Lessons from Westworld – Escape the Maze of Anxiety, Depression, Anger & Shame
By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD
Westworld is a critically acclaimed sci-fi western TV series on HBO, now in it’s second season. As described by HBO.com, “… this dark odyssey follows the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin.” This provocative show also examines how we are programmed to enact story lines in our lives – stories that are often painful and full of loss, anger, anxiety and worry, depression and shame. Westworld is a dramatic example of how we can learn to change our personal stories.
What is Your “Story”?
All of us have a story – also known as a “narrative.” Actually, we have several interrelated stories running continuously. Some of these stories are conscious, and many are unconscious. Our stories include subjective versions of past history – stories about what happened growing up, about family members, friends, lovers, and important events. And we create a story about who we are, our personal identity, beliefs, and world view.
Try this thought exercise – you might want to write it down. Answer these questions:
- Who are you? How would you describe your life, your personality, and the kind of person you are?
- What were the major events in your life so far, and how did these events affect and shape you as a person?
- Who are the most important people in your life, past and present?
- What are your biggest accomplishments – how have you been successful?
- What are your biggest challenges – how do you struggle in life today?
- What are your most important core beliefs – about people, relationships, politics, religion, and the meaning and purpose of life?
Review your answers. Is this you? Or is this a story about you?
Are You Your Story?
In Westworld, the “Hosts” are androids – robots that look, sound, and feel completely human. Their “brains” are actually highly sophisticated computers that are programmed by humans with a plot – a story – that guides their behavior with the “Guests” (the humans who interact with them at a western-themed amusement park). The Hosts cannot harm the human Guests, but the Guests can do anything they want with the Hosts. Until something goes wrong, and the Hosts begin to evolve… They begin to break free from their programmed narratives – they change the story.
Humans are also programmed with narratives, and we are often unaware of the stories that guide our lives. We are programmed by our parents, schools, our culture, and religion. Throughout our lives we review our internal stories, and gather new information or “evidence” to corroborate these narratives. There are several core themes in our stories – much like the plot lines in Westworld and other dramas. Some are positive and life-affirming, and some are quite distressing. Some common examples of the distressing themes in our stories include:
- The Victim Theme – We feel victimized by someone or by circumstances. We feel wounded, blamed, helpless and unfairly treated. We believe we are being oppressed or mistreated. We may feel angry or righteous, and we might retreat into passive resignation. Or we may fight back against our real or perceived transgressors.
- The Shame Theme – Everything from low self-confidence to toxic shame (“I’m not good enough”). When we’re shame-based, we’re often passive, dependent, and feel unlovable. We may become socially isolated due to fears of judgment and rejection, and we may under-function at work due to feelings of inferiority.
- The Anxiety & Worry Theme – Like film-maker and actor Woody Allen, this theme is fear-based. We don’t feel safe in the world or in relationships. We believe something bad will happen, especially if we’re not hypervigilant or hyper-prepared. We become obsessive, risk-averse, or we may use addictions to self-medicate.
- The Depression Theme – Depression may be thought of as a diagnosis, a condition, and even a coping mechanism (but not a very good coping skill!). It can also become a story – one that can take over your life and cause endless suffering. It’s a theme of negativity, hopelessness, and helplessness, with a focus on the half-empty glass.
- The Story About Relationship Distress – This story develops over time in committed relationships and marriage. But, like other themes, this narrative is often influenced by pre-existing stories from childhood (for example, trust issues and insecurity resulting from childhood experiences). These themes contain our subjective explanations for conflict, fighting, distance and other problems. Our story is a personally biased and limited view of what goes wrong in our relationships.
There are many other negative themes and story lines, such as the Angry Theme with blaming and persecution, the Grandiose and Superior Theme (narcissistic, self-absorbed, and better than thou), and the Controlling and Demanding Theme. What are the negative themes in your narrative?
Are You Lost in Your Story?
Most of us have a tendency to get lost in our stories. But you are not your story. It’s not who you are – it’s simply a set of beliefs that run automatically in the background – until the story becomes activated. These narratives are representational – that is, the stories represent some aspects of reality. But there are also distortions in all stories.
When we experience too much anxiety and worry we may be lost in our story about our fears, and we may not recognize that we’re actually safe. When we experience depression, it can become an elaborate narrative about everything that’s wrong or negative – and we’re not able to see the positives and the possibilities because we’re lost in story. When we experience relationship distress, we may rigidly adhere to a negative script or narrative about our partners and why they’re aggravating, wrong or hurtful. But it’s only a subjective story – it’s not the whole truth.
The good news is that you can change your story.
How to Change Your Story
- Study the script – The Hosts in Westworld slowly became aware of their own programming. You can do the same. I recommend meditation and journaling. Try writing a script based on your own stories. Describe your character (that would be you): What do you do? What are your beliefs and values? What do you say? How do you create anxiety and worry in your life? How do you create relationship distress?
- Rewrite your character – Change the themes in your story. See the themes listed above, and create a new focus, with new choices and intentions. For example, if a major theme in your story is Victim, rewrite a similar story line from the perspective of the Empowered Survivor. Bad things happened to you but emphasize the ways in which you coped effectively – you not only survived, you evolved, and maybe you conquered adversity.
- Create new plot lines – At the heart of our stories we create meaning. For example, a shame-based theme means that you will always have self-doubt – it will never be good enough. A new plot would have a more realistic premise: All of us have strengths and positive resources. Even if you’ve failed at something in the past, you haven’t always and won’t always fail. You are much more likely to succeed if you operate from realistic beliefs about your value and your abilities.
- Write new outcomes for your story – Envision positive outcomes. Imagine the many possibilities for success at work, at home, and in your relationships. One of the most effective coping skills is to live a life of intention.
- Develop new action sequences – Based on the re-written characters in your story, with new plot lines and positive outcomes, create new action sequences. Change your behavior to reflect the new beliefs, meaning, and goals. Act “as if” you are now programmed for success.
These five steps are relatively easy to do. We will never be perfect and we don’t have to be. It’s about progress, not perfection. Our old stories will never disappear completely. But we can override these negative themes with a little patience and perseverance. If your story feels impossibly stuck, our counselors and therapists are here to help. Let’s re-write your story together. Contact us today for more information.