Making Meaning of Our Lives Through Stories
As humans, we are driven to make meaning of our emotions and experiences, whether we know it or not. That meaning comes in the form of what we tell ourselves about our emotions and experiences. They are expressed as our beliefs, perspectives, attitudes, biases, mindset, and the things we tell ourselves. This is what I call our “stories” or personal narratives. We are story-making creatures, it is a way to make meaning of our life and experiences. It is how we judge things, events, people in life and how we justify our behavior. We might say that:
B happened because of C and the result is D.
I am feeling this way because _________.
I can/cannot do this because _________.
A good person is ____________, a bad person is ____________.
Our stories are not truth with a capitol “T.” Different perspectives of the same event will give you different stories. People will create different meanings based on those perspectives.
Almost everything in our lives is story, or at least affected by story. Quite possibly, everything comes down to story. Our ability to examine our lives and experiences sets us apart from all other living creatures, even other social animals. We think about our experiences, try to understand why something did or did not happen, and then those thoughts turn into our stories. Sometimes we are conscious about our thoughts. Sometimes those stories are so much a part of our lives that they become habitual, or even unconscious.
So, what is a true story? I think something is true as long as we believe it is. There is a difference between truth and facts/events. Changing our beliefs, rewriting our story, is not about changing facts. And it’s not about pretending something is fine when it really isn’t. It’s not about lying to ourselves. Rewriting our story is about deepening the meaning of our experiences and honoring past stories. It’s about stepping outside of our story and walking around it, viewing it from multiple perspectives. By doing this we can deepen our understanding, heal old wounds, be transformed. This healing and growth happen by first accepting and allowing our stories and the emotions that come with it.
Several years ago I read the book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. It created a bit of an existential crisis for me, but in a good way. It opened my mind to the possibility of everything being story and has given me the permission and power to rewrite stories (although, I’m not sure that is the overall theme or intent of the book). In Spaiens, Harari says:
“Homo sapiens is a story telling animal that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story…When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about and what my particular role is in the cosmic drama. This role makes me bigger than myself and gives meaning to all my experiences and choices.”
I’m not sure why we’re driven to make meaning of our experiences. I’m not sure there really is an answer to the “why” of it. But we do it, whether we’re aware of it or not. Many people go through life rarely reflecting on why they feel as they do, why they behave as they do. Part of what makes therapy and coaching so invaluable is that you can work with someone who is trained to ask questions that cause you to think about your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Questioning these things empowers you to make a choice--you don’t have to be, act, think, or feel the same way you’ve always been, behaved, thought, or felt. You have choice.
Making meaning of our experiences
How does the meaning of our experience change? Let’s look at an example from my own life. I grew up with a mother who was emotionally unavailable. Let’s assume the fact is that my mother was distant and unhappy. What are some different stories about this experience?
My mother was distant and unhappy. She didn’t love me. And because she didn’t love me, I am unlovable.
My mother was distant and unhappy. She was broken and incapable of giving much love. I didn’t get the type of love I craved, but I am worthy of love and belonging, regardless of my mother’s inability to love me in the way I needed.
My mother was distant and unhappy. It was because of something I did. I am responsible for her unhappy life. I need to do everything I can do make her and those around me happy.
My mother was distant and unhappy. I didn’t get the love I needed. She ruined my life. I can never be whole or happy because of the love I was denied as a child.
My mother was distant and unhappy. Because I didn’t have a model of how to interact emotionally, I cannot get in touch with my emotions and express them in a healthy way. I cannot change.
My mother was distant and unhappy. Because I didn’t have a model of how to interact emotionally, I struggle with my own emotions. However, I can learn and grow and figure out a way to get in touch with my emotions and express them in a healthy way.
You can see how many different meanings can be created around the same “fact.” And I want to be clear, there is not “right” or “wrong” story here. Whichever story I believe becomes my truth. It becomes the lens through which I see the world; it colors the way I interact in the world and the views I have about myself. The story I tell myself even affects my beliefs about my ability to change or not.
Making meaning about emotions
Besides creating stories around our experiences, we also create stories around our emotions. These stories we tell ourselves about our emotions are our feelings. Often, we use the terms emotion and feeling interchangeably, but they are different. Emotions are our response to the environment. They are neuro-physiological reactions. Feelings are born out of the thoughts we have about our emotions; they are our conscious awareness of our emotions (see Karla McLaren's article, Is it a Feeling or is it an Emotion?). And since we can change our thoughts, our stories, we can also change our feelings.
Our stories about emotions usually start with our tendency to label pleasant emotions as “good” and uncomfortable emotions as “bad.” Not many people like the experiences of sorrow, anger, or fear, so those emotions tend to be viewed as negative. Not only do we not like experiencing these kinds of emotions, we also tell ourselves a lot of stories about how we should experience those emotions. We say things like “I shouldn’t feel upset,” or “I should be happy.” When the reality is, emotions come and go, like waves. They just are. Kind of like the sun and the rain and the snow, the night and the day, emotions happen and are neither good nor bad. They may feel pleasant or unpleasant, but they don’t inherently have a value to them. In the play Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “…for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” I find this an interesting idea to apply to my feelings and emotions.
I heard it said that emotions can’t hurt us. This sort of blew my mind…I don’t think I ever consciously thought that emotions could hurt me, but I have definitely felt like they could. Just because we don’t enjoy feeling a certain emotion doesn’t mean we are being harmed or hurt by it. In fact, I’m seeing all emotions now as being good because all emotions give us important information.
Stepping outside of your story
Here’s the thing. In so many instances, our stories are written when we are young, have limited experiences, limited understanding, and we are simply trying to make sense of the world the best way we can. But, because of our lack of experience and our inability to see things from a broader perspective, our stories are generally limited. But we cling to those stories as we grow up. And so often we cling to those stories as adults. I believe that part of growing up (which is never age-limited) is learning to look at our stories and broaden the meaning we give our past experiences--to shift our perspectives, our understanding, and rewrite our stories.
When we learn to step outside of our story, we can change the meaning of our emotions and experiences. We can say “________ happened and I felt _______; I acted in a such a way, based on my emotional reactions; now I am triggered by _________ and those old feelings come up; I can continue to react in the same old ways, or I can choose a new way to respond.”
Awareness leads to choice, choice leads to empowerment
Where does that leave us? Recognizing that humans are driven to make meaning of our experiences/emotions is an important part of Awareness. And Awareness is the first step to rewriting your story. You need to become aware of the story you are telling yourself before you can change anything. You must entertain the possibility that your interpretation of your emotions and experiences stem from your thoughts, and those thoughts are simply a story. I want to reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with stories. We are story-making creatures. It’s simply what we do. We can’t avoid having stories. We can’t not make meaning of our emotions and experiences. But as we gain awareness, we begin to realize that we have some choice. We can do the work to deepen our understanding of our experiences, our past, our interactions. As we do so, we begin to rewrite those old stories and find meaning that empowers us. We can create meaning that can lift us out of harmful and hurtful reactionary behavior. It isn’t easy. It takes practice and persistence. And you might find yourself choosing to stay in old stories. But I think that’s cool, because once you go down this path you get to make the choice. You choose whether to stay in an old story or discover a new meaning and new way of showing up in your life. That is empowerment. That is what Rewriting Your Story offers you.