Few things have a greater influence over our lives than the stories we tell ourselves. Tell yourself that you’re a victim and you are. Tell yourself that you’re destined for success, and success is likely to become your destiny.
The stories we weave about our lives color the way we perceive everything. They embody our beliefs. They create our senses of identity. They influence the way we interact with the world. They give meaning to our lives.
And yet, despite the incredible power they exert in shaping us, most of us are wholly unaware of what our stories are. Woven from haphazard events without our conscious intention or control, they operate in the background, framing our view of the world and of ourselves, without our even realizing that they’re there.
But if you grab your story, pulling it into the light of day, you can use its power to transform your life into the life you truly want it to be.
How Our Stories Get Written
Our conscious mind can’t possibly give equal attention to everything that happens to us. In order to make sense of our lives, we learn to weave a thread of meaning that connects the more significant events and lets the others fade away.
We highlight the experiences that have the greatest emotional impact on us, and we interpret them according to the stories we hear others telling us. We adopt plot lines from our families and teachers, from our media and from our cultures. We borrow the beliefs and values that they pass along, matching them to our experiences, adopting the ones that seem to fit.
Our Stories Shape Our Lives
Once we have a general plot line, we selectively notice the life events that support it. In effect, our story becomes a filter through which we view ourselves and our roles in the world.
In her book, Positive Identities: Narrative Practices and Positive Psychology (The Positive Psychology Workbook Series)
Dr. Margarita Tarragona tells about the work of Jerome Bruner, a psychologist from New York University, who says that we become the stories that we create about our lives.
“He and other scholars,” she writes, “believe that our life narratives not only describe experiences, but actually have an impact on how we live. The stories we tell about our lives are not simply accounts of our experiences, they also generate experiences: how we feel, what we think, what possibilities and obstacles we see for ourselves.”
Think of your story as a bag of groceries, author Barbara Stahura suggests. “A person—or a culture—could mindlessly fill it with junk food that does nothing to nourish and may even do harm. Alternatively, the bag could be packed with nutritious, delicious foods that support health and vitality for many decades,” she writes.
“The stories you believe—about anything—are your emotional food. If you repeatedly berate yourself with negative labels, you live one story. If you instead often remind yourself that you’re smart and worthy, that you’re fine just the way you are, you live another. If you hold a belief that prevents you from attempting a new activity, you live a different story than if you tried and succeeded, or if you tried and failed and tried again. All of these beliefs create various stories that can take your life in many directions.”
Pulled by the Future
The good news is that if you aren’t happy with the direction your life is going, you can begin to change it by changing your story.
One theme that plays out in the story that many of us have been telling ourselves is that we’re at the mercy of damaging unconscious forces set in motion by childhood experiences. We’re victims, we tell ourselves, because we were neglected or abused along the way.
“My mother always told me that I’d never amount to anything,” Pete told me while explaining why he was so disappointed with his life. “And she was right. Everything I try goes wrong.” Pete had taken a few psychology courses a couple decades ago and came away from them believing that his whole future was doomed by his mother’s predictions.
But, in fact, psychologists know now that very little evidence supports the view that we’re prisoners of events from our past. People have the ability to make new choices and to carve out new directions for themselves.
“People are not just products of their circumstances or passive receptors of forces. They also make decisions, act intentionally, and can have an impact on many of the developments in their lives,” Tarragona says. As Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, puts it, we’re pulled by the future, not pushed by the past.
So the first step to take when you revise your life story is to let go of the theme that says you must be a loser in some way because you had a less than ideal childhood or experienced trauma along the way. People whose stories have happy endings rise above devastating childhoods and traumas every day.
Where to Begin
The next step in rewriting your life story is to become aware of the story you’re telling yourself now.
One way to begin to see your story, suggest psychologists Jake and Hannah Eagle is to suppose that someone asked you, “If you have five minutes to tell me about yourself, to tell me what matters most, what would you say?”
Think about how you would respond to that question. You may even want to write out a reply.
But five minutes isn’t really enough to tell your whole story. Most of our stories have many chapters. So try imagining that you’re getting to know a new friend and you’re sharing all about your life. What do you tell him or her about your childhood? About your high school years? What happened in your young adulthood? What’s key about you now? How do you feel about your work, about the important relationships in your life, about how things are going, about your expectations for the future?
Another way to look at your story, Stahura suggests, is by completing these phrases:
- One story I believe about myself…
- One story that holds me back…
- One story I no longer choose to believe…
- The stories I tell myself about myself…
- In order to move out of this stuck place, I will create a new story that tells me…
Once you’re aware of the story you have been telling up until now, you can begin to rewrite it. Take a chapter at a time. Or start with the part of the story that’s holding you back or keeping you stuck, the part that says you can’t or that you’re not smart or good or deserving enough, and rewrite it with a happy ending. Showcase your strengths, your abilities, your knowledge and skills, the things that make you feel good about yourself.
Write your story about the you that you’re becoming, the one that’s pulling you forward, the one who overcomes all the obstacles and is actively shaping the life of your dreams.
Fill it with different memories and new perspectives, with interpretations based on the values, beliefs and wisdom that you possess now, as a mature and capable adult.
”A story is the relationship that you develop between who you are, or who you potentially are, and the infinite world,” playwrite Shekhar Kapur says in his TED talk.
The world is infinite, and you, potentially, are anything you’re willing to believe you can be.
Write your story large. Let its pages shine with your strengths and your triumphs. We become the stories that we tell ourselves. Write yours with passion and joy, where every adventure builds to a happy ending.