“When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.” - Anonymous
Someone is going to the beach, looking at the bookstore for a great story, and they pick up the book of your life. What kind of read are they about to experience?
You may not think of your life as a book or a story, but academics in the area of narrative psychology tell us that we all impose a story arc onto our lives and it makes a huge impact, not just on how we see ourselves, but on how we act each day.
According to narrative psychology expert, Dan McAdams, PhD, at Northwestern University: “We don’t just tell stories, stories tell us. They shape our thoughts and memories, and even change how we live our lives… Storytelling isn’t just how we construct our identities, stories are our identities."
One study, for example, found that people asked to give in a lab setting were more generous if they first told stories about their generosity of the past. While equally generous folks who told stories of being on the receiving end of generosity were more stingy givers during the test.
All to say, those who told their story, positively, lived into that positive identity and change. The result of that study is not unique, which tells us, or should tell us, that making story edits to our personal narratives can have a big impact on our lives.
What does this look like in our daily lives?
Turning Failure into Learning Narratives
At its clearest, it’s about turning our stories of struggles into stories of redemption. This one seems easy in our self-help obsessed world, but it’s hard to embrace when we’re in the muck of our failure. No one filing bankruptcy wants to reflect about how they’re learning hard lessons about personal financial planning. But time can help this narrative take shape.
Turning Injustice Stories into Tales of Personal Power
And what about struggles that we do not bring on ourselves? The ones that come when awful things happen to lovely people? This is undoubtedly harder as grief comes into play. The woman who suffered near-death beatings in an abusive relationship may only want to see her abuser in jail; not take time spinning her story into a tale of strength or even forgiveness.
At some point, however, she will again hold the pen, and while some of her agency has been stolen, she can use her actions to move the narrative forward and use her voice to summarize the lessons of the past.
Accepting and Expanding our Non Redemption Stories
There is one incredibly sticky wicket in this idea of telling our positive stories to live more positive lives. Sometimes our stories end poorly. The best example of this is terminal cancer. When we insist, as we often do, in forcing everything to be a redemption story, then suffering that ends without resolve blames victims. Terminal patients in hospice are suddenly left holding the “lost the fight” bag as an example. In this case, stories of personal agency and redemption are suddenly the opposite of helpful.
The answer here too, however, is to pick up the pen. All of our lives end in death. In this way, no one gets the ultimate redemption. So then, what is left, what is good, to talk about and remember and appreciate as we look back (if we cannot look forward)? Many will be able to share stories of hope, communion with others, gratitude, love and beauty. These are experiences we all share.
No matter what life throws into the pages of your book, consider the importance you wield as its writer. You really do hold the pen, and the story you tell of the past and present, affects the future too.
As motivational writer and speaker, Lisa Nichols says, “Your life is your story. Write well. Edit often.”