Can You Edit Your Life Story?
Sure, you can make different choices and influence the path you choose in the future. But what about the past? Can you also make that read differently?
Have you ever written a fictional novel or a screenplay? (Don’t worry, neither have I.) Perhaps it will surprise you that you’re actually creating such a work of art, each and every day of your life. The story of YOUR life that you hold in your mind, whilst it may seem to you to be a 100% accurate depiction of events as they happened, is (for the most part) more like a work of fiction. Allow me to explain . . . . .
Just this morning, I was reading an article on Ted.com (if you’ve never had the opportunity, jump on over there later, and browse through their list of videos and articles. Quite enlightening, very broad, and often entertaining.) The article, entitled “What old story about yourself are you still believing? Here’s how to find it and change it” presented a viewpoint on how we create our own life stories, how we come to believe who we are, what things we “know” about ourselves.
Although fairly brief and simplistic, it was certainly relevant, and it provoked me into writing about the subject in a little more depth. You see, as the article explains, that self-narrative we keep inside our heads is not a collection of the objective facts of our journey through life. It is a created story . . . one that’s “based on real events” (just like many movies), but one that’s also biased and altered in its presentation. For example, did you know that you’re not the only “author” of your life story?
That’s right, you’re NOT the only one contributing to the story of your life, the story that you understand to be the objective truth. Consider this: a parent tells their child, “You always seem to have such good luck!” or “You’ll never be any good at mathematics.” Whilst neither of those comments represents an objective truth, the young child incorporates them into that chapter (and potentially all subsequent chapters) of their life story. From that point forward, they not only come to accept their good fortune or their difficulty with maths as a given . . . they also begin to make decisions and choices based on those beliefs.
“Confirmation bias” strengthens the beliefs over time, as the child acknowledges and retains examples of good luck or bad maths in their memory, and disregards those events that do not support the belief. (It’s almost as though a theme is written into the story, and anything that contradicts that theme is written OUT.) The result is that, in older age, looking back over the course of life events at any stage will result in plenty of memories and “evidence” to support the belief, and little or no evidence to the contrary. Consequently, psychologists spend a lot of time helping their clients to challenge old beliefs, and to re-learn how to objectively assess themselves.
Consider this too: parents are not the only co-authors of a person’s life story. Grandparents, siblings, peers, teachers, even random strangers, all can insert a theme or a belief (or simply an idea) into a life story. (In much the same way, my father once inserted a box of squid into my freezer during a visit from California. He’d planned to use it for fishing. But it just sat there for months after he left, taking up space that could have been used for ice cream . . . and stinking up my freezer . . . until I found it, checked the source, and threw it out!) And it’s not only people that will make such contributions. News stories, daily habits, illnesses, chance meetings (and other coincidences), bad dreams and random life events, all might play a small role in the development of the life story.
Remember too that all of these ideas, statements and events will be viewed through pre-existing biases, and not as objective facts. Once you have a space in your mind for examples of good fortune (or poor maths skills), anything that seems to fit in that space will be filed for future consideration. Anything that doesn’t seem to fit will likely be discarded almost immediately, and does not end up as part of the story. Consequently, the story you have written for yourself, about yourself . . . the story of your life, who you are, how you fit into the world and how your future will play out . . . is a WORK OF FICTION written by multiple authors and influenced by random events. And whilst some of the major themes in the story will continue through to the ending, most of the remaining pages are still quite blank!
The Ted.com article also goes on to briefly show how we can begin to challenge some of these old beliefs, how we can begin to re-write the story. Part of that process may involve self-reflection, or the questioning of assumptions and the search for hard evidence. It may also be a process of purposefully and consciously writing new ideas and assumptions into the story (for example, by studying maths to see just how far one can go). Asking friends to suggest edits, to “proof read” the life story, or to help challenge old plot-lines and evil characters, might also be helpful.
For me, one of the analogies I use is to ask my clients to go home and de-frost their freezer. (Not literally!) I suggest that they gradually begin a process of taking things out, checking the label on the box (or freezer bag), asking themselves whether this is stuff they consume and enjoy, and being more consciously aware of the options. I get them to check “use by” dates . . . i.e, was this something that applied when you were 7, but now you’re 35 it no longer has relevance? I get them to look at the name on the label . . . i.e, does this belong to your dad, and can you give it back or throw it out? I get them to de-clutter, by tossing stuff that’s not part of their future, and making space for stuff that is.
But whatever the source or the origin of the various parts of a person’s life story, the important thing to bear in mind is that it IS just a story. It’s not set in stone, it’s not totally factual, and it’s not yet completed. Just as you cannot know a whole story by reading a single chapter of a book, you cannot judge your being by looking at a single year (or period) of your life. Things don’t always keep running the way they started out, and things don’t always end up the way they were running. You could move to Finland, take up the violin, and develop an interest in quantum physics. Probably not, but you COULD. Your character is not set, and it does not have to follow an old plot-line written by someone else. It’s really up to you. After all, it’s YOUR life story . . .