We’re constantly absorbing new information. We observe and question everything in our minds: 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 survival. We seek information that will help us survive physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially.

Once we feel certain of our survival, we begin to seek information that will help us become fulfilled.

Sometimes, seeking fulfillment is fairly simple: 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?

Sometimes, seeking fulfillment is deep and complex: 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. It’s the natural progression of human learning, but things don’t always work out that way.

How Stories Influence Our Behavior

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

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 those where we play a central role. So, if you want to manipulate someone, tell a good story. Make them part of it: a main character. A protagonist. A hero.

We can use stories to expand perspectives rather than affirm assumptions.

Hook their interest. Lead them into a narrative. Get them emotionally invested. Then, tell the story you want them to believe about themselves and their world.

They’ll read it. Then—depending on how good the story is and how strong the emotional connection—they’ll internalize the story. It will shift from being a story about someone else to a narrative about reality and their place in it.

Being led by a story isn’t bad, necessarily. Unless those stories are damaging.

Survival Stories Are Manipulating Us

When we’re seeking survival, 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.”

In order to survive, we must be sure of what belongs to “us” and what belongs to the rest of the world. We feel that we must prioritize and protect what is “ours.” We believe we must guard against, limit, push away, and fight what is “other.”

Stories that use the “ours-versus-other” structure have been used as a political tool for a long time. Everyone seems to think political name-calling, group-dividing, and other-ostracizing are worse than usual right now. They’re not. These strategies have always been used in power struggles and have always been pathetically effective. They’re not worse than ever — they’re simply more obvious than ever.

Here’s how it works: First, 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.

Next, 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 the heroes and/or the victims.
  • The caricatures that are other must be the villains or 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. Readers will feel a personal sense of urgency to enter the story and help make the resolution happen.

Taking Control of the Narrative

We can reduce the manipulative power of these stories. We can write different versions of a story, of any story. We can use the ours-versus-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. We can turn conflict into cooperation and repulsion into relationships. We can use stories to expand perspectives rather than affirm assumptions.

Here are four ways to change a story without removing it from the ours-versus-other structure:

  1. Change the plot. Instead of showing a conflict that is us versus them, show a conflict where us and them unite to deal with a bigger conflict.
  2. 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.”
  3. Transform caricatures to characters. Real people have feelings. They can grow and learn. They are not entirely predictable. They 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.
  4. Initiate dialogue. Both in the story itself (let the characters 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 good at it. When I am not—when I am merely parroting a divisive narrative—I am not telling my own story. I am retelling one I heard and believed. I am being controlled by this structure of ours versus other, this idea of division and conflict.

Stepping out of this narrative framework is a step toward freedom from being controlled by stories that are not your own.

As you get better at reframing these stories, they’ll begin to lose their power. They’ll lose the ability to play with your emotions, deceive you, or immerse you so deeply in a storyline that you forget who you really are. They will no longer convince you to be a victim, to be defensive, to become a caricature. They will not be able to label you or put you in a box. They will not be able to use you or manipulate you as a character in a story you didn’t write.

Stepping out of this narrative framework is a step toward freedom from being controlled by stories that are not your own.

Or—more importantly—it’s a step toward freedom from your own stories, the old ones, those 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 and relate to them. You are multiple characters in many stories. 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 fairy tale.

Remember: stories are tools. Stories are not reality. They’re there to help us understand, empathize, and choose. We 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 something new.