This article is a follow up to part one, The Invisible Force that Determines your Happiness and Success, which discussed personal narratives or the stories we rehearse about how our life has unfolded.
Imagine planning a romantic evening with your partner to celebrate your anniversary. You’ve made reservations at an expensive restaurant and bought a thoughtful gift. This is a special night so you want to look and feel your best. Now it’s time to get ready.
You walk into your closet to choose your outfit and, to your surprise, you see that in addition to your regular clothes, now your closet is filled with all the clothing you have ever owned.
There it all is, your baby clothes, the outfits you kicked around in as a kid and even the funky stuff you got from out-of-town relatives. You notice your favorite pants from high school and a worn-out college sweater. And, of course, your present-day wardrobe is right there, too.
Hmm. What to wear? Of course, you know what you should wear. If you’re a woman, it might be a nice dress. If you’re a man, maybe slacks and a sport jacket. That’s easy, but…
Life stories or personal narratives are how we explain what happens in our life. And they are similar to clothing. Some are fun and interesting or big and bold. Many are outdated and ill-fitting. Others can be completely irrelevant or wrong for our age and circumstance.
These narratives show up when we attempt to answer questions about our life. One of the best questions is how did you get where you are? The story that follows will likely be a personal narrative.
Imagine showing up at the restaurant somehow squeezed into the funky day-glo stretch pants you wore in junior high. You wouldn’t fit in at the nice restaurant and may even resent others for starting at you. Even if the pants did fit, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the event or your age.
Likewise, you may show up with the same old story about your life that you told when you were a lot younger, even if it isn’t true of today. Maybe your story involves never feeling like you fit in or that people are just jerks or that you never get what you want. You might go on as if the same old thing were true.
Wardrobes get updated as we age. Personal narratives, perhaps more important to update than any wardrobe, are usually ignored. Who asks themselves, “What is my life story now and is it healthy?” Or, “Is my old story relative to my current life?”
You may be asking what personal narratives have to do with anything. You might also think you dress appropriately and wouldn’t think to wear clothes from the 80’s. The thing is, how you look on the outside may be completely different than how you respond from the inside.
Let’s look at the following example to see how an outdated personal narrative can hinder life today. I asked a client, Sheila, how she got to where she is today with her marriage, which she felt was dull and unstable. This is how she replied:
I’m so sick and tired of my husband. He reminds me of my mother! I remember when my mother would treat me crappy, like the time she told me I was dumb. I got upset and started to cry. I told my mother that she hurt me. She got angry and said, “You always do that – you always blame me. I can’t say anything without being misunderstood.”
Sheila’s story was true at one time of how she felt and reacted around her mom, especially when she was mistreated. However, when used to describe her life today with her husband, this story is inappropriate for a couple of reasons.
The story positions Sheila as the victim. It also doesn’t make sense to view her adult-adult relationship in the present in terms of an old adult-child relationship. She is using her relationship with her mom to describe her relationship with her husband, confusing the two.
Until Sheila learns to live and tell a different story, she won’t be capable of creating the relationship she wants with her husband. Continually retelling an outdated story simply places too many limitations on her relationship and does not allow her to approach her husband as an adult, with all of her adult resources intact. Instead, she approaches her husband as a hurt child. It is as if she is wearing child-sized peddle pushers and bobby socks.
With a little help, Sheila put on a nice, modern skirt and blouse and told this revised story:
For many years I chose to engage with my mother. In doing so, I chose to ignore my emotional needs. I tolerated what I now see as her narcissism. I agreed to play this crazy-making game, acting as though everything was about her. In doing so, I was continually disappointed. I sacrificed my integrity so that I could be close to her even though it was painful.
And, now, being with my husband is a chance for me to conduct myself in a totally different way. When he’s not emotionally available, for the most part, we can talk it through. Although I am responsible for picking a man who, on occasion, reminds me of people from my past, like my mom, I can break this pattern by conducting myself in a different way, even when I feel scared, because deep down I know he’s a good man. This means that from now on I won’t withdraw and I won’t get angry, because those are outdated ways of behaving that I used with my mother.
The updated version of the story puts the Sheila in a powerful position. Her story makes sense. It is told from an adult perspective. It takes full responsibility for her actions and it opens up entirely new possibilities for the future in how she relates with her husband.
The retelling and reliving her old story in this new way is a massive paradigm shift for Sheila. It will color every aspect of her life as she moves forward. The old clothes in her closet will disappear and there will never be a question or a temptation to put on the clothes from her childhood, she doesn’t need them anymore. She will be left with the perfect, in-style wardrobe to choose from for each situation.
All of us have a personal narrative, which is a life story that answers the questions like: Who am I? How did I get here? Why is this happening? Why do I feel the way I do? How we tell the story has a dramatic impact on every aspect of life, including our mental health, relationships, and ongoing happiness.
For many people, the story of their life is discouraging. In other words, they tell themselves the same old story in a way that justifies and enables more of the same in present life. Retelling the old story would be equal to hanging old jeans from high school right in the middle of your closet to remind you of the fact that you can’t fit into them anymore. By keeping them in the forefront of your wardrobe, you are spoiling your choices for today by coloring them with the past.
If you can learn to tell your story in a way that reflects your past and present in the appropriate perspective, then you can choose to approach your current life in a mature, healthy and ultimately satisfying way. You are then in the best possible situation to create am amazing future for yourself built on who you are today.
Take out a pen and paper and write the question: How did I get where I am in life? Then, write the answer however it comes to you. Once this is done, ask yourself how you can rewrite the story, if necessary, from a healthier, adult perspective. A healthy, adult perspective means the story will take personal responsibility and will be relevant, honest and inclusive of others’ perspective.
When you have a healthy, clear, mature and satisfying story that explains your life so far, you are ready to create a compelling future. That future will not be limited by attachment to the past, but highlight the most valuable lessons learned.
Are you carrying around outdated stories and the emotions that go with them? Does this make sense, given your present, adult circumstance? Is it time for a closet cleaning?