She grew up in a small town on the West Coast. The residents were nosy, minding everyone else’s business. School was filled with cliques, and, try as she might, she didn’t fit in. Hoping to escape, she went to a local college. But when her money ran out, she settled for a low-level job with little hope for advancement.
That’s kind of a depressing story. Try this version instead:
She grew up in a small town on the West Coast, where everyone was friendly. Because she had so many interests — sports, music, books, math — she touched base with almost everyone at school. Determined to see the world, she went to a local college. When her scholarship dried up, she didn’t want to take out massive student loans. Instead, she took an entry-level job and started saving, determined to go back to school and finish her degree debt-free.
Though these stories are based on the same facts, they couldn’t be more different in tone. Whether you know it or not, you’ve created a narrative for your life — and it impacts both your present and future. If you tell yourself a better story, you just may find yourself living a better life.
Not a Fairy Tale
A personal story doesn’t come from your imagination. It’s based on the facts of your life and presented through your eyes. People don’t simply exist from one moment to the next. You continually examine and interpret your life to find — or make — meaning. As you arrange the details, they help shape you as a person.
This storytelling process is developmental. While approaching young adulthood, individuals begin to develop life narratives. Teens understand cause-and-effect, patterns and themes. They use this internalized understanding to explain their lives. Younger people focus on change: “I’m an athlete. No, wait, I’m a brainiac.” Over time, the emphasis shifts to themes: “I can never catch a break,” or “I get what I want through hard work.” The older people get, the less likely they are to alter their narratives.
The Strength of Stories
Creating a narrative isn’t done to find excuses, relinquish responsibility or make lemonade out of lemons. Storytelling is simply part of human communication, both internally and toward others. It’s no coincidence that so many popular movies and books have strong story arcs. Plot-driven accounts make sense to people.
But unlike movies and books, life isn’t plotted. It’s random and disconnected at times. Using narratives, people find patterns to understand what’s happening, but these stories aren’t set in stone. They alter depending upon the audience. Though you have an internal version of why a work project failed, you offer a different report to your boss. The details remain the same, but emphasis and presentation differ.
The process of telling stories strengthens them. You use story variations in different contexts: home, social settings, work environments and new situations. The one you repeat the most sticks in your memory, becoming the preferred version.
For Better or Worse
Narratives impact how humans live. Young people use them for direction. A common one: “I’ll study hard, go to college, and then find a job where I can make a difference.” Stories help make choices: “I’m a family guy, so I’ve really got to consider how relocating for the promotion will affect my aging parents.” Personal histories also serve for comfort and support: “I’m strong and independent, so I’ll get over this breakup.”
Narratives can also be harmful. Hold a negative one that’s no longer true — “I’m an outsider” — and you make life more difficult. Emphasize the problems you’ve experienced — “I mess up everything” — and you reinforce pessimism. If you tell yourself a better story, adversity may not hit so hard.
Change Your Mind
If you find yourself living with a story arc you don’t like, you have the power to rewrite it. Change takes time, arising from many small steps. It’s not easy to alter your thinking, but it’s possible:
- Understand that it’s a story, not a fortune. It doesn’t control your life.
- If at some point your story isn’t helping your life, re-write it by changing focal points.
- Redefine unpleasant circumstances. If your car gets rear-ended, try “We’re so lucky no one got hurt” rather than “Why do these things always happen to me?”
- If you experience a trauma, don’t add it to your narrative. Consider it an outlier.
- Focus on aspects you can control.
- Don’t forget the role others play in your life, or you risk losing sympathy and empathy.
- Repeat the new narrative to help establish it in your mind.
It’s hard to take negative circumstances — job insecurity, financial struggles, relationship problems — and put positive spins on them. Practice helps. And, remember: If you tell yourself a better story, you’ll be living there, inside it.