For nearly a year Donna rode a rollercoaster of feelings as she took stock of her marriage. She weighed her need for intimacy against the big limitations she’d tolerated in her relationship and the very different needs of her partner. She came to see that she was never going to have intimacy and fidelity within her current relationship. After making valiant attempts to push the relationship into a new form, she began to accept it for what it was and admit that it wasn’t the relational story she wanted to live out.
When Donna and her partner split-up she felt great sadness over the loss but she also felt personally empowered and hopeful. She saw herself making choices that authentically reflected her values and she felt the strength to advocate for the life she wanted rather than settle for an untenable compromise. She was moving forward in her life until one day, just before the divorce was completed, she discovered her former partner was seriously involved in a new relationship. Suddenly it was as if Donna was living her old story. Instead of feeling empowered, she felt rejected. Hope and strength vanished and jealousy and anger took over. “Oh, I must not be very lovable,” she cried. In that moment I was again reminded of the power of the stories we tell ourselves.
From an early stage in life, we construct stories that hold the memories of our experiences. Our stories help us make sense of these experiences. But, research is now revealing that these narratives are much more than that. Our personal narratives not only serve to lay down memory but are also an essential element in forming our sense of identity, play a crucial role in our interpersonal interactions, influence our inner lives (dreams, imagery and states of mind) and can determine our future behavior.
Perhaps you haven’t given it any thought, but you are living-out a story. You may notice it in:
· The themes of your dreams,
· The repetition of issues you find yourself dealing with, or
· The limits you place on what you think is possible for you to achieve.
Our stories may also be evident in certain situations:
· The things you talk about on a first date or when going out to dinner with a new friend.
· What you choose to include when you are asked to write an autobiographical paragraph or introduce yourself in a small group or at a community meeting.
· What you feel would be most important to say about yourself if you entered counseling.
· How you talk to yourself in daily situations, such as when you get honked at while driving your car or get the wrong change from a cashier.
· What goes on in your mind after you’ve had a disagreement with a friend?
· What you say about yourself and your worth when your trust has been betrayed.
Our stories are constantly being edited, affected by social contexts, and layered by the multiplicity of experiences occurring over time (who I think I am now is different than who I thought I was as a teenager.) Yet, passing through all of these variables is a continuity that we take for granted. It’s the “me” that is composing this story and being composed by it.
Donna saw first hand that her life story, and therefore her sense of herself, was at a pivotal point. She could chose to tell herself the story that her marriage ended because her husband didn’t fight for more intimacy with her and that she was unlovable. Or, she could tell herself the story that she had grown enough to recognize that she deserved faithfulness and intimacy and was strong enough to leave something familiar in order to find something more meaningful. Because Donna sometimes did feel unlovable, it was tempting to use those feelings as reason to live that story line.
However, Donna did something researchers have found to support a positive influence over the outcome. She stepped back from her feelings and reviewed the stories she was telling herself. Seeing her situation in the third person gave Donna the ability to shape the outcome. This shift in perspective, having some distance from yourself, allows a clearer, less reactive focus and provides a deepening and reshaping of the way you see yourself and your life story.
So, what stories are you living? I invite you to regularly take time to step back, reflect upon you’re your life story from a third person perspective, and see what choices await you!
What story do you want to live in this one precious life you have?