We can all relate to the experience of having a personal story playing on repeat in our heads. We analyze it over and over again wondering why we said the thing we said or acted in the way we acted. Our personal stories, especially the really great or really terrible events, narrate our lives. They tell us about who we are, where we’ve been and what we value. In fact, life stories make up part of our personality in what psychologists call “narrative identity.” This means that our self stories contribute to who we are in much the same way that traits such as openness or extroversion do.
Imagine how one event could be interpreted differently depending on how you talk to yourself and others about the experience. For example, say you get really excited about getting healthy and start a new nutrition program. You announce it on social media and throw yourself into your new way of eating – for two weeks. After that it all becomes too much to handle and you decide to quit. There are different ways to narrate this story to yourself. One person may weave this into a theme of being a quitter, incapable of doing hard things and creating real change. Another person may be empowered by their act of quitting because the program was a terrible fit and it would be a waste of time and energy to continue.
In general, people who tell themselves stories about growth and the ability to overcome obstacles enjoy a greater sense of meaning in their lives. On the other hand, people who tend to narrate personal stories with a negative ending may be more prone to anxiety and depression. The good news is that we are the authors of our own stories. Even when big scary things have happened to us, we are able to revisit these events and interpret them in such a way that something positive comes out of the experience. Researchers who study narrative identity suggest that authoring new stories involves these two steps.
- Explore the meaning of the experience. This takes time and emotional investment. A therapist can be a key partner in this exploration.
- Change the ending. This is not to say that we are able to tie up a traumatic experience with a tidy bow. However, if we do the work to dive deep into our difficult stories we can often find some positivity that came from it. In doing so we become released from the tight grasp the experience has on us so that our story can move on to the next chapter.
Intrigued? Let’s talk about a writing prompt to get you started. Remember, the goal here is to rewrite your story and finding your inner strength in what you’ve previously experienced. The goal is not to publish your work or to get a book deal.
The exercise is to write a list of your self-defining memories. These are your memories that are emotional, vivid and critical to the person you are today. These are the memories that flash like a photo in your mind; the ones where you remember sensory details like what was cooking in the oven or what you were wearing that day. Try not to censor yourself as you get started. As your list grows, one particular memory may strike you differently than the others. You may feel a strong note of resonance within you. Choose that memory and start exploring it with your writing.