March 19, 2020

What’s Your Personal Story?

Asian woman holding a notebook and thinking with text: What's Your Story?

As I mentioned last time, many of us are struggling with anxiety right now, and that can affect our ability to focus and/or write. So I’ve been keeping my eye open for anything that might help.

Along similar lines, two of my previous guest posters have shared their insights for dealing with anxiety as well. Author Roni Loren had a few tips for how to cope with COVID-19 anxiety. And author Julie Glover (who just recently debuted!) talked about the power of stories in a crisis.

As Julie pointed out, many of us are now sharing stories of how we’re dealing with the world’s situation. One of my tweets was about how I was distracting myself with Google Search’s AR (augmented reality) animals (here’s how to do it):

Beyond the stories we tell others about our life, there’s also our inner story: The story we tell ourselves about our life.

Wait…We Tell Ourselves Stories about Our Life?

When we write stories for our characters, we often include a character arc, sometimes called an internal or emotional arc. Like with any arc, the character experiences changes. In the case of their internal arc, those changes are internal.

They might change how they see the world. They might change how they see others. Or they might change how they see themselves.

In the same way, we tell ourselves a story to explain our life, thoughts, experiences, and beliefs. And just like with our characters’ arcs, we can change how we perceive and conceptualize that story of our life.

What Does It Mean to Change Our Personal Story?

We’ve talked before about our character’s false belief, something they believe about themselves that isn’t true. In the stories we write, those false beliefs are often triggered by a backstory wound, such as the type of wounds that Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi explore in their Emotional Wound Thesaurus.

For example, a character who’s been abandoned by those they loved throughout their life might believe they’re unlovable, or they don’t deserve happiness, or others aren’t to be trusted. In other words, our characters tell themselves a story about their life, and their false belief is a specific way that life-story isn’t true.

A character’s arc often focuses on them learning the truth:

  • Some people are trustworthy.
  • They are lovable.
  • They do deserve happiness.

Or put simply, the story they tell themselves about their life changes. In the same way, to some extent, we have control over the story we tell ourselves about our life.

Why Does Our Personal Story Matter?

Psychological studies have dug into the different types of internal narratives we develop to explain our life, thoughts, experiences, and beliefs. Dr. Dan P. McAdams of Northwestern University is most well-known for these studies into our sense of self and identity.

As his university profile explains, his life-story theory of human identity makes the case that modern adults give their lives a sense of unity and purpose by creating and internalizing self-defining life stories or “personal myths.”

Our life-story connects all the “episodes” of our experiences into a story of meaning. We use our story to explain to ourselves how and why our life and experiences matter:

  • What’s the point of all our experiences?
  • What’s the purpose of going through all of our trials and tribulations?

Without a sense of meaning from that internal story tying our life’s experiences together into a bigger picture, we can feel adrift, and life can feel pointless. That’s not a good mental state for anyone.

How Can Understanding Our Personal Story Help Us?

Like in the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves about our life can follow certain themes, such as power, intimacy, redemption, and generativity (guiding future generations). The theme our life-story follows is what shapes the meaning and purpose of our experiences.

Do we see everything through a lens of…

  • Power: How do our experiences lead to us getting more power or losing our power?
  • Intimacy: How do our experiences lead to us getting closer to or further from others?
  • Redemption: How do our experiences lead us to overcoming or suffering under adversity?
  • Generativity: How do our experiences lead to a better or worse future for the next generation?

And so on for whatever our life-story theme might be. But how does this matter to us now?

Those studies revealed that our internal narrative can affect our mental health. In other words, we might be able to lessen our anxiety with storytelling.

What’s the “Theme” of Our Life Story?

Looking at that list of possible life-story themes above—power, intimacy, redemption, and generativity—it’s no surprise that different themes can give us vastly different perspectives on our life.

How can the story we tell ourselves about our life affect our mental health? Click To TweetSomeone with a “power” theme to their life is going to see all setbacks through the lens of being powerless or of power being taken away from them. In contrast, a “redemption” theme in someone’s life story—as Dr. McAdams describes it, overcoming suffering or adversity—would allow them to see setbacks through the lens of opportunities to improve and become better or stronger.

Most would agree that the latter theme is mentally healthier. In fact, Dr. McAdams’ work “shows that people who tell their life story in redemptive terms…enjoy better mental health and higher levels of happiness, compared to people whose life stories show fewer themes of redemption.”

What Makes Redemptive Life-Story Themes Healthier?

Redemptive themes in our life story give us opportunities to shape our understanding of our life in positive ways, despite any setbacks we encounter. Those of us who write redemption stories for our characters know the power of this theme.

Redemption stories are about:

  • comebacks
  • overcoming obstacles
  • atoning for past mistakes
  • growing and learning
  • showing where we came from and our potential for where we’re going
  • changing and developing and becoming better

In other words, redemption themes often go hand-in-hand with positive internal character arcs when we write because they give our characters a happy ending—they’ve grown, overcome, and learned. No matter our characters’ mistakes or flaws, they can improve and/or fix themselves and their situation. In our own lives, redemption themes have the same type of power.

How Can a Redemption Theme Help Us?

Setbacks, adversity, and obstacles are never going to be fun. However, if we believe in our ability to overcome the problems before us, we’ll be mentally healthier.

What's the story we tell ourselves about what our experiences mean? And how can that understanding help us? Click To TweetAs mentioned above, whatever theme we see our life’s experiences through shapes the meaning we attach to them. A redemption theme in our life-story turns every setback we’ve ever experienced into part of our journey of being better and stronger now.

In other words, if we see our life-story through the lens of a redemption theme, we’re more likely to trust that we can overcome whatever problems we encounter because we’ve turned every other adversity in our life into a “plot obstacle” that we pushed through successfully.

With that belief in ourselves, we’re more likely to feel up to the task before us, whether that’s dealing with job or relationship stress—or the anxiety of COVID-19.

Can We Change Our Life-Story’s Theme?

In the stories we write, our characters are able to change how they perceive their life. But as I’ve pointed out many times, change is hard.

There’s a reason our characters haven’t already fixed whatever needs fixing in their lives before our story begins. However, if our characters put in the work, they can succeed.

Similarly, changing our perspective of how our life fits together would be hard work, but it is possible. We can change the theme of our life-story if we think about the things we’ve gone through and “rewrite” what those experiences mean to us.

For example, instead of seeing a bad breakup as proof of a “false belief” like being unlovable, we could see it as proof that we were strong enough to keep going. A job loss could flip from being mad about not being in control to feeling more in control over how to grow and move forward. Etc.

Everything we’ve gone through in the past is our backstory, and we can choose how we interpret those experiences and apply them to our current life:

  • Did they make us learn or grow?
  • Did they make us stronger?
  • Did they teach us how much we can overcome?

Considering events of our past through the lens of those types of questions can help us add or use a redemption theme for what our life experiences mean to us and our future. (And obviously, the better we understand these concepts, the better we might understand our characters and how to write their arcs too—bonus! *grin*)

Can a Different Theme Help Our Anxiety?

A redemption theme for our life story might help us reduce our overall anxiety, as we trust ourselves more to be capable of handling what life hands us. That said, we’re not going to be able to completely “think” our way out of anxiety with COVID-19.

Even if we trust in our ability to overcome adversity, much of our anxiety with COVID-19 can come from worry for others. We only have control over how we react to negative events, and obviously we can’t prevent problems from happening to others.

However, every little bit of anxiety we can remove or reduce from our mental load right now might help. Even if we worry for others, the stronger we feel about ourselves, the more we might have the strength to reach out and help others.

*hugs* to all and I hope you can stay safe and healthy!

P.S. Check my Twitter feed for other fun and/or relaxing resources I’ve found since my last post, such as a thread of pet pictures as romance novel covers, a thread of zoos and aquarium “field trips,” how to set up social-distancing-appropriate movie nights, a list of free things to do, and a two-minute relaxation tip.

Have you ever thought about your inner life story before? Do you know what your life story is? Or what “theme” your story focuses on to give your experiences meaning? Has the theme of your life story changed over your life, and if so, in what way? Do you have any questions for me?

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Deborah Makarios

I’d never thought about this before, but now I realize that having lived all my life in and around the story of the Bible, redemption is the lens through which I see the world.
The story of the Bible is the story of redemption: things go wrong at the start of the first book, and the rest forms a richly tapestried story of God bringing about redemption, ending with a glorious vision of the Happily Ever After that’s been His goal all the time.

All the best to you and yours – keep in good health and good heart!

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