What would your story be if you were to write a book or movie script about yourself? What events would you include? What would the theme(s) be? What characters would you include? We all have stories that we tell ourselves and others, about who we are and what our experiences mean.
I came across this concept some years ago, and it captured my imagination. I had realized that the theme of my story was being alone in the crowd. I was reclusive, didn’t allow people to get to know me, and mostly kept to myself. Wanting to make a change, I began to explore how I could rewrite this story to have more meaningful connections. My story theme is now being in good company. I can be happy with my own company and I can have close relationships as well.
By rewriting the story of your identity, you can start to see new possibilities for yourself.
The way we live our lives is connected to how we describe them. There’s a difference between how we act if we see our story as one of failure or if we see it as a story of overcoming. By rewriting the story of your identity, you can start to see new possibilities for yourself. This process of creating helpful stories is part of an approach known as narrative therapy.
There are five basic storylines that we have:
1. The Story of Our Self – The Central Character
You are the central character in your own story. What kind of role do you play? Are you the hero or the underdog? An explorer? A princess? Are you an action movie kind of hero, a romantic hero, or a comedic hero? What do these roles mean to you?
Changing how you describe yourself can change your sense of who you are. Many people who have experienced abuse choose to refer to themselves as survivors or overcomers instead of victims. This gives them a sense of empowerment they can use to find new choices for how to live their lives. Think about how you introduce yourself to others and what kinds of things you tell them to portray who you are. What kind of central character are you describing?
2. The Story of Our Life – The Plot
The plot is the story you tell about what has occurred in the past. For example, your basic plot might be “I never do anything right.” The theme of that story is failure. Past events (or interpretations of events) that support this plot become the chapters or scenes in your story. The “movie” of your life may therefore be a drama or tearjerker about failure.
What would happen if you decided to change that plot by focusing on all the times you persevered through failure to try again? Imagine that you are the film editor, looking back at the scenes of your life. What kind of film do you want this to be? Which scenes will you keep in the film? Which ones will you cut? What overall theme do you want your story to illustrate?
Also consider who wrote the script for this story. Are you following a script written by someone else, that, for example, dictates what kind of career you will follow? If you were writing the script, what would be different?
3. The Stories of Our Relationships – The Supporting Cast
Often we have unconsciously written the roles that we expect others to play in our story. You may have a specific idea of how your friends or partners should behave and may be disappointed or angry when they don’t play along. Do they know they have been cast in that role? Do they know what their lines are supposed to be? Remember, they are also the central character in their own story, and they might have very different expectations from yours.
Have a conversation with the important people in your life about your expectations for each other and be open to rewriting your script or even recasting a part.
While we may not be able to change the world around us, we can change how we make meaning out of our experiences.
4. The Story of Our Family – The Backstory
For most of us, our family history forms a strong part of our identity. I grew up knowing that I come from a line of hard workers, peacemakers, readers, and thinkers. My family history is recorded in stories of migration, mutual support, and the struggle to survive. This backstory has given me continuity and a sense of belonging.
However, many people have been cut off from their history. The family story may have been lost in a variety of ways, from closed adoption to family conflict and cutoff. Significant loss of family identity has resulted from things such as the residential school system and “Sixties Scoop,” the Holocaust and Holodomor, war, famine, and other major external influences. In these cases, finding that backstory and making meaning of it is critically important.
If you are able, collect your family stories. Draw a family tree and look for the patterns of strength and resilience that you can weave into your story. If these stories are lost for you, consider what family story you would like to create for the next generation.
5. The Story of Our Future – The Sequels
Where might your story go in the future? What kinds of things can you do now so that future episodes will include stories of hope, recovery, and possibility?
While we may not be able to change the world around us, we can change how we make meaning out of our experiences. One way to do this is to examine the stories you tell about yourself and seek ways to open up new possibilities through rewriting your personal narrative.
If you want to explore the role of story in your own life in more depth, I recommend Mandy Aftel’s book, The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience (Simon and Schuster, 1997).
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