We are all shaped by the stories of our lives. We tell them and retell them. And when we aren’t saying them aloud, they often dictate the running commentary in our heads. It’s important for us to take charge of our own narrative because the stories we tell ourselves have the ability to change us.
In fact, according to some psychologists, the stories people tell about their life experiences are the most powerful force for shaping identity. But while it sometimes feels like they control us, we are, in fact, in control of them.
How Our Stories Form
Every day we author a new piece of our story. The events we experience and the decisions we make at any given moment influence the direction our story takes. These life events-turned-stories then become part of our personality.
When we’re shaping and digesting the tale of our life, we often use a procedure that researchers call “autobiographical reasoning” to flush out our stories. As Dan McAdams and Erika Manczak explain in a chapter for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology highlighted in The Atlantic Monthly, this is a process of:
“Identifying lessons learned or insights gained in life experiences, marking development or growth through sequences of scenes, and showing how specific life episodes illustrate enduring truths about the self.”
In other words, it’s a connection between our past and present self. We create meaning from our various experiences by putting them into stories that show cause and effect.
We may not even realize how much these personal narratives sway us. But they become the running internal commentary that not only shapes the decisions we make, but what we tell other people about ourselves.
Think for a moment about something about yourself you view as a fact. Maybe you struggled in a math class and decided you were bad at math. You wrote a bad sentence and thought you were a bad writer. Or you didn’t make the team so you thought you were bad at the sport. You’ve carried that belief through life, avoiding situations to improve in those skills or simply to find out otherwise because of the narrative you shaped for yourself.
Like Julie Beck writes in The Atlantic Monthly, “Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.”
Whether or not something we believe about ourselves is true is beside the point. Fictional ideas can become as real as fire breathing dragons That’s why the biggest tool for shaping your story isn’t having a realistic or unrealistic view of the world and your own abilities—it’s learning to become the author of your own life.
Shaping Our Personal Stories
Our mindset matters. It shapes the narrative in our head, and what is in our head shapes how we live our lives.
Our mindset should be in complete alignment with what we want to do. When it isn’t, the bridge between what we want and our ability to attain what we want becomes disconnected.
Science backs this up.
In 1975, researchers studied the personal attitudes toward aging among a group of 660 men and women aged 50 and above, and studied how their answers about aging influenced their lifespan 23 years later. They found that having a positive view about getting older affected the respondents’ longevity of life. Specifically, even when controlling for any other factor that could contribute to the outcome, the researchers concluded that those adults who had more positive self-perceptions of aging lived seven and a half years longer than those who had a negative view of growing older.
In other words, having a favorable mindset impacted individual lifespans than having low blood pressure, low cholesterol and even maintaining a healthy weight. When it comes to the stories we tell ourselves, attitude shapes how our story goes – and can even help determine how it ends.
Our personal narratives also affect how we compare ourselves to those around us.
All too often, we think others are born with amazing innate talents. We don’t think that we, by comparison, possess those same traits or opportunities. And that’s just not the case. Prodigies are a myth.
More often than not these people aren’t born with an inherent talent. Rather, they’ve simply dedicated massive time to achieving their passion at a high level.
While we sometimes use the word to revel in the accomplishments of individuals, all too often we succumb to using the term “prodigy” as an excuse. It falsely creates a justification for our own shortcomings. We ascribe an other-worldly quality to someone’s success and, in turn, ignore all of the hard work, dedication and perseverance someone put in to achieve their level of success.
When we tell ourselves we don’t have the talent that someone else possesses, we falsely believe we can’t achieve what they’ve achieved.
Take Steve Martin for instance. As one of the most successful comedians of our lifetime, it would be easy to think that he was rip-roaringly funny the first time he spoke.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Steve Martin worked hard on his craft, getting rid of his peripheral interests to stay focused on his comedy. He wasn’t an automatic success. And as he admits during an interview, “My act didn’t start to cohere for 10 years.” However, the time he spent honing his craft, as well as the hard work and focused mindset enabled him to become the talented comedian we know today. Steve Martin’s success was based on the personal narrative he told himself: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
When it comes to the stories we create for ourselves, our mindset can either help or hinder us.
The right mindset enables us to feel competent and capable. It allows us to be open to new experiences whether or not we are confident we will succeed at them. The right mindset allows us to recognize that even if we fail, we are setting ourselves up for future success by learning where to put in work.
The wrong mindset, however, can hinder our life’s trajectory.
When George Dantzig arrived late to a statistics class he saw a couple of problems up on the board that he thought was homework, copied them down, and worked to solve them. When he turned in his homework, he apologized to his professor for turning them in late—he found them a little harder than usual.
You see, the stories others create have the potential to directly influence our own because they can become our own. If we want to achieve our full potential, we have to have a strong head, and we have to be the authors of what gets included into our own story.
Rewriting Our Personal Story
If you look up and realize you don’t like the direction your story is heading, change it.
There’s always time to rewrite the next chapter if you decide to act now. Take a step back and look at your life from a 1000-foot view and take a few minutes to write out your story. Write down all of the events that were formative in your life, and the cause and effect each one has had on your journey up to this point.
With your story in hand, examine it and ask yourself three questions:
- Where do I want this story to end?
- What do I believe about myself right now that is preventing me from making that ending a reality?
- What do I need to change about myself to accomplish that goal?
Now that you know where you want to go, edit your story to make it a possibility.
We suggest using an exercise called Goal Setting to the Now to help get the tides of change in motion.
Think ahead in your personal narrative to where you want to be. Then, work backward to determine what needs to be accomplished every step of the way until you are looking at what needs to be done today, in this moment, to help you reach your ultimate goal. This first step will be the first domino you knock over to create a new trajectory for your personal story.
Form a Competence-Building Narrative
It should be no surprise that how we mentally frame our experiences –whether the experiences be positive or negative – can have a major impact on our lives.
When we recount our experiences in a favorable way, researchers call it a competence-building narrative. And they suggest we try to incorporate this concept into our lives.
They studied this idea by seeing how a group of high school students handled positive and negative moments in their school career. After all, everyone is bound to have forgotten a homework assignment, bombed a test, or rocked a project at some point or another.
In the study, the researchers found that students who recounted their experiences in a favorable way had higher levels of persistence and better grades. Further, they found that when they encouraged students to engage in similar competence-building narratives by asking the question: “How did this negative event change you for the better?”, the students retained a higher level of goal persistence for several weeks.
In other words, the way these students thought and talked about their past experiences had a real impact on their future outcomes.
We should frame our own experiences similarly by using our successes to build our self-esteem, and viewing our failures as stepping stones to becoming stronger more capable versions of ourselves.
Be Our Own Storyteller
Our stories are always connected to the people around us. It’s important to not let others tell our stories for us. Rather, we want to be in an environment that supports the tale we want to tell.
When we wish to change the trajectory of our storyline, we may need to clue others in by letting them know our plan to change our storyline. By attacking our goals differently and powering forward with a positive mindset in place, we open an important line of communication with others that might help support us along the way. And we need that support and accountability if we want to succeed. When it comes to reshaping our own mindset, it’s not a good idea to rely on our willpower alone.
Take, for example, the classic story of someone we all know — a person who realizes that their workaholic tendencies are negatively impacting their personal health and relationships.
This person has realized they have the desire to change this storyline of their life by leaving work at a more suitable time and not being on-call all evening while at home. The people who work with this person are well-versed in the current narrative, “So and so” is always available when we need him, day or night.” However, if “so and so” wishes to change their personal story, they will need to communicate with their team so they can support that person, whether it be by not reaching out to them at all hours of the night for work-related questions, or by holding them accountable to their own goals.
If you walk away from reading this post with only one thing in mind, let it be that, as you look toward the chapters of life ahead of you, you should always be aware that you are the one in control of the story being written. You control the behavior, the mindset, and how the outcomes are handled. Now go make it a page-turner!