Take Control of the Story You Tell About Yourself

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

We are story-telling creatures. They help us make sense of the world and our place in it. The story we tell about ourselves—our narrative identity—is especially powerful. In fact, there is evidence that it shapes our wellbeing and deeply impacts our mental health. As a recent article by David Robson in New Scientist points out:

“The narratives we tell about our lives can powerfully shape our resilience to stress. People who generate tales of struggle and redemption from their own lives appear to have much better mental health. You could describe this as the flawed hero effect.”

People who recognize their triumphs and challenges and who are able to weave them into a coherent detailed narrative tend to have a stronger sense of identity and report greater meaning, life satisfaction, and purpose than those who are vague disjointed storytellers.

According to psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University, two narrative themes emerge as key predictors of mental health:

  1. Agency: When we tell our story, we describe having some control over past events and recognize our role in shaping the outcome.
  2. Redemption: When we recount challenging times, we are able to find some kind of positive meaning or personal growth.

There is evidence that people can be taught to tell better stories about themselves and to incorporate these two themes into their life narrative. In a study, one group was asked to give a factual description of a house they once lived in, another group was asked to express their deepest thoughts and feelings, and a third group was asked to write a detailed description of an event and to paint a picture for the reader of how it unfolded. One month later, the latter group—the storytellers—reported greater mental health gains and lower levels of perceived stress.

Related research from Northwestern University shows how writing a personal narrative that emphasizes competence boosts persistence. High school students were asked to write about a time they failed and a time they succeeded. Half of them were given extra instructions to describe the way they had made their success a reality (encouraging reflection on agency) and how the failure had changed them for the better (encouraging reflection on redemption). Eight weeks later, members of this group reported greater persistence in their schoolwork and had better grades.

As I read these studies, I couldn’t help but think about how we are telling the story of COVID-19. Are we promoting narratives that emphasize trauma or growth? Recognizing what we have learned alongside how much we have lost is worthwhile. Focusing exclusively on damage locks us in the past and all too often dooms the future. Without being Pollyanna-ish about hard times, it is possible to gain strength and insight from them.

How we think, talk, and write about major events in our lives has important implications. To quote John Cunningham, “we become the stories we tell ourselves.” We also become the stories our parents tell us.

There is evidence that children who know a great deal about their family history have a stronger sense of control over their lives and have higher self-worth. Seeing themselves as a part of a chapter in a larger family history and understanding the ups and downs of the family narrative generates confidence and keeps challenges in perspective.

As Bruce Feiler wrote in The New York Times, “If you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.” Whether reflecting on your own or talking to your children, recognize the role you played in your success and how you have learned from your challenges. No need to be the hero. Being a flawed hero is good enough.

Bottom Line: Shifting the way you think, talk, and write about major life events can influence your life moving forward.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman