Stories have power. They help us to understand our world, simplifying complex concepts and assigning meaning to events in ways that help us make sense of the human condition.
Key moments of a good story stand proud, working their way into our consciousness, indelibly marking themselves in our minds as memories of events we never even lived. As such, they become intertwined with our real memories, shaping the way we think and the decisions we make as we learn life lessons from what they tell us.
But we also tell stories to ourselves about our own life.
We are the narrators of the events that actually happen to us.
Even if what actually happened is factual, the way we choose to narrate it to ourselves is up to us. We choose the highs and lows we want to focus on, and formulate the moral lessons we can learn from them, too.
We can see this in the different ways that two people can have completely different perspectives on an event, a conversation, an argument. What actually happened is a fact. But the fact that one person can remember a conversation one way, and the other another, shows us the powers of internal narrative in action.
And then we have stories that are simply not good for us.
When I got divorced a year ago, I went under. I struggled to make any meaning from what had happened. How could someone treat me the way they did? How could they do the things they did? And – just as importantly – why did it all happen?
Without answers, my mind couldn’t cope. I began drinking more and I became depressed. I felt bad about myself, rejected and unworthy. It crept into other areas of my life. I felt completely adrift, unable to make sense of what was happening in my life and why.
But perhaps most of all, I felt like a victim of circumstance. A person who had become haplessly intertwined in someone else’s messy and controlling behaviour.
Eventually, I started searching for answers. I read books. I went to talks. I meditated. I asked friends for advice. I started looking for answers to my internal struggle outside of myself.
Suddenly, something clicked into place.
I finally recognised that I had actually been an active participant in the relationship, and that the sense of being simply ‘caught up’ in it could not be true – because I had been free to leave. I recognised that I could recognise my part in what happened without taking the blame for everything.
I was creating a new narrative for the story that had been playing in my mind. And it was changing my mood for the better.
For me, it was important to be able to recognise that I had, in fact, had a level of control over what had happened in my life at that point. I admitted to myself that I had been actively choosing to stay in that relationship even at a point where – deep down – I knew it was way past its sell-by-date. Looking at it in this way removed the sense of total victimisation I had been feeling, and enabled me to recast the story for myself as a learning experience – ‘remember, Adam, that you have the option to leave’.
The events hadn’t changed, but the story I told myself about it had.
Seeing it from a new perspective helped me to feel a sense of control over what had happened during that period of my life. It helped by calming my feeling that life could just sweep me along without any warning, and by instilling a feeling that I did, in fact, bear some responsibility. I wasn’t a victim of circumstance. I was someone who had made choices that could have been better – and will be next time around.
So what has this experience of retelling my story taught me?
That how we narrate our story can change not only how we see our past, but also how we’ll experience our future.
I’m going to keep working on this topic of ‘the stories we’ve had enough of’, so if you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them in the comments section.