Your life story is the continuum you live in. In fact, it is how you are able to survive. Our life story, the narrative we tell ourselves about our own experiences shapes our behaviour, personality and the way we organize our lives. Stories not only describe our past, they also offer a window into how we anticipate the future to turn out. Studies in narrative psychology show that by understanding how life stories are created, we are able to change how we visualize and make sense of our lives. In a sense, it is possible to change your life by deliberately altering your life script.
Building stories about negative events seems much easier than creating positive ones. There is usually a hidden, sneaky comfort in doling out sad and pitiful narratives. Yet, the more skewed your story is, the more negatively it impacts on your personality, outlook and expectations. Research in cognitive behaviour shows that successful people, those who are able to overcome hardship often tell a redemptive story. They acknowledge the negative circumstance they underwent; but they finish off their story with a redemptive, positive end. Those who undergo a painful divorce do not claim to be “failures,” or “unfairly treated.” They perceived their divorce as an entryway into a new loving partnership. For such people, a tale of pain, failure, discontented or betrayal could easily be the life story they tell others and themselves. However, they choose to momentarily step back to really see what this experience means for them. Stepping back from your life experiences (as opposed to unconsciously creating a painful life story) can allow you to see the little positive lessons and takeaways from each blow life deals you.
Human beings start to create broad personal life narratives from as young as five years. A young child at this age may define himself as preferring soccer to video games. He may go ahead to explain to himself that the reason why he doesn’t have as many friends is because he loves soccer and most of his ‘would be friends’ love videogames. The nature of narrative creation changes in teenage-hood and in adolescence. At this age, questions such as what is my purpose? what impact can I make in the world? what’s my identity? help to refocus your life story while also impacting on your personality and behaviour during this progression into adulthood.
The story of your life is also likely to change in your mid and late life. The basic concept underlying these changing life stories is that narratives are not rigid; they transform over time, depending on your continuing experiences. Some people adapt to their changing life experiences, and hence their life stories, unconsciously without pausing to ask how these events are impacting their perception of the present and the future. Interrogating your life circumstances can help you elucidate the meaning of these events and how you choose to interpret the events.
At the core of life stories are the words we use to tell these stories, mentally (to ourselves) or verbally (to others). Stories are not stories without words. The words you utter concerning a disease you are suffering from, a work situation or a relationship inadvertently affect how you perceive and deal with these experiences. Victimization stories can indeed weaken your motivation to either change the situation or get away from it. When faced with one bad boss after the other, what story do you tell yourself, your family and friends? Even though for a fact, your last three bosses have been jerks, do you narrate a boohoo tale of powerlessness?
On the other hand, objective, non-judgmental and drama-free observance of events can help you change your assessment of your bosses’ behaviour and your reaction towards their behaviour. A mental verbal story about your ability to persist, go around and tolerate your boss can help you keep a job (if you do indeed need to keep the job) Life experiences are the threads that sew together our life stories. While few experiences are under our control, how we choose to script those experiences is in fact something that we can control. To change the grand and the germane stories, we need to interrogate them and sort of dialogue with them, to steer them in a happier direction.
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