We used to do it round the campfire, then around the office watercooler, and now we have Twitter and Facebook. Telling stories about our lives is part of what makes us human, but recounting episodes from our lives also has the power to alter the way we view the past, not to mention the sense of optimism and direction with which we may approach.
Heroes and villains
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, most of us view our lives as stories. Looking back, it’s possible to discern a series of distinct chapters and a cast of characters that will inevitably include heroes – a favourite teacher, a first love – and villains – the treacherous ex, the toxic boss and so on. And, like the best novels, every life story has challenges and suspense, for no one knows for sure how things will turn out.
Much like our favourite movie, our personal life stories can be compelling and seductive, causing us to revisit them over and over again. And we often dwell on certain life events at the expense of others.
‘Starting late in adolescence, we manufacture our dramatic personal myths by selectively mining some experiences and neglecting or forgetting others,’ says Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology.
‘As humans, we have an innate need to feel that we had the power to do things differently,’ says psychotherapist Susan Cowan-Jenssen. ‘We assume responsibility for all manner of events. The alternative is to feel randomness of the universe, that we’re powerless to stop bad stuff happening, which is terrifying.’
When we get stuck on a negative episode of our life story from which we can't bounce back, for example, that’s contaminative. The most common example is the end of a seemingly perfect romantic relationship, frequently but not always, at a young age.
People who are more disposed to sadness, neuroticism and depression are more likely to react in a way that contaminates everything that follows, as are people who describe bad events in a fatalistic way, as if they have no power over the outcome.
By contrast, the other response to negative life events is the redemptive story, where we try to put a positive spin on what’s happened, and believe something good has come from our suffering. There are different categories of ‘bouncing back’ stories, which include sacrifice, self-improvement, growth, learning and recovery.
Apparently, people who are most conscious of living life as a story, and use language such as ‘turning point’ and ‘footnote’ when writing about their lives, are the most successful at making positive life changes. ‘They are considering that life is a story whose direction can change as the result of one scene,’ says McAdams.