumatic events can lead to fracturing of the self, even a total emotional breakdown. Most therapeutic process involves re-integrating, re-writing and restoring belief the narrative self. This is the source of suffering that comes from believing in a ‘narrative self.’
Now I don’t mean to imply that we can function without a narrative self. It helps us integrate our experiences and organizes our response to people and the world. It’s just a way of organizing our thoughts, our memories, our histories and identities, our beliefs, the events in our lives, things we’ve learned, our daily routines and goals, and so forth. But we can realize that it is ‘just a story’ and when the story is challenged, we can realize that it is only the story that is being challenged, but the story is not essentially who we are. It’s just a story, and that story changes all the time, daily in fact.