We live by our stories. We die by our stories. If we think kindly of ourselves and create positive narratives out of the events of our lives, then the sun shines on us no matter what’s happening in the sky. Some of us grew up with families that bestowed happy stories on us. Some of us, not so much. As we grew, we adopted our family stories, thinking that whatever our family told us about ourselves and life in general had to be true, but we don’t have to hold onto those stories. And we can learn that Mom and Dad actually didn’t know diddly squat. Whether we’re 15 years old, 25, 35, 65 or 105, we can literally rewrite our lives by changing the way we think about them.
Sometimes it’s hard to accept that. We can feel as if we’re imprisoned by an impenetrable wall of emotion. My experience, though, is that such walls are surprisingly thin and brittle. When I sit with my feelings instead of running from them, those things that looked like walls fall to dust.
So here’s my prescription for those moments when it feels like life punches us in the stomach: Rewrite the story about what happened. Every novelist is the god of her own world, deciding what happens and what it means. I recommend that we realize that we are all the writers of our own lives. We can always rewrite the narrative and change the meaning.
For example, when I smashed my little toe into that half-buried brick back in Michigan so many years ago the outcome depended on the story I told myself about it. I could have grabbed my foot, cursing and yelling in pain, and shouted at myself for being clumsy. “I’m always clumsy,” I could have said. “Why am I so stupid? Why don’t I ever pay attention?” Or, I could have grabbed my foot, cursing and yelling in pain, and said, “Ow, that hurt! I’ve gotta get ice on that!”
In the first instance, the story makes the pain worse. A simple misstep becomes an indictment of me as a human being and what started as a painful toe turns into one more piece of evidence about how I’m inadequate. In the second instance, the story is neutral when it acknowledges pain and empowering when it notes that I can make the toe feel better by icing it.
What story did I actually tell myself? I chose the neutral and empowering story. At the time I was 20 and had not yet heard about the power of reframing. But I naturally chose the positive story because I had never thought of myself as clumsy. I was blessed with a mother who liked the idea that I wanted to be an athlete. I even had the role model in my grandmother who climbed trees into her 40s.
In almost all other matters, though, I struggled. I remember telling a therapist once that my life was like a road map where every road led to the same destination: the idea that I was a horrible soul. In the past, I viewed every event in my life as proof of my awfulness. In other words, today I talk about the importance of rewriting our stories because it’s what I’ve had to learn to do. And I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
May this be the beginning of a new day for you. May you discover your inner novels. May you write the life you want.
IMAGE: Joshua Earle via Unsplash.