Creating Coherent Narratives: How to Understand Your Place in the World

My previous post shared Dr. Dan Siegel’s opinion that for parents to have made sense of their lives was the single best predictor of positive outcomes for a child to be emotionally healthy and primed to thrive.

Is this not worthy of our attention?

How can we as parents make sense of our lives, and what is involved in doing this?

The phrase “makes sense” refers to a life story that, according to Dr. Siegel¹ involves “sequential descriptions of people and events that condense numerous experiences into generalizing and contrasting stories.

A life story compares new experiences to old ones…

How to begin? Similarities are noted in creating generalized rules. Differences are highlighted as memorable exceptions to those rules. Further, the stories are about making sense of events in the mental experiences of the characters…

These stories appear to be functioning to create a sense of coherent comprehension of the individual in the world across time (or understanding your place and purpose in the world).

Siegel goes on to state that “making sense” of an experience on one level means trying to understand cause-effect relationship: what is happening and why it happened.” He states that “through the life course, the individual mind attempts to create a coherent internal, interpersonal, and group experience.”

Here is a little brain information to consider.

Creating a coherent narrative requires both right and left-brain hemisphere modes of processing information.

The right brain’s perceptually rich, analogic, context-dependent, autonoetic, mentalizing representations create much of the imagery and many of the themes of the narrative process. The logical, linear, ‘making sense’ interpretations of these representations and the communication of narrative details stem from the left hemisphere’s interpretive and linguistic processing of digital representations. On each side of the brain, these processes may reflect a vertical integration of various representational processes…  The left hemisphere’s drive to understand cause-effect relationships is a primary motivation of the narrative process. … Coherent narratives are created through inter-hemispheric integration.

It’s a little like a ping-ponging operation with images and information transferring from one side of the brain to the other.

Moreover, Siegel states that because a person says they understand themselves, doesn’t make it true.

A narrative needs to be an accurate story that is coherent, logical and involves an integration process in which memories are organized in ways that allow a person to sequentially and rationally tell their life story. The decision of genuine integration versus incoherence sometimes needs to be determined through objective observation by someone professionally qualified as the person may not be aware.²

What specifically does this mean for parents?

I think it has to do with parents taking stock of their lives. Parents could review their significant experiences intact with the meaning and impact of those experiences.

To do this using both sides of the brain involves blending recalled memories (in terms of the images and accompanying feelings and sensations with the facts of those experiences) reconstructed in a sequential way.

This can be very hard to do if memories have been shattered as a result of overwhelming anxiety, terror or other forms of trauma. In fact, a hallmark of a traumatizing experience is a person’s inability to have accurate and sequential memory of it.

However, it is still possible to create coherent narratives by piecing together the facts as you know them. Then imagine what it must have been like to gain the result of making sense of life. Asking family members, friends and others who might be able to fill in holes in your stories is another option.

What if you have never created a coherent narrative?

If creating coherent narratives is not something you have done in the past, you can begin now. Conjure memories and practice “moving” back and forth between the images, sensations and feelings along with the specific facts of the experience told in a sequence from beginning to end.

This back and forth dialogue between the two hemispheres of your brain helps to build and strengthen your neural integration.

Exercises like this can be powerful, intense and ultimately highly meaningful.

It promotes a deepened sense of understanding of who you are and why you are who you are.

From this, you can understand more why you do what you do. You are freer to make decisions about who you want to be in the future. You can change outcomes for your children as needed to promote their health as well as yours.

As you get clearer about your life stories, you can share some of these with your children to help them make sense of their lives as well. It will help also to teach them how to create their own life narratives.

I wish you well on your journey. It is a journey worth taking, both for you and for your children and their futures.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Notice how you are feeling about the task of pulling up memories from your past and making sense of them through this process of recalling images, sensations and feelings along with putting facts in a sequential order. Are you excited, overwhelmed, nervous, concerned or curious?
  2. What might be some of the obstacles to working on making sense of your life? What do you need to help you overcome any obstacles?
  3. Think about who you can share your narrative with to bear witness to your stories. This can reinforce this whole process of making sense of your life.
  4. Embrace the powerful benefits of doing this work, not only for yourself but also for your children.

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network


1.  Dr. Dan Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are

2. To hear Dan Siegel speak in greater detail about this, check out  Making Sense of Your Past by Daniel Siegel, M.D.






One response to “Creating Coherent Narratives: How to Understand Your Place in the World”

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