Stories have been central to human existence since the beginning of time. Even in early human civilizations, this is evident on cave walls. Throughout history, stories are documented in books, movies, and dramatic enactments. But what about our own personal story? We all have one. Parts of it are passed down through the generations, but the majority of it is lived experience. It is full of childhood memories, values we have adopted throughout the years, our successes, and our challenges that we have experienced directly. This can be referred to as our life narrative.
Just like in a fairytale, there are different dynamics we will experience in a variety of situations and interacting with different people. Although it would be great to have a “happily ever after” throughout our lives, this may not always be the case and we will have to navigate through roadblocks to get back to the wide-open road once again. And, suppose there are significant chunks of time that are filled with challenge after challenge? For the most part, each of our narratives start out pretty much the same way; we are born. From this point, though, things change dramatically and can be very different from person to person.
A personal narrative isn’t just a compilation of different events that make up a person’s life, it also involves thoughts and feelings as well. Sometimes we will experience something and then feel an emotion, which will often lead us to taking action of some kind based on what happened (and how we felt about it). This may not be a conscious choice; often it is an automatic process. For example, perhaps I found out through a friend that there is a party and everyone has been invited except for me. My initial reaction might be, “Well, that was pretty hurtful.” Then, I might begin to process this feeling with self-talk. “Why was I not invited?” “Did I do something to offend so – and – so?” “There must be something wrong with me.” “Perhaps I am a terrible person.”
This self-talk then becomes our in-the-moment narrative. Depending on what happens next and maybe if it was an isolated incident, we might simply dismiss the whole thing and move on, or this may be just one thing in a long list of mini-rejections that we have been compiling over the years. But, narratives can be challenged, erased, and rewritten. Even something that happened in our childhood can be addressed if we have the awareness and the desire to change it. Human beings tend to do a lot of rationalizing and assuming – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in small doses. But, how do we know if something is rational, and what are the chances our assumptions are correct?
One assumption we commonly make across the board of humanity is, the actual truth of what happened and what we perceive as having happened are the same thing. Sometimes when we make this assumption, there is a natural inclination to take it one step further. “Not being invited to the party makes me feel bad” can quickly become “I am a bad person”. And when we internalize a feeling, it can attach to who we are as a person. An issue is better addressed as the external force of “I feel”, before it becomes an internal “I am”.
Sometimes when we have had many challenges in our lives, or a string of stressful situations happening at roughly the same time, it can be difficult to see past the pain. We like to come up with “evidence” for why we are correct in assuming an “I am”. Looking at the big picture can help. I like to answer the questions, “Who are the people most important to me?” “How have they helped me?” “What are some of my strengths that I bring to a particular relationship?” “What have I learned up to this point that will help me in the future?” “Where do I feel gratitude?”
These questions can often put a situation in perspective because it objectively shows value in the person, and doesn’t focus so much on the negative. Through this type of reflection, we will often be able to dismiss and move on, rather than adding it to a list of why “I am the problem” which works toward changing a narrative. Stories have impact for a reason – there is typically an emotional aspect to them where we are meant to connect to the characters in an empathic way. When we speak of a personal narrative, the connection is with oneself as the main character. This can be difficult, because we tend to be our own worst critics. When we interact with ourselves, we have to come to a place of understanding, self-respect, and sometimes forgiveness – because the relationship we have with ourselves is the most unique relationship we will ever have with anyone.