On Integration, Narrative, and Rewriting Yourself and Others

(Epistemic status: Rephrasing a thing most people know to sound more sinister and sexy. Possibly actionable advice.)

There is a process that often takes place, especially after novel experiences, where we figure out how we relate to the new things we have felt and thought and sensed. This is a process some people refer to as processing, though others call it integration. When an experience is integrated, it is compressed to fit the current self-consistent narrative (which is a concept that deserves its own post, but roughly rounds to “the current story you think you’re living”) for the frame of the self that is accessing the memory of the experience. More plainly, integration rewrites the memory into words, packaging it into a story that fits the thing you think of yourself as, so that it can be delivered to others with the “right details” emphasized. This same process is accessed every time you tell a story; your experiences update into whatever frame you are recounting them from…and this process can be used by others, trivially.

Conversation is generally framed as a way of relating information to one another. What’s not mentioned is conversation is a way of changing the way two people not only see each other but themselves as well. Every time someone gets past the canned answers of small talk, they are accessing the other person’s experiences, their stories, and rewriting them into whatever frame the conversation is taking place it. If you ask someone to tell you about a fun experience at a party and they do so, the story they tell is going to emphasize aspects most relevant to you; the story I tell about the pick up artist has gone from emphasizing the specifics of his technique and my counter-technique to the overarching arc of the power struggle, mostly alluding to details I have repeated countlessly, because the frames I have been telling it in emphasize brevity. I don’t even really remember the specifics of the things I noticed. Were I asked to fill them in, I would likely start making up details that are close to what happened but optimized for the listener’s preferences. I’m sure most are aware of false memories; overall, most memories are false and become falser the more they are accessed. Interaction with people literally rewrites you, bit by bit.

One might be wondering how to defend against this, because people are generally attached to a certain version of themselves. The truth is, you don’t, it’s an inevitable result of being humans that use words to experience each other. It’s not actually a bad thing to change a little every time you talk to someone, but it is a good thing to be aware of which people you’re allowing to change you more. All this said, I consider professionalism and workplace distancing to be an expression of the desire/necessity of insulating oneself from being altered by outside forces (such as customers or coworkers). A lot of professionalism discourages things like risky disclosures or deviating from script. No one is really allowed to relate to each other in ways that are sociologically optimized for close/personal relationships, because this increases variance and favoritism in a place that is supposed to have the illusion of meritocracy and egalitarianism. Of course, what is really happening is the corporation is hijacking most of the rewriting and integration process to make you more like the corporation. Having so many of your experiences be Work, you can’t help but have it become your identity. Still, the techniques used to isolate you from those around you can provide some insulation from the rewrite process if you are very protective of your Self socially.

The question I find more interesting than defense is offense, of course. How can this be used aggressively to get people to be more like the way you want them. The answer is fairly simple; frame control. The experiences you guide people towards relating to you will change the valence of their relationship with you, as well as the memories of those experiences. The frame you use will determine whether it is a serious, dramatic disclosure that is difficult to share or perhaps if it is no big deal, or even comedic to the person sharing. Place context is also very key. A story shared in a public place about a very personal experience is going to lack a lot of detail and likely rub out some of those details in future retellings; if you are able to draw such a story out, it does create blanks you can then use priming to fill in later to change the relation of the experience. A story shared in a private place, with no time pressure, is likely to be more disjoint and detail rich. Here, the frame for the story is what will determine what aspects seem salient; some of this is controllable, such as the specific thing you ask for (an example would be, I like asking for stories in a genre sometimes, and that very heavy frame of genre means that the information I get is emphasized for hitting the notes common to the genre). Some of this is not controllable; a friend that has known you for years already knows which buttons to press when relating a deep experience. Someone you’ve met twice is going to tell the story to the glamour you’ve presented them with. Who you are to the person you’re speaking with is also a frame. If you consider all factors and aim, you have a possible chance of guiding someone in a very helpful (or hurtful, but seriously please don’t be like that) direction. Rewriting memory and experience is far from an exact science but it is more controllable than simple conversation would make it seem.

Overall, integration is an inevitable process; information and people will invoke the process by pure accident just by the very nature of words. Knowledge of this process allows you to screen, at least a little, who you allow you change you. Knowledge of this process also allows you to use it with intention, for good or ill.

Discussion: Is integration a process you have noticed in your life; is rewriting? Can you recall when a friend has accidentally rewritten the way you relate to an experience? In retrospect, do you think it was accidental? Can you think of a time you’ve rewritten others? Did it feel like it was for therapeutic purposes? Would it be helpful if I wrote a post more specifically on how a conversation with intentional rewriting might go?

3 thoughts on “On Integration, Narrative, and Rewriting Yourself and Others

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