“We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we’re telling them” (Emily Esfahani Smith).
Maybe because I grew up in Romania, there are so many things I didn’t learn how to do when I was young.
For example, I learned how to ride a bike at 31, how to ride a horse at 28, got my driver’s license at 33, and have yet to learn how to throw a frisbee or ski. After I moved to Canada in my mid-twenties, I noticed the range of experiences that many new friends had experienced during their early years. One friend had played a new sport every year, so by the time she finished high school she’d tried every activity under the sun.
I quickly began feeling sorry for myself. I thought I’d missed out on things that would have made life richer, and told myself that I’d been deprived of “basic” experiences growing up.
But after a while, as I tried some of these new activities (and enjoyed them) I found myself having a change in perspective. Instead of thinking about what I’d missed out on, I realized the benefit of having so many “firsts” still in front of me – how much more room for learning and new experiences there was in my life, compared to most people around me.
In changing the interpretation of my life story, I reframed my narrative. In doing so, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I looked at my limited experience growing up as an advantage that allowed me to feel excited about the future.
To some, this might sound like self-delusion. However, the interpretation we give our experiences is critical to our wellbeing.
According to the psychologist Michelle Crossley, “mental illness is often the result of a person’s inability to tell a good story about his or her life” (Emily Esfahani Smith).
We can’t change our past experiences, but the interpretation we give those experiences is within our power.
Reframing our narrative starts with introspection and reflection upon our experiences. It’s what allows us to make sense of what we experienced, heal our wounds, grow from our ashes, to thrive, and – if we share our stories with others – to also help others make sense of their stories.
Below, you’ll find a list of what can be gained when we reflect on our experiences and consciously reframe the narrative of our life events.
MEANING: Reframing our story can help us find meaning in our experiences
We all share a basic need for our lives to make sense. Therefore, when we experience a crisis or obstacle, we long to understand its meaning in the big picture of our lives. Even if the experience shook us to the core, we can regain balance when we find some redemption, clarity, or something we’ve learned about ourselves.
Redemption “doesn’t make the crisis worthwhile, but it makes it worth something.” (Erik Kolbell)
And that something can make all the difference.
HEALING: Reframing our story can help us heal
When we reflect upon life events (including hardships) we can edit and reinterpret their explanation. This allows us to feel a sense of control over our lives, find meaning in our experiences, and ultimately heal. This approach, conducted with the help of a psychotherapist, has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy. Editing and rewriting our story is something we can also do on our own in order to find the peace we need to carry on.
GROWTH: Reflection can help those who experienced trauma to thrive
Up to two-thirds of trauma survivors report post-traumatic growth, defined by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun as “positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises.”
Specifically, many trauma survivors strengthen their relationships, find new purpose in life, discover inner strength and resilience, enrich their spiritual life, and/or learn to appreciate life more. Compared to people who don’t experience growth after trauma, trauma survivors who grow actively try to make sense of what they experienced and how they were changed. It’s their introspection practice that allows them to change their lives in positive ways.
FUTURE: Reframing our current experiences can help us perform better
Adopting a meaning mindset can also change the way we approach stressful activities in our daily lives. For example, a study asked high school students to write about how their schoolwork allowed them to realize a life purpose. Subsequently, their grades improved months after their writing exercise.
Once they became aware and reminded of their purpose for learning, the students reframed their schoolwork as a necessary step in accomplishing their goals. Similarly, when we’re conscious of the ultimate purpose and meaning of various life endeavors, we’re likely to perform better.
HELP OTHERS: Sharing our reframed stories can help others do the same
Reflecting on our life events can help us make sense of our story, which – as previously mentioned – can benefit us is numerous ways. However, when we share our story and the meaning we found with others, we’re likely to stir that same process in those who hear or read it. It’s why some books change our lives. It’s why some blogs of personal stories stay with us and linger in our minds, sowing seeds.
How to go about reframing your stories? Write.
Writing allows us to systematically process what we’ve experienced and actively work on making sense of it. Writing, editing, and rewriting specific incidents in our lives has been shown to help people reframe their narratives and ultimately heal their wounds. It’s a tool we can all use – free and available to us anytime.
You can own your story.
Don’t let your mind and fears write your story for you. Instead, you can consciously choose what you’d like that story to be. If you don’t know where to start or how to do go about it, check out books such as Expressive Writing: Words that Heal that can help you (re)write your stories.
Keep at it and soon enough you’ll find yourself inhabiting a new narrative… one that might show you a version of yourself you hadn’t realized before.
Acknowledgements: I was inspired to write this blog post after reading the book ‘The Power of Meaning’ by Emily Esfahani Smith. Many of the references and quotes in this post are from the book.
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