The Dangers of Overly Compelling Narratives.

Narratives and stories are everywhere in life. They can be the fictional kind, the sort where a brave intrepid hero goes to slay the dragon. They can also be real life stories, be they tales of heroism, tragedy or comedy. They can also be the many stories and narratives that we end up telling ourselves in life, about our life and our purpose in it.

People have a need for stories, they help in orienting themselves in life despite all of its twists and turns. They also often help explain the ever so complicated parts of life, the ones that sometimes even lie outside the realms of science, the areas that cannot be easily quantified. They help explain emotions, difficulties that occur in life as well as many other aspects of it.

They help give a reason for being, as after all people wish to see themselves as the hero in their own stories, in the grand tale of their life. They can grant purpose and meaning as a result.

However, not all narratives are positive. Some can be extremely dangerous and destructive. And it is due to the natural desire for stories that they can have such power. Especially in cases of narratives that are all to simple, and ever so compelling indeed.

The Reasons Narratives are Powerful

The human desire for narrative grants them a great deal of power. It makes narratives ever so compelling. This power is what can make certain ones ever so destructive, but to understand the reason for caution around certain narratives it helps to understand what grants them power.

To start with narratives often act to make sense of the chaos of life. They can give the random, and sometimes tragic and unfortunate events that can occur in life some sort of meaning, such as perhaps a lesson that can be learned from them. They can also aid in trying to help you come up with a cause for these random events, be it because of someone else, yourself, divine intervention or just that you have rotten luck.

They also often give people a sense of identity. As it provides a way to weave our past, our memories and our experiences into one story. It also allows us to become the hero of our own story and life tale. Often when we describe our own lives, we do it in the form of a story of tale, giving ourselves a major role in that tale, that role being how we see identify ourselves.

However it is often possible to end up with an externally crafted story to fill the place of one you should have written. Externally written stories and selling an “Identity” is often used by advertisers worldwide, they sell an image, a outcome that you may be able to achieve if only you buy into their story, and their product.

Narratives to be Cautious Around

Due to the power of narratives, there is of course narratives that you need to be careful of. Ones that can be used to manipulate you, as well as ones which you may craft yourself, but tend to lead to negative outcomes. Below I shall list a number of narrative tropes to be wary of.

  • The Rise and Fall

The general flow of this sort of tale, is that things where so much better in the past. And that now, that glory is falling into nothingness. It is a narrative that comes up a great deal when discussing culture and history. Though it can also easily occur in life when looking back at memories with nostalgia, when everything was easier and so much more colorful when we where younger.

It often acts to both over glorify the past, and over criticize the present. While some things may have been better and easier in the past, other areas where much harder than in this day and age. The same also very much applies in reverse, while the present may not be perfect we have many luxuries and opportunities that may have not existed previously.

One of the reasons it may be so easy to buy into these sorts of stories, is that humans often find it easier to focus on the negative instead of spotting the positive. If you are to busy to see the positive aspects of life, and as such only notice the bad it becomes all to easy to assume that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.

Another risk of this narrative, is that it can easily fool you into believing matters are a lost cause. That no matter what you do, that things will never be as good as they where back then. It also means you are less able to see progress, as perhaps it never feels good enough and that you may have done something better in the past, without taking into account that you could simply be having a bad week or month.

To remedy this it is important to take note of the areas that we improve in during life. Realizing while things may not always go according to plan, that we can gain wisdom from these experiences and use to keep growing and improving as an individual. Instead of focusing on the seeming greatness on the past, ensure that you make the present as brilliant as you can.

  • The One Best Way

This trope tends to rely on there being one best way of doing something. Be it the one miracle diet, the one best workout, the one best way of writing and so on and so forth. This trope also tends to occur in trends, what was the one best way ten years ago, is now likely seen as stupid compared to this new best way of doing something. This being particularly seen when it comes to dieting trends, be it low sugar diets, carnivore diets, vegan diets and so on all coming in and out of popularity as the one best way.

This narrative however often forgets that there are indeed many ways to accomplish a task or goal, and that the best approach is often by taking the middle path between the various extremes. The other risk of this sort of narrative is that it gets you so obsessed on finding out the best way of doing something, that you do not even start. When of course, doing something even if not perfectly is almost always better than doing nothing.

  • The Incredibly Simple Explanation

This is a very common trope, especially in the media. Where it basically goes, this bad thing happened, and this is the one definitive reason why. This is why the stock markets took a hit, this is why this person lost or won an election and so forth.

Often in these stories, facts are indeed provided. But they are cropped and tailored in a way that fits the short and often easily digestible narrative. It shows one side of the story, and not the other. It lacks nuance and depth. It takes a mirror up to the world and hacks off the bits that do not fit.

These are often easy to buy into, as often our ever busy minds want a simple and straight forward explanation. It is often easy to end up lacking the time or energy to properly look into an issue in depth and study all of its nuances. However, as a result of this we never end up properly understanding the issue, which makes it much easier to be misled.

This can also apply to people in your life, where you might end up accidentally believing that something they did is due to one reason. And that reason may very well end up being a part of their identity that they cannot control, or a lifestyle choice. Stereotypes occasionally hold true, but often they do not, as this sort of thinking over simplifies people and the cause of their actions. They often lead to people forgetting about the depths and nuances of someone else, and labeling them just as their identity.

  • The Scapegoat

This trope, is similar to the one above. But in its most dangerous form. While an overly simple explanation means you miss out on details, this one can lead to resentment and hatred.

It is when the over simple explanation turns into an excuse. Where you where not able to do what you wanted to solely due to this one external factor. Be it a group of people, an organization and so forth. It removes agency in life, as you cannot control those factors even if you wanted to, instead of focusing on yourself, you blame them instead. It also leads to a victim mentality, which will prevent you being able to reach success, as you see yourself as a victim and not someone with the confidence and ability to succeed.

It can also easily breed hatred and resentment, as if you think a certain group is the reason for all your life’s hardships, it would be very hard not to hate them. Of course, those sorts of emotions towards others will eat you up from the inside as well, hatred and resentment consume all.

  • The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

This sort of narrative is the sort where the things you say about yourself, or what may happen in the future can end up becoming reality. For example, if you tell yourself that you are doing to fail a job interview before you even get there, you are much more likely to do so.

This can also apply when you self diagnose mental illnesses, anxiety being an example. While not denying people occasionally being naturally anxious, it is all to easy for a normally confident person to make themselves anxious by simply saying to people that they have anxiety and thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course this can be used in reverse to help you achieve things, but that is typically harder to do. As such it is wise to be careful of when you might tell yourself a story where things will go negatively in the future, as by doing so you may make them reality.


To conclude, while narratives can be used as a force for great good in life. A way in which you can craft a positive identity and impact the world. They can also be used to manipulate and can end up changing with how you see the world for worse, not better.

Stories and words will always have great power, and in understanding them and how they can often work it can help you avoid these pitfalls and be the best version of yourself possible.

Published by Duncan Hookey

A British/Canadian writer who writes about various topics related to how to make the most out of life.

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