Skill #4: Edit Your Life’s Story
Many of us are afraid of our life’s story, or at least a part of it. Why is this? Perhaps because we fear what others will think. Worse yet, we are afraid of our own life’s story and what we think or feel. We fear being reminded of the ups and downs of it. The sheer messiness of it. Or what we think of as the shaming, secretive parts of it. Truth is, telling our life’s stories gives us a way to make sense out of our lives. And in doing so, we may help another make sense out of life.
Telling our life’s stories gives us a way to make sense out of our lives.
Archeologists and anthropologists tell us that humankind has been telling stories from the beginning of time. Why? Because stories help us learn lessons and they help us integrate those lessons. Telling your own life’s story and the way you tell your story is critical. When we tell others how we became who we are and where we’re going because of those happenings, the story becomes a part of us. And guess what? We get to be the narrator and the main character. We get to say how the story is going to go. Therefore, we get to edit our own life’s story.
Two different types of stories
Telling our stories gives us a way to make sense out of our lives. Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson visited Columbia, SC, many years ago and spoke to social workers and therapists about how we weave the tapestry-of-our-lives when we learn to tell our stories. I remember her talking about creating and composing our lives, and the importance of coherence…a life that makes sense. Dan McAdams, Northwestern University psychologist, has studied narrative identity for thirty years. His research shows that there are two general types of stories people tell. A redemptive story would have certain themes in it: atonement, emancipation, recovery, self-fulfillment, generativity, agency or control, connection, perhaps even social mobility. Does your life have a redemptive story arc? Does the messy eventually become marvelous. Or at least meaningful?
Does your life have a redemptive story arc?
One time a client came into my office and the first words out of her mouth were, “I am a sexual abuse victim.” She is telling a contamination story. If your story is a contamination story, you are a victim. Your identity is tied to this past time in your life. You have written in ink, not chalk, that your life is poisoned. The themes of contamination stories are: past-oriented, victim, enslaved, often paranoid, isolated, stuck, depressed and anxious.
How do we edit our stories?
The very good news is that making even small changes to how you tell your story can greatly impact your life. So yes, something terrible happened. Your father died. You had to move twenty times. You were abused. Or neglected. Or in a horrific accident. What are the small edits you can make to make this contamination story a redemptive story? Perhaps you bonded with an uncle you would never have known had it not been for that death. Or you got really good at making friends quickly and being adaptable. Is it possible that your chosen profession and your giftedness is because of the childhood trauma? You get the idea. When we look for the healing, for the silver-linings, for the redemption, we are much more likely to feel like our lives have meaning and that they matter. For more about this, you may want to read The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith.
When we look for the healing, for the silver-linings, for the redemption, we are much more likely to feel like our lives have meaning and that they matter.
Perhaps this “trick” will help you, too.
How can you practice looking for the redemption? Here’s a trick I learned at a journaling workshop many years ago. When something bad happens, do this immediately. ( Hint…practice on the little things first!) Name three things that aren’t bad about that situation. The first time I practiced this was when I had a flat tire on the way to the airport to catch a plane. IMMEDIATELY, I said out loud, “Well, at least I am not wearing a white pantsuit, I have AAA coverage, and my girlfriend is not working today and perhaps she can help me. When we practice changing our narrative on the little things, the very big things become easier. For example, when we thought my daughter had cancer, (she didn’t) I immediately said, ” We have a deep and wide support system, we have access to great doctors, and we believe that somehow good will come out of this.” Was I scared out of my mind? Yes. Did I cry myself to sleep that night? Yes. Did I already believe that we would find our way through whatever happened and that somehow, it would be redemptive? Yes.
Practice telling your story. Think about the main points, the turning points, the themes. Look for the redemption. If you cannot see it, ask those close to you to help you name it. If you are stuck in contamination, get help. Because life is messy for all of us. But we get to be the narrator of our story, and we can tell it in a way that matters and has meaning.
Amy Sander Montanez, D. Min., LPC, LMFT has a private practice of individual psychotherapy and marriage counseling in Columbia, SC. Her book, Moment to Moment: The Transformative Power of Everyday Life, won Spirituality and Health’s top 100 books of the year. Amy is passionate about many things in life, but especially about psychology, spirituality, dancing, cooking, marriage, family, friends, traveling, and learning. www.amysandermontanez.com