Embracing the story lens of life
by Kim Schneiderman —
Every life is an unfolding story, a dynamic, unique, purposeful and potentially heroic story with bright spots, turning points and abounding opportunities for personal growth and transformation.
From the day we are born, we become the star and spin doctor of our own work in progress, with the power to tell our stories as triumphs, tragedies or something in between. Our stories have supporting characters who provide love and assistance, and antagonists who cause us to realize the substance we are made of and what is really important.
As in stories, our lives are filled with suspense. Personal decisions, both large and small, affect our storylines — the relationships we choose, how we spend our days and how we nourish ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Yet few of us take time to explore the character we are playing. We do not stop to discover what our own story is about, who is writing our script, and how the challenges we face can help us develop the insights and skills we need to move to the next chapter.
Stuck in the same old story, many of us remain so entrenched in tales of victimization and martyrdom that we can scarcely imagine an alternate, positive or redemptive reading of the text of our lives. Perhaps because we have been taught to view life through a particular lens, we simply do not see other more inspiring versions of our tales that could liberate us.
Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly sifting through various competing narratives to make sense of our world for ourselves and others — whether it is describing our day to a loved one, explaining why we did not get promoted, sharing our political perspective or justifying why we spend a fortune on organic produce.
We may struggle with many contradictory stories to explain our biggest decisions: why we got divorced or never had children, changed careers or never pursued our dreams. Our perspectives can change from day to day and even moment to moment, depending on our mood and where exactly we are situated in the timeline of a problematic chapter.
For example, the bitter tale we tell a month after ending a failed romance is probably not the sentimental story we will tell 20 years later after we are happily married to someone else. And neither of these stories will be the same as our former romantic partner’s, even though it is the story of the same relationship.
You can see this for yourself. Think of something funny, touching, interesting or meaningful that has happened to you. Now imagine telling this story to your spouse or best friend. When you are done, imagine describing the same story to a parent or boss. What about to a stranger in a café? What about five years from now or 20 years? How might it be different?
While some details might remain the same, you might, depending on your audience, emphasize certain aspects of the story over others or omit certain details that seem irrelevant, inappropriate or too complicated to explain.
As you tell it again and again, you might remember certain parts you had forgotten initially, or new insights might lead you to spin the story in a totally different direction. Over time, your values might change, and so you revise your story accordingly, or hindsight might connect once-disparate episodes of your life.
Following a loss or a tragedy, many people engage in prolonged periods of story wrestling in an attempt to make sense of events that are hard to digest or that seem to defy explanation. Whether you consider yourself a heroic figure overcoming obstacles or a tragic victim of destiny often depends on how you choose to read the text of your life and the way that you tell your story.
Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life. She counsels in private practice, teaches as a professor and guest lecturer, and writes a biweekly advice column and blogs for Psychology Today. stepoutofyourstory.com.
Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 35, Number 1, February/March 2016.