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Narrative Frames

I picked up this frame on the street today because I thought it illustrated a compelling point about the stories we tell to ourselves: we decide the frame.

That is, we decide to frame it as a story, just like a documentarian decides to make a documentary. The frame is the decision to start filming something. They see a landscape of action, which is what they want to point their camera at, and they have a landscape of meaning in their mind.

Similarly, in our minds, we decide to frame some series of actions as a story: “I got home from work, and my kids were sitting there on their phones and didn’t even say hello” for example -- there’s the landscape of action. Then the landscape of meaning is “and that is a bad thing that means one, I’ve failed as a parent, and two, they will never get into a top school sitting on their phones all day.” That’s the landscape of meaning.

So the frame is what you decided to make a story about: Your homecoming and what that means. The landscape of action is what you decide to point your camera at: you could have gotten home and noticed they didn’t leave any dirty dishes in the sink. You picked the landscape of action of them sitting on their phones, them not saying hello. Then you picked the landscape of meaning: “I’m a bad mom, and they are going to fail at something I value.”

So there’s two landscapes: the landscape of action and the landscape of meaning and they exist within a frame.

Two of these things you have some control over and one of them, somewhat less. The landscape of actions done by other people, or animals, or god, or the government, or the weather, or the traffic are all mostly out of your control. They are the things that happened. The landscape of action of things that you do, you have a bit more control over.

But the other two things - the landscape of meaning and the frame is all you. We're in charge of the stories of our life, at least in theory. We decide to put the frame around the action. And then we add the meaning.

One way we are in control is to think about frames in your past that you've completely missed. Stories in your life that you have discounted, that could be stories that shape your identity and shape who you see yourself as. You haven't woven them into the tapestry of your life, you didn't make a frame for that story, but the story is still there and available to you. You can look back at your life and highlight different frames to tell different stories to yourself. This is one of the things that a narrative therapist helps people do.

For instance, I have a story that I wasn’t a very good mother. But, you know, I also have stories where I was a good mom and I get to choose whether I focus too much on my “I’m a shitty mom” stories.

Sometimes I can look back and I say, “remember that time?” Or I can see that I focus very heavily on the parts of my parenting where I thought I was not very good, when in other ways I was a great mom. Or maybe my kids tell me, “remember that time you did that thing?” or “I always felt this good way about our family.” There are other frames in my time as a mother that are good story frames, that have positive landscapes of action and meaning, but I don’t pop them in the ol' brain VCR very often to play them back.

But I could do that. The funny thing about the brain which is different from the VCR metaphor, is that the VHS tape in the brain doesn’t wear out if you play it too much. In your brain that story gets stronger and more accessible to you every time you play it.

I can try to lower the number of plays the “I was a shitty mom” stories get, and bring up the “I was a good mom stories” by choice. I can look back and see what things I chose to put frames around, and what terrible stories I made up to fill them because of my terrible self-esteem, creating this shitty story of when I was a shitty mom, and I could, you know, find some different ones.

It’s not that easy, but we can do this. We have so many landscapes of action at our disposal; past ones and new ones appearing on the horizon all the time. All the footage of our lives waiting in our brains to be recut into a better fine cut. We can choose what landscapes to construct into a story and what the landscape of meaning is. We can look at the landscapes of action and ask yourself “is that really the landscape of meaning that comes from that? Does that landscape of meaning make me happy, and could a different landscape of meaning go with that?”

And you can change your stories at any time. You can decide that was just a rough cut and now you're going to go to fine cut with a much better story. And then your stories can help you manifest the desires that you want to have and hold in life, instead of depressing you with that maudlin tearjerker that you're streaming over and over again.

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