How to avoid being manipulated by other people’s stories

As children, we’re constantly consuming and analyzing information.

We observe and question everything:

What’s going on? What’s happening? What does this mean? What value does this have? What do I need to know?

Our focus is on survival, first. We seek information that will help us survive physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially. Once we feel certain of our survival, we start seeking the information that will help us to be fulfilled.

The pursuit of fulfillment

Sometimes this is a fairly simple pursuit:

How can I have more fun? How can I get more of the stuff I like? How can I experience less of the stuff I don’t like?

Sometimes it’s a deep and complex pursuit:

How can I contribute to the world? How can I be helpful? How can I feel better about myself? Who am I? What’s my purpose?

Ideally, all of us would naturally move from survival information-seeking to fulfillment information-seeking. That’s the natural progression of learning.

But that natural progression doesn’t always happen.

How a story can influence behavior

When we don’t naturally progress from survival-seeking to fulfillment-seeking, there’s a problem.

People who are worried about survival are easy to manipulate. They have obvious needs and triggers. To control them, push the trigger. Offer to meet the need. They will follow where you lead.

The easiest way to lead people is not with demands or threats. It’s with stories.

We all love stories.

The stories we love most are the ones in which we play a central role.

If you want to manipulate someone, you tell a good story. You make them part of it: a main character. A protagonist. A hero.

You hook their interest. You lead them into a narrative. You get them emotionally invested. Then you tell the story you want them to believe about themselves and the world they’re in.

They read it.

Then—depending on how good the story is, and how strong the emotional connection—they internalize the story. It shifts from being a story about someone else to a narrative about reality and my place in it.

Being led by a story isn’t bad, necessarily.

Unless the stories are damaging.

Survival mindset and survival stories

When we’re stuck in survival thinking, we react to opportunities as threats.

We feel defensive rather than open.

We default to a mindset that is suspicious, a posture of the mind that is always busy drawing boundaries and lines: defining what is “me” and what is “other.”

We find this defining necessary because—in order to survive—we have to be sure about what belongs to “me” and what belongs to the rest of the world. We feel that we must prioritize and protect what is Ours. We believe that we must guard against, limit, push away, and fight what is Other.

This Ours vs Other mindset is the easiest thing in the world to write a story about.

Stories that use the Ours vs Other structure have been a key tool for politicians for a long time. Everyone seems to think that political name-calling, group-dividing, and Other-ostracizing are worse than usual these days.

They’re not.

These strategies have always been used in power struggles, and have always been pathetically effective. It’s not worse than ever; it’s simply more obvious than ever.

Here’s how it works.

  • The storytellers create caricatures. (Not characters.) One set of caricatures is Ours. The other set of caricatures is Other. It’s easy to identify which set of caricatures belongs to which group, because all features, facets, personality traits, and other identifying characteristics are exaggerated.
  • The storytellers tell a story. There are certain rules for these stories:
    • The caricatures must stay true to their exaggerated features, even at the expense of logical plot points. Logic doesn’t play heavily into these stories.
    • The caricatures that are Ours must be a) the heroes and/or b) the victims.
    • The caricatures that are Other must be a) the villains or b) the idiots.
  • There has to be a conflict but there doesn’t have to be a resolution. In fact, many of these stories are more powerful without a resolution. The lack of resolution leads to a sense of ongoing tension in the reader: they feel a personal sense of urgency to enter the story and help make the resolution happen.

There are two ways to reduce the manipulative power of these stories.

Solution 1: Change the stories

We can take control of the narrative. We can write different versions of a story, of any story. We can use the Ours vs Other structure to tell an entirely different kind of story.

When we do so, we introduce options: we show that groups can find peaceful resolutions. We show that different people, with different priorities, can work together rather than fight. We can turn conflict into cooperation and repulsion into relationships. We can use stories to expand perspective rather than affirm assumptions.

Powerful stuff.

How to change the stories

Here are three ways to change a story without removing it from the Ours vs Other structure:

  • Change the plot: For example, instead of showing a conflict that is Us vs Them, show a conflict in which Us and Them unite to deal with a bigger conflict.
  • Introduce thoughtful resolution: Show a resolution that can work for everyone involved. Change the resolution from “Victory over Other” to “solution that works for everybody.”
  • Transform caricatures to characters: real people have lots of feelings, are neither all bad nor all good, can grow, can learn, are not entirely predictable, have goals and values, and generally just want to be happy and do some good in their lives. Turning a caricature into a believable character with depth is powerful.
  • Initiate dialogue: both in the story itself (let thecharacters talk and interact peacefully and profitably with each other, to show it can be done) and literally: have conversations about the stories, all of the stories, with all sorts of real people.

I am working to get better at this. All too often, I am not.

When I am not—when I am merely parroting a divisive narrative—I am not telling my own story. I am retelling one that I have heard and believed. I am being controlled by this structure of Ours vs Other, this idea of division and conflict.

There is truth in it.

Ultimately, however, this truth is limiting. These stories of war are not the stories I want to tell. I want to tell a bigger story, a much better one.

To do so, I have to change more than the story. I have to change my own mind.

Solution 2: Change the mindset

The most powerful solution is not telling a better story within this predefined narrative structure. That’s a step forward, and a useful one.

A bigger step forward is this:

Change the entire mindset you have. Remove yourself entirely from the framework of Ours vs Other. Build (or find) a different narrative structure, and tell new stories.

When you change your mindset, the old stories no longer have power over you.

They can’t play with your emotions, deceive you, or immerse you so deeply into a storyline that you forget who you really are. They can’t convince you to be a victim, to be defensive, to become a caricature. They can’t label you or put you in a box. They can’t use you, manipulating you as a character in a story you didn’t write.

Change your mindset. Step out of this narrative framework.

This is the step to freedom from being controlled by stories that are not your own.

Or—more importantly—this is the step to freedom from your own stories. The old ones. The ones that will not let you grow. The ones that force you to remain offended, wounded, and broken. The stories that trap you in recovery mode, but won’t let you heal. The stories that want to define your future by calling up your past.

You are more than your own stories. And you are certainly more than anyone else’s stories, no matter how much you feel them and relate to them.

We are all multiple characters in many stories. See this truth: your multitudinous self is living a rich, deep, expansive life, dipping in and out of narratives at will, learning and growing from every interaction.

You can still listen to the old stories. They can help you understand the people around you, and how they’re thinking. They can remind you of what it’s like to feel stuck in such a limiting fairytale.

Your story is your reality

Remember that the stories are tools. The stories are not reality. The stories are there to help us understand, empathize, and choose.

But to do both of those things—to understand and empathize, and to create alternative stories—you need to be unfettered from the story. You are a slave to the story you believe. You must see each story for what it is: a potential version of reality.

If you want it to be your reality, believe it.

If not, write a different story.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash