“Life hangs on a narrative thread. This thread is a braid of stories that inform us about who we are and where we come from and where we might go. The thread is slender but strong. We trust it to hold us and allow us to swing over the edge of the known into the future we dream in words.”
At the heart of my work is the conviction that human beings are first and foremost meaning-makers and that our essential way of making meaning is through stories. In our uniquely complex twenty-first-century lives, stories allow us to make sense out of otherwise confusing or random events.
Stories are universal. They can be found in every human culture on the planet. They are also found across the life span, from the youngest child to our oldest elders, lending shape and meaning to all of our relationships. Our brains are actually wired to process experiences in story form. Our stories are also dynamic; we change them with the times, the listener, our mood, and our point in time.
Since we are all story-making animals we are all working on the screenplay of our lives. We continually update versions, revisualize scenes, and adjust how we think about ourselves and the way we behave.
I find that most people are familiar with the notion that every life is an unfolding story, a one-of-a-kind tale with infinite potential for comedy and tragedy. A story goes beyond the mere connection of events, for example, “I didn’t suck up to my boss so I got fired.” In this example, the two objective events are linked and attributed to one another when, in reality, they may be totally unrelated. They are often unconsciously assumed to be true. But what is far less understood or appreciated is our role in creating the stories and the ways in which we may continue to replay a particular story line well past its prime. Many of my clients buy that we are the spin doctors of our own tales but stop short of acknowledging they hold the power to actively shape their stories in more resilient directions.
- Alex, an auto mechanic, developed severe bursitis in his hip, making daily work painful and uncertain. He commented to friends, “Just lousy luck, I guess. But I’m working with my physical therapist, taking my anti-inflammatory, and staying hopeful that this won’t interfere too much more with my life.”
- Justine, a capable accountant, was passed over for a promotion she wanted very much. She told colleagues and friends that she was “cheated, unappreciated, and ripped off,” and that she was unlikely to have much success in the future.
- Carl and Jan, after only nine years of marriage, faced the tragic deaths of both of Jan’s parents and incurred debt at a time when they were already financially struggling. As they mourned the loss of Jan’s parents, they expressed the view that they felt lucky to have had them in their lives as long as they did. They also reminded each other that they would find a way forward financially.
- Ben and Elisha married fully aware of each other’s serious history of trauma but later developed beliefs that they couldn’t truly be content together because each was so “broken.”
Some of these examples may remain simple cause-and-effect events in the individual’s mind rather than evolve into multilayered narratives. Which of these stories has the most power and potential, and why does that even matter? If creating a story about a life experience is a basic way we come to know ourselves and make sense of our lives, how we interpret that story affects how we feel about ourselves, which influences how we behave and how our lives unfold.
Justine’s story is one of blame, self-sabotage, and pessimism. Ben and Elisha’s story, despite their historical realities, predicts a bleak future built around limited views of each other and the relationship. By contrast, Alex’s story is one of optimistic determination and resilience, which generates the positive emotions connected to good health outcomes and a sense of well-being. Carl and Jan cast a perspective that emphasizes what they valued in their relationships with Jan’s parents, not just their loss, and held a conviction that they would find a way through the financial challenge. Clearly, Alex and Carl and Jan created the most powerful stories with the most potential. It matters—their stories matter—because they will have better health and a better sense of well-being in their lives. The way they chose to tell their stories will literally make them more resilient than Justine and Ben and Elisha. Stories in which narrators draw lessons about themselves, important relationships, or life in general are especially associated with better adjustment and greater emotional maturity. Developing a “good-enough” story creates the conditions that shape our point of view, hone our character; they help us cope with challenges, make decisions, and cultivate particular feelings. So, telling ourselves positive stories is integral to living a resilient, fulfilling life.
Stories can also shape our futures by offering a vision and template for our goals and desires. I may have grown up listening to important family members describe my talent for math and use that to shape a dream of myself as a math teacher or engineer. Or I may have focused on how difficult it was to do hard math problems and decide I didn’t want to pursue it for a career. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes, “Constructing narratives from the scattered material of one’s life is precisely what makes life worth living.” Certainly we have external narratives like religious and cultural beliefs to shape and measure our lives against. But in the final analysis, it is up to us individually to wrestle with the multitude of influences and craft our own stories of meaning and purpose.
There is a great advantage to understanding ourselves in the complexity of our relationships, memories, culture, and experiences as we move along through time. We need complex stories about ourselves and each other, stories in which each of us hold pieces of the truth, stories bigger than each of us. It is important to think of ourselves and others less literally. If we could really let go of the belief that we alone have the corner on truth, that our memories are infallible, and that we are entitled to impose the final, “real” narrative, how might that shape the stories we tell and the connections that we make? If we could only accept the fact that by reaching out to others, especially when it’s hard, we move toward greater maturity. If we really believe that stories are just stories after all, that we are consciously in charge of shaping them, and that the positive ones bring people closer together, wouldn’t we put our efforts toward telling the most positive stories we could?
Stories matter because they set the level of love in our lives. YOUR stories matter. All of us can reap the rewards of a life full of love if we take the time to reflect on our stories and rewrite them when we discover that they are not helping us live our best lives. It’s in our power. It’s in your power.
From: Growing Married: Creating Stories for a Lifetime of Love