What Story are You Telling (?): a Peek Behind the Scenes of Personal Narratives.

What Story are You Telling (?): a Peek Behind the Scenes of Personal Narratives.

r720930_5726188I want to share an exercise with you that I have found to be quite illuminating.[1]

This exercise, seemingly very simple (almost simplistic), provides a powerful tool to examine the nature of the story you are telling.

This exercise can help you to:

  • Locate yourself and your narrative.
  • Discover what archetype/s you are constellating in your personal narrative.
  • Better understand what it means (i.e. how it feels and influences) to constellate an archetype in your narrative and sense of identity.
  • Perhaps most importantly learn how to re-imagine your story through the lens of a different archetype.
  • Fundamentally change the context, not only from which you tell your story but in which you locate and identify yourself

Before I explain what the exercise is, it may be worth saying something about why this type of work is as valuable as it is.

I – tagging and personal narratives

Les Lancaster[2] writes about the phenomenon of ‘I-tagging’. This, very simply, is the act of the I (the ego, sense of self) associating itself with certain moments and not others.

This may be easiest to illustrate by an example. We all number amongst our friends or acquaintances a ‘poor-me’ soul. This is the person who has drawn the short straw in the lottery of life, who is inclined to the question:

how may my life have turned out if only…

Now as you may have noticed this poor soul seems, in addition to their already unfortunate history, to attract a lot of misfortune.

So it is a question we can (and do) ask, is this person really that unlucky or do they tend to zone in on their misfortune at the expense of other experiences.

Now one must be careful of oversimplifying the question. It may not be one or the other, but a combination of the two. That is to say certain misfortunes are suffered, for whatever reason, that lead the person, at least in part, to the conclusion that they are ‘misfortunate’ or ‘unlucky’. The individual in question comes to believe this way of being in the world is an essential property of themselves or their fate. However it started, it becomes who they are, their way of being in the world.

This is what is intended by Lancaster’s idea of the I-tagging. I choose from multiple events that occur in my life and associate myself with some rather than others. This is well known through the phenomenon of the very different narratives told by siblings about growing up in the same environment.

All of which gives us some insight into the significance of the story or stories I tell about myself and my life. These stories become the context from which I operate and identify myself.

An Example

The exercise uses the principle of telling your story (or stories) from the perspective of different archetypes.

The mechanics of the exercise and the archetypes I typically work with are listed below. Before you read these though let me give you an example of what this exercise looks life in practice.

The stories that follow are told by the same person viewing the same events, their childhood trauma, through different lenses, in this case the victim and the hero:

Victim’s story

As a child I was miserable, really constantly unhappy, alienated and unloved. My parents were dreadful. My mother was tyrannical and my father spineless. Life at home was a decidedly unhappy affair. School regrettably was not much better. I was not popular. I had very few friends and was terribly afraid of boys, so much so that I had to transfer to a girl’s only school. Things got so bad that  as a young teenager I suffered a nervous breakdown. Miraculously I survived and was able to continue functioning through the intervention of a school councillor. This pattern was pretty consistent throughout my childhood into my young adult hood. Finally in desperation I left home and travelled to another city to make a new start.

Little did I know what life had in store for me…

Hero’s story

I was born into an odd family (to say the least :-)), from a young age I realised I had little in common with my parents or my siblings. I was, it must be admitted, an unusual child. I was, if you will, ‘gifted’. But it was a gift that came at a price. I was different from my peers and spent much of my youth alone, keeping my own council. At a point it became too much and I suffered an emotional collapse. I was determined though to heal myself and I did, without ever involving my parents. Even at that age I knew I had to take responsibility for my own life, my own welfare and for who I would be one day in the world.

Anyway I did it and from there on I knew what ever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I became very, very strong. As soon as I was old enough I left home and went out into the world on my own, it was the start of a great adventure….

Now it is important to bear in mind this is the same story[3], the same individual and the same events. What shifts from one story to the other is the archetypal lens that the story is viewed through. The I-tagging is the process of identifying with one or other set of interpreted events.

The Exercise

This exercise is best done with a partner or in a small group. So if you have the opportunity to do this with a group of friends you will maximise the benefit of the exercise. If not you might try it simply as a journaling exercise. In either case after the exercise spend some reflecting on the process and see what it illuminates for you.

There are two ways to proceed here. Both of which are valid and valuable. If you have the time do both.

  • The first is to choose a single story, you ‘life story’ or at least a significant portion of it, a significant series of events whose unfolding were definitive in who you have come to believe you are.

  • The alternative is to choose different stories suited to each archetype (list to follow) you are working with at the time. This is equally useful.

What is really important though in both cases is that the stories actually occurred. This is not the time to fabricate. Feel free however to embellish and indulge in exaggeration. The truth is we naturaly colour our stories with feeling and tones that lift them above a type of flat journalistic account.

For the purposes of this exercise you will work with four archetypes.[4]

  1. The victim

  2. The hero

  3. The good guy

  4. The villain.


The mechanics

  • Tell your story from the perspective of, or consciousness of, the archetype you are working with.

  •  Follow the order I have listed them in 1 to 4.

  • Tell your story from the perspective of only one archetype at a time.

  • Devote as much time as circumstances allow, but in a spoken version of the story usually 5 to 7 minutes per archetype should suffice.[5]

  • The ideal sequence is tell: then listen[6] tell: then listen and so on, without a break. So you should move through all four archetypes in a single sitting.[7]

A few suggestions to get the most out of this exercise

  • Be quite strict with the time. If you settle on say 6 minutes per story, ask your partner to act as time keeper and stop you once you time out, regardless of where you are in the story.

  • When listening (NB) don’t interrupt. And do yourself a favour only do this exercise with a good listener.

  • Once the telling is complete i.e. all four stories have been told, then you can engage in discussion and reflection on the process and what came up for you.

  • Usually the perspective people find most difficult (or claim to anyway) is the villain. Many of us don’t enjoy recognising that we have villainous traits. My advice, simple, get over yourself!

If you engage sincerely in this process it can be, and in my experience is, quite fruitful. I don’t want to say too much and spoil your journey of discovery with it, so I’ll leave it there and allow you to experience the process for yourself.

Have fun and happy storytelling.

Until we speak again.



[1] I stumbled onto this exercise in a class that I teach (in applied psychodynamics). The exercise proved really worthwhile and is invariably a hit when I introduce it into group process work. It would be wonderful, of course, to say that I birthed this exercise after months (or years) of intense study of constellated archetypes and their role in defining our personal narratives, and then meditating one morning as the sun rose… (Oh well you get the idea I’m sure :-)).

The truth alas is a lot less romantic, as I say is it was more of fluke than anything else. In my case many of my best ideas are born from the simply playing around, experimenting and seeing what emerges. Of course one has to be in the privileged position of being able to experiment, which can just as easily result in a crash and burn scenario. Whilst I don’t blow out too frequently, it does happen, and I am fortunate enough to work with people who are sufficiently forgiving when it does.


[2] Professor Emeritus (transpersonal psychology)

[3] This is an actual story drawn from someone I have worked with.

[4] The format lends itself to different groupings. The four I have selected, whilst valuable in my experience, are not exclusive or even definitive.


[5] Naturally if you are journaling rather than telling your timelines will be quite a bit longer.

[6] i.e. to your partner’s telling

[7] If journaling I would suggest doing this over four consecutive days, one archetypal story per day

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Comments (6)

  • John Crabtree Reply

    Dear all- very relavent- loved the Jungian approach all my life-I am an artist and use certain motifs for ‘my story ‘- I often use the cassette tape as an image or metaphor ,a sort of Beckett thing-best wishes John

    February 4, 2013 at 9:16 am
    • Stephen Reply

      @John thanks for the feedback.

      February 5, 2013 at 5:47 am
  • Jackie Jooste Reply

    I have not considered this process flowing so rapidly from one Archetype to another. I have had such an in depth search into knowing and identifying all my major featuring archetypes. Yet I have placed them prettily on the wall like portraits, while living from my starving artist, victim and black sheep perspective. In therapy, my cognitive behavioral therapist has been able, upon occasion, to vacillate me from victim to warrior. These effects wear off as other influences weigh in stronger before long.

    February 4, 2013 at 5:39 pm
    • Stephen Reply

      @ Jackie thanks for sharing. There are naturally many ways to skin a cat, or in this case incarnate an archetype. And I definitely do not mean this particular technique as some sort of deus ex machine. It must be said though, that cognitive behaviourism is, at least theoretically, far removed from depth psychology. That being noted, this falling back to the default, you speak of, is our natural state, a kind of homeostasis of the psyche. Consciousness is an opposition to that unconscious default position

      February 5, 2013 at 5:47 am
  • Chantelle Reply

    I’ve been grappling with this since I started realising, really only a few years ago, that I had a choice in how my personal narrative plays out. Because I recognise the part of the ‘battle’ I wage that is the result of my having been raised by two eternal victims (sorry, bitterness a result of abbreviation for edit purposes, in reality love abounds 🙂 ), I’ve often feared for my daughters. When you’re a kid, everything seems so momentous and permanent that your actions and reactions can be so dramatic as to seal the misshapen cement into forms it’ll really cost in sweat and tears to recreate later. If it’s even possible. So for that reason, I do a ‘perspective’ game with my 6yr old. I tell her a story involving a conflict (e.g. fight between self and 2yo sister followed by punishment by me) and we go through it from each players’ perspective so she can have fun with what each party was thinking and feeling and how the same story can seem so different depending on how you look at it and who it’s focus is. The exercise you propose seems a much deeper and very useful approach for myself and I look forward to trying it. Just reading it I am aware of how I swing between archetypes even over the course of reliving something in my head. The animated kids’ movie, Wreck-It Ralph, which is currently on circuit may make for a good blog entry regarding projections and ’embracing the villain’. Seriously. I thought it was a fantastic, subtle, take on self-acceptance and not being defined by a ‘role’.

    Thank you for another fantastic post. I hope to be able to participate in some of your workshops this year. I need it.

    February 5, 2013 at 12:53 pm
    • Stephen Reply

      Hi Chantelle thanks for the feedback and for sharing your own story work. I also thoroughly enjoyed Wreck-it Ralph and I’m sure you’re right there must be a blog there :-). I hope we will see you on one of our workshops this year.

      February 6, 2013 at 8:55 am

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