What is your life story? Do you know? How would you tell it?
Human beings are storytellers! We all know the fairy tales from our different cultures. Who doesn’t like to snuggle on the couch and be told a really good story, whether it be from our spouse, our children or Finding Nemo?
We identify with others when they share similar experiences with us.
Oh my parents are divorced too.
I also have five children.
Yea I’m the middle child.
We identify ourselves through these events and scenes from our lives, but we don’t normally pay attention to what kind of person our life story is shaping us to be. Personality psychologists call this knowing-yourself-through-your-story the narrative identity.
The Narrative Identity aka Life Story
Personal Journey to Understanding My Life Story
I began to understand the importance of my own narrative identity during a creative nonfiction class in college.
We were required to write every single day, usually based off prompts, which asked us to ponder different life events and coax the story and moral out of them. I ended up resurrecting so many latent part of myself. I didn’t realize all the connections I had subconsciously made about why certain things happened to me.
As I wrote, I understood. Almost more importantly, as I began to share these stories, these parts of myself, I came to love who I am through the acceptance of others. The class made a habit of reading aloud even the more personal of essays. I never heard a story that I cringed away from, even when they were dark and twisted.
This sharing of self helped all of us understand ourselves and understand each other.
The Science Behind the Narrative Identity
In the 2008 Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, author, Dan McAdams relates the narrative identity in this way:
The stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, and might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplace, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, and culture. The self comes to terms with society through narrative identity.
Reconciling who we are in our heads with who we are societally is not easy. But when we iterate our stories, whether only to ourselves or to others, it makes self-awareness attainable.
Think about it this way. When you read a novel, especially a book series, you come to know the main character. You know their past, their present, and the future they hope for. You know their motives.
The Harry Poster series is a great example. When Harry yells at his best friends during stressful times, I don’t get upset with him. Since, I know all his life story, his major life events, how they affected him and where they are taking him, I know his heart. I love him all the more for it.
The inventory of Harry’s life makes it very easy to know him. We can take a similar inventory of our own lives.
Reconstructed Past and Imagined Future
McAdams says that most individuals categorize their lives by reconstructing the defining events of the past and using them to imagine the future. We can do this passively: THIS happened, then THIS happened, so THIS will probably happen. Or purposefully: THIS happened, and it affected me THIS way, so I will do THIS to ensure THIS happens.
Since those last two sentences don’t make any sense, here is an example from my life:
Passive: My parents divorced. I became very bitter and angry and hurt, so I pushed people away. I will probably remain a bitter and angry person who never finds love.
Purposeful: My parents divorced. It made me bitter and angry for a while, but I don’t have to be defined by my circumstances. I will choose to learn from my past. I will love and marry and overcome.
I’ve tried both the passive and purposeful path. The purposeful one is so much better! In the first, my imagined future was bleak. In the second, my imagined future is fulfilling. Perception of Positive vs. Negative Experiences
Each life event we experience is correlated to either positive or negative feelings based on our perception.
Perception is everything when it comes to our defining life events. In a 1979 study, personality psychologists found that people emotionally organize positive and negative scenes from their life stories differently. In general, people regard positively perceived events as “variants,” while negatively perceived events are seen as “analogs.”
So we look at the good stuff as random. Wow, can you believe that happened!? This is awesome! And we look at the bad stuff as repetitive, linked patterns. I knew this would happen. Why me? Here we go again.
Have you ever met someone (or been someone) who cannot catch a break? It just seems like everything and everyone is against you, and you sure as heck don’t know why. The car breaks down. You lose your job. Your children get sick. It has to be a pattern, right?
You know why things seem so bad? For exactly that reason, they seem bad. We perceive them as bad, so they are. We also subconsciously perceive negative events as recurring patterns, so when one bad things happens, we immediately lather on the negativity and give way to the this-always-happens-to-me mentality.
BUT when we consciously choose to be aware of how our perception is coloring our life stories, we can deliberately learn from those events and know ourselves better.
Challenge: Learn Your Narrative Identity
Get out a notebook or a laptop and start writing.
- Without giving it too much thought, make a list 20 of significant moments, events or experiences from your birth to the present. Don’t worry about if they are good or bad at first.
- Take each event and expound on how it made you feel. How did it affect you. Was it a good experience of a bad one. How did you perceive it when it happened?
- Make connections. Is the event still affecting you today? Was your perception biased toward this event because of some other past event? Did this event spawn any of the other events? Did you settle with some aspect of your personality just because of this event?
Let me explain what I mean by settling. When I was 12 years old, I asked my father why he abandoned my mother, sister and me by divorcing my mom and moving to California. He told me in so many words he left in order to better pursue his work. His words verbatim were, “Sometimes in life, you have to make sacrifices.” All I heard was, “You are the sacrifice I made for my work. You are less important than my career.” I internalized these words as a child, and I acted upon them in the coming years of my life. I was hardened and angry, because I felt worthless. And I almost settled with it. I almost said: this is who I am, a bitter, angry girl forever. But I didn’t. And you don’t have to either.
When we recognize an event has affected us negatively, we can choose to make the connection and react positively.
- Share your story. Tell others about your life and don’t be afraid or ashamed of what happened or what you did. We all have shameful parts, and they are much easier to bear when shared.
So, that’s a lot of words just to say: your life story is significant. You should pay attention to it and study it. I don’t want to you to become some narrative identity recluse. Involving yourself in the lives of others is very important. But there are some things we can only learn from our own circumstances. This process of learning, connecting and correcting leads to better self-awareness and more contentment with our normal lives.
What choices have you made based off your life story?