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We love watching movies and reading novels, but do you ever stop to think about the stories you tell yourself?
Most of us don’t even notice it, but we are the stories we tell ourselves over and over again. Our identity, our beliefs about others and the world, they aren’t objective truths – they’re constructed in our own minds.
Since the dawn of time, people have been creating and telling stories to make sense of the world. From cave drawings and Greek mythology to fairytales, stories have allowed humans to share and learn information in a memorable way. Stories also help us to empathize with others by seeing the world from different perspectives, and they give us a feeling of control in a random world.
Modern science confirms that our brains are wired for narrative. The human brain loves to impose structure on experiences and it’s great at detecting patterns, like the beginning, ending and plot of a story. And once a story grabs our attention, the evolutionary old parts of our brain start to simulate the emotions the characters must be feeling. No wonder that stories play such an important role in shaping our identity and our life story.
You see, your life is not the sum total of a series of facts stringed together – it’s your lived experience of the events that happened in your life, and the meaning you gave to them. For example, when you make a stupid mistake in front of your friends, you could either laugh about it and recount other foolish things you’ve all done, or feel so ashamed that the voice in your head starts whispering, ‘see, you always mess up, everyone thinks you’re dumb’. In any case, it’s not a neutral incident, and what you tell yourself impacts future thoughts, beliefs and actions.
That’s why narrative psychology focuses on unraveling what kind of stories you tell yourself and how that affects you, plus what you can do to choose more helpful narratives.
How the Stories You Tell Yourself Affect Your Health
Thousands of thoughts cross your mind each day. And thanks to French philosopher René Descartes, we’ve come to believe that your mind and body are two separate identities. But that’s an outdated notion: every thought and emotion you experience, triggers your brain to send suitable chemical messages to every corner of your body, signaling it to tighten your muscles when you’re angry or boost your lung capacity when you’re laughing with joy.
What’s more, recurring thoughts will affect your core beliefs about yourself, your life and the world around you. Depending on your inner dialogue, you may see yourself as a determined go-getter, a failure or a laid-back lover of life. You can view life as a wonderful gift or something you have to endure. Those beliefs don’t just depend on what’s happened to you, but also on the way you interpret experiences.
Your brain loves molding information into a story to get a better understanding of cause and effect. Knowing ‘if this happens, then that will happen’ helps your brain to better predict the future and ensure your survival. But as a result, the stories you tell yourself create a lens through which you see the world. Your brain will select information that fits within your narrative – and ignore information that seems less relevant.
This selection attention has important consequences for your mental health. For example, research shows that people who consider themselves depressed don’t notice the short moments during the day when they are feeling good. Even worse, you’ll struggle to recall happy memories when you’re depressed. Your current narrative colors the way you remember your past.
Years-long research shows that the themes of your life story each have a different impact on your mental health. A storyline of redemption that starts off bad but ends up good, for example, is linked to better emotional wellbeing, while the opposite theme of contamination – when things go from fine to terrible – is associated with poorer mental health. What’s more, having the feeling like you are in control of your life (called agency) and like you have good relationships in your life (called communion) are two other themes in people’s life stories that lead to better emotional wellbeing.
For example, when you need to have scary medical examinations, helplessly undergoing it thinking “I’m so afraid I’m going to die” will make you feel and act very differently than if you feel empowered and mentally tell yourself “I hope they finally discover what’s wrong with me so I can get the right treatment“. Neither narrative is wrong or right, by the way. Worrying about your health can be very legit and you have every right to feel scared, sad and stressed when you’re seriously sick. This is just an example how the story you tell yourself affects your mind, body and behavior.
Ok, so you get the picture that the stories you tell yourself influence how you see yourself and the world around you, affecting you act now and think about your past behavior. Knowing this, how can you start to change your narrative?
Let’s take a closer look at how you can apply the principles of narrative psychology in your life and rewrite your life story.
Disclaimer: If you suffer from PTSD, serious trauma or other mental health disorders, please contact a professional specialized in narrative therapy to guide you through this process, to prevent worsening of your symptoms. You don’t have to go through this alone.
How You Can Rewrite Your Life Story
1. Realize you are the writer.
No matter what’s (been) happening in your life, remember you are not a helpless viewer watching your life story unfold – you are the writer. Yes, there are plenty of things outside of your control, and sad, painful events will happen that you would rather have left out. But because your interpretation of events and the meaning you give to what happens plays such a big role in how you feel and act, you do have the power to change your story.
You can play a different role or alter the plot. You’re allowed to chose a different theme, replace the casting, add unexpected twists and change the ending.
You’re not stuck with the story you go over and over in your mind right now. Even if you aren’t aware of it, our stories change throughout our lifetimes. Remember how as a teenager you thought your parents were so lame for not letting you do certain things? Chances are, now that you’re an adult, you can understand why your mom and dad acted the way they did.
Realizing that you are the writer is the first step of rewriting your life story.
2. Become aware of the stories you’re telling yourself.
Becoming aware of the stories you’re telling yourself is not something you do in a single session. Often, it’s a gradual process of noticing patterns in your thinking, speaking and behavior, and unravelling why you do what you do, what triggered you to feel or (re)act a certain way.
You don’t have to describe the overarching theme of your life, just start with the area you’re struggling with the most, whether that’s your health, habits, career, finances or relationships.
Let’s say you’re having a hard time living with chronic illness:
- Which words do you use to talk about your health, your body and your life? Do you often hear yourself (mentally) saying words like always and never? Black-and-white thinking can be a sign of a deeply held beliefs, like “I’ll never be happy again” or “I’m always the one left out”. Or maybe you use lots of ‘I am’ statements: I am lazy, I am emotional, I am unlucky/blessed. Metaphors can also give you more insight into your own narrative. For example, as much as the spoonie warrior analogy has helped me in my life, constantly thinking about your body and life in terms of war analogies – ‘battling cancer’, ‘conquering my illness’, ‘fighting for my health’ – can have a negative effect on your stress levels, self image and core beliefs.
- How do you see yourself? Are you the hero of the story of the victim of circumstances? Which role(s) do you play in your life? And have you cast yourself as the rebel, the people-pleaser or the one who suffers in silence? There are no right or wrong answers, some narratives are just more helpful for your wellbeing than others.
- Get specific: What is your problem exactly? For example. are you struggling to accept your new reality, do you feel lonely because nobody understands you or do your symptoms stop you from going after your dreams? Also, how does your problem affect other areas of your life? Deconstructing the problem into smaller, more specific issues can help you stop feeling overwhelmed and get to the root of the problem, which in turn opens up opportunities to find a realistic solution.
In the midst of our busy lives, it can be hard to hear your own voice. So make time for solitude and stillness if you want to become aware of the narrative you have right now. You could meditate to explore these questions or use a journal to jot down recurring thoughts and beliefs, a storyline in your life or anything else you find helpful in unraveling the stories you tell yourself. If you find it hard to put your thought into words, try art therapy exercises like stream of conscious writing or even painting self portraits of your past, present and future self.
Finally, when you start to get a clearer picture of your current inner dialogue, ask yourself:
- Is this story helping me or hurting me?
- Is this the story I really want to tell?
- What would happen if I’d change the narrative?
3. Separate your problems from your identity.
We all give ourselves labels as we go through life: a nerd, a perfectionist, a screw-up, a diva. Not just because we recognize patterns in our behavior, but also because we make our experiences a part of our identity. For example, if someone you love has made you feel like it’s too much trouble to work around your health limitations so you can hang out together, you may start to believe you’re ‘difficult’ or ‘high-maintenance’.
But according to narrative psychology, you are not your problem – the situation is the problem.
Your problem is not an unchangeable part of your identity; it’s something outside of you. You are not your mistakes or successes, not your struggles, not even your illness – no matter how much it impacts every aspect of your being. This externalization technique is not some excuse to avoid taking responsibility for your life and your actions, but to not build a destructive narrative around your problem.
By putting some space between yourself and your problem, you can look at your situation from a distance. Studies show that this small shift in perspective allows you to relive painful memories and focus on what you can learn from it, instead of being overwhelmed by emotions. What’s more, by separating your problems from your sense of identity, you realize you don’t have to change yourself, but you have to transform the meaning of what’s happened to you.
4. Choose a new narrative.
Are you the lonely cat lady who’s husband cheated on her or are you the survivor who escaped a bad relationship and is learning how to rebuild their life (with a furry friend by your side)? Same story, different perspective.
Choosing a new narrative doesn’t mean you’re lying to yourself or sugarcoating the truth. It’s about making something meaningful and constructive out of what happened in your life. So when you think about your biggest problem, could there be a different explanation for what happened? Could you tell your story in a more positive way, that also highlights your virtues, strengths and the things that did go well?
According to research into post-traumatic growth, making meaning of painful events is all about getting a new outlook on what’s happened, changing your view on reality and yourself in the process. If you struggle to see your problem in a different light, you could read novels or watch movies about people – real or fictional – in a similar situation. Bibliotherapy can also give you helpful insights or show you new ways to deal with your problems.
Next, studies show that writing about your troubles or upsetting memories can help you process the stressful event and build it into the bigger picture of your life story. More than expressing your emotions, see if you can recount your experience in a more empowering way. Which positive things has your problem brought you? Obviously you still wished you weren’t chronically ill, struggling financially or grieving your loss, but maybe you gained a new appreciation for life or stronger relationships at the same time. And which specific skills and strengths have you shown or grown to handle your problems?
Research suggests that when your sense of control over your life story grows, your mental health will gradually improve.
5. Don’t compare your messy middle to someone else’s glorious ending.
If the main characters of Unbroken, The Pursuit of Happyness or 127 Hours would have quit halfway through the story, they would have been a sad statistic or a headline in the local newspaper, not the lead roles of best-selling books and movies.
Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini must have been felt desperate and hopeless while he was held captive in a Japanese prison camp, with no certainty of surviving and seeing his family again, after he’d already drifted at sea for 47 days when his fighter jet crashed in the Pacific. It was only after returning home safely and finding religion that he was able to give meaning to these horrific events, and rise above them by forgiving his captors.
Suffering and overcoming are two different time stamps of the same story. So don’t compare your messy middle to someone else’s heroic ending.
“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
Your new story doesn’t need to have a simple plot or a neat ending. Life is too complex for that. Rewriting your life story also does not mean you change the facts or deny what’s happened to you – you just look at your life experiences from a different point of view. By making meaning of your struggles, narrative psychology can help you build a more positive, constructive story and in turn, make you feel better about yourself, your life and the world around you.
If you could rewrite your life story, what would your storyline look like?
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like:
- 40 Journal Prompts to Help You Heal, Grow and Flourish
- Writing Your Way to a Healthier, Happier New Year
- Bibliotherapy: How Reading Fiction Can Make You Feel Better
Thank you for including this post in your weekly round-up Claire! And for supporting other health bloggers by sharing their work. https://painpalsblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/7404/
Great post and information - I have shared a link on my regular feature Monday Magic – Inspiring Blogs for You! Claire (PainPalsBlog) x
Thank you soo much may God bless you in many ways ☺
I'm sorry, the blog post is a few years old so the giveaway has been closed for a while now. Perhaps you can use some of the tips above to create a care package: puzzles or magazine, (free) samples of body care products if your dad is still in the hospital, a gift card for iTunes? I also like the Gifts in A Tin from DIYMommy: https://thediymommy.com/a-gift-in-a-tin-christmas-baking-kit-gift/ (Scroll down for an overview) or an edible gift like the five bean soup IF he's medically allowed to eat that of course!: https://thehealthsessions.com/healthy-edible-gifts/ Hope your father feels better soon!
I was going to leave a comment for the give away... For my dad cuz he had his gull bladder taken out a fue hrs ago but congrats... Is there a cheep way i can make something for him?
Being careful with what you eat might be a good idea if you're feeling sick or have stomach aches. Luckily, there are still plenty of things listed you can do to entertain yourself :-) Feel better soon!
When I am I'll myum doesn't let me eat so some wouldn't work 😢🍕
Hi Darci, thank you for your message. Unfortunately the guide is not available yet as a hardcover and a paperback. If that changes in the near future, I will let you know. Warm regards, Jennifer
I would like to buy this book in hard cover or paperback instead of e-book for a friend
Super useful habits Nat! I also need to mentally unwind before bedtime or I'll be laying awake all night with thoughts racing through my mind.
A few things that help me ( I suffer from insomnia) is by not taking my phone to bed with me, i finish checking emails, social media etc in the living room and go to bed to switch off. Something else I do is turn on my essential oils diffuser an hour before bed so the room is scent with a relaxing mist of essential oils such as lavender, or vetiver which is like a sedative and incredible for helping me unwind. Another thing that work well when i can't switch my brain off is to write a quick list of everything i think i need to be dealing with now and highlighting only the ones that need to be taken care of the next day. Helps me not to feel so overwhelmed and in turn helps me fall asleep easier.
I'm touched by your kind words Darla, thank you. It's perfectly normal that you're resentful and feel sorry for yourself. You've had a lot to deal with. Not just experiencing horrible symptoms on a daily basis, but also having to adjust the plans you had for your future and your sense of identity. To me, positivity in the face of adversity is not about having an irrealistic rose-colored view of life. But I do believe that trying to find the good in little things each day can help make the bad ones more bearable. It's a challenge, but your insightful comment tells me that you're up for it ;-) Let me know if there's anything I can do to help. Good luck, be gentle with yourself and take care Darla!
Dr.Jen the Zen one, first off you rock! Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 4 years ago and 2 years ago double pneumonia that left me with heart failure with 28% left undamaged it has seriously limited my mobility energy patience and unfortunately my positive attitude. 52 years on this planet, I lived a happy-go-lucky , look on the bright side, things will be better tomorrow, or crack a silly joke and get over it type of life. Now for the first time in my life I find myself having to work at being positive. Anger and resentment and even the dreaded " poor little me" mindset is trying to set up permanent residence. And tonight I find your blog and it gives me hope I just want to say "Thank you" Darla