I want to share this TED Talks article with you today. It’s a fantastic piece on the stories we tell ourselves – the interpretation of the experiences we’ve had, and the emotional attachments we place on these stories. Our interpretations can either propel us forward or keep us back. What story do you keep playing in your mind? And if it’s not serving you, are you willing to let that go this year?
©2017 Susie Lee
“We’ve all created our own personal histories, marked by highs and lows, that we share with the world — and we can shape them to live with more meaning and purpose.
We are all storytellers — all engaged, as the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson puts it, in an “act of creation” of the “composition of our lives.” Yet unlike most stories we’ve heard, our lives don’t follow a predefined arc. Our identities and experiences are constantly shifting, and storytelling is how we make sense of it. By taking the disparate pieces of our lives and placing them together into a narrative, we create a unified whole that allows us to understand our lives as coherent — and coherence, psychologists say, is a key source of meaning.
Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams is an expert on a concept he calls “narrative identity.” McAdams describes narrative identity as an internalized story you create about yourself — your own personal myth. Like myths, our narrative identity contains heroes and villains that help us or hold us back, major events that determine the plot, challenges overcome and suffering we have endured. When we want people to understand us, we share our story or parts of it with them; when we want to know who another person is, we ask them to share part of their story.
An individual’s life story is not an exhaustive history of everything that has happened. Rather, we make what McAdams calls “narrative choices.” Our stories tend to focus on the most extraordinary events, good and bad, because those are the experiences we need to make sense of and that shape us. But our interpretations may differ. For one person, for example, a childhood experience like learning how to swim by being thrown into the water by a parent might explain his sense of himself today as a hardy entrepreneur who learns by taking risks. For another, that experience might explain why he hates boats and does not trust authority figures. A third might leave the experience out of his story altogether, deeming it unimportant.
People who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion and agency.
McAdams has been studying narrative identity for over 30 years. In his interviews, he asks research subjects to divide their lives into chapters and to recount key scenes, such as a high point, a low point, a turning point or an early memory. He encourages participants to think about their personal beliefs and values. Finally, he asks them to reflect on their story’s central theme. He has discovered interesting patterns in how people living meaningful lives understand and interpret their experiences. People who are driven to contribute to society and to future generations, he found, are more likely to tell redemptive stories about their lives, or stories that transition from bad to good. There was the man who grew up in dire poverty but told McAdams that his hard circumstances brought him and his family closer together. There was the woman who told him that caring for a close friend as the friend was dying was a harrowing experience, but one that ultimately renewed her commitment to being a nurse, a career she’d abandoned. These people rate their lives as more meaningful than those who tell stories that have either no or fewer redemptive sequences.
The opposite of a redemptive story is what McAdams calls a “contamination story,” in which people interpret their lives as going from good to bad. One woman told him the story of the birth of her child, a high point, but she ended the story with the death of the baby’s father, who was murdered three years later. The joy over the birth of her child was tainted by that tragedy. People who tell contamination stories, McAdams has found, are less “generative,” or less driven to contribute to society and younger generations. They also tend to be more anxious and depressed, and to feel that their lives are less coherent compared to those who tell redemptive stories.
Redemption and contamination stories are just two kinds of tales we spin. McAdams has found that beyond stories of redemption, people who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion and agency. These stories allow individuals to craft a positive identity: they are in control of their lives, they are loved, they are progressing through life and whatever obstacles they have encountered have been redeemed by good outcomes.
Even making smaller story edits to our personal narratives can have a big impact on our lives.
One of the great contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts. A psychotherapist’s job is to work with patients to rewrite their stories in a more positive way. Through editing and reinterpreting his story with his therapist, the patient may come to realize that he is in control of his life and that some meaning can be gleaned from his hardships. A review of the scientific literature finds that this form of therapy is as effective as antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy.
Even making smaller story edits can have a big impact on our lives. So found Adam Grant and Jane Dutton in a study published in 2012. The researchers asked university call-center fundraisers to keep a journal for four consecutive days. In one condition, the beneficiary condition, the researchers asked the fundraisers to write about the last time a colleague did something for them that inspired gratitude. In the second condition, the benefactor condition, the participants wrote about a time they contributed to others at work.
The researchers wanted to know which type of story would lead the research subjects to be more generous. To find out, they monitored the fundraisers’ call records. Since the fundraisers were paid a fixed hourly rate to call alumni and solicit donations, the researchers reasoned, then the number of calls they made during their shift was a good indicator of prosocial, helping behavior.
After Grant and Dutton analyzed the stories, they found that fundraisers who told a story of themselves as benefactors ultimately made 30 percent more calls to alumni after the experiment than they had before. Those who told stories about being the beneficiary of generosity showed no changes in their behavior.
Grant and Dutton’s study suggests that the ability of a story to create meaning does not end with the crafting of the tale. The stories the benefactors told about themselves ultimately led to meaningful behaviors — giving their time in the service of a larger cause. Even though the fundraisers knew they were only telling their stories as part of a study, they ultimately “lived by” those stories, as McAdams would put it. By subtly reframing their narrative, they adopted a positive identity that led them to live more purposefully.
Excerpted from the new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Mattersby Emily Esfahani Smith. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2017 By Emily Esfahani Smith. Reprinted with permission.
I think more often than not, we’re so quick to criticize ourselves. There’s always something that could be better – we wish we were this, we wish we weren’t that. Very rarely will we give ourselves recognition and embrace who we are. We don’t realize the negative impact our self-destructive talk can have on our home, which is our body. We need to take care of it and nurture it – it’s the only one we’ve got. As flawed as we may be, I hope we find the beauty within and celebrate it daily.
©2016 Susie Lee
Dan DiFelice’s short video, Finished, is powerful, beautiful, and captivating. Wherever you are in life right now and whatever battle you’re fighting – I hope you find hope, courage, and new-found strength to carry on. May these truthful words resonate deep within and propel you forward to finish, and to finish well.
©2016 Susie Lee
The Four Agreements by don Miguel Rui are simple concepts yet profoundly effective. When applied to your life, it can be absolutely transformational. You will experience more peace, joy, love, strength, and energy. And you’ll soon realize that at any given moment you have the power to change the outcome of a situation, conversation, or feeling – simply by incorporating these four agreements into your mind, actions, or words. Once you make these agreements with yourself, they’ll become second nature to how you think, feel, and respond. For an in-depth look into The Four Agreements, you can pick up or download a copy of his book here.
©2016 Susie Lee
One of the sure ways to grow is to get out of our comfort zones. I know it’s not always easy because we’ll experience discomfort, insecurity, or growing pains. But getting out of our comfort zone will challenge us, stretch us, and shape us. It’s purpose is to develop and strengthen us. Sometimes, being open minded and being willing to see things from a different perspective is half the battle. Here are some ways to get you out of your comfort zone.
©2016 Susie Lee
If someone is unhappy, they’re just unhappy. It’s not your job or responsibility to make them happy or to fix them. But neither should you take their feelings personally, be offended, or hurt by their behavior or words. This isn’t easy to do but you must remember that people are allowed their feelings and you are not responsible for it. If you’re going through this right now – you must stay positive, practice self-care, and fill yourself up with so much love that nothing can disturb your peace. Each new day, promise yourself this:
‘Promise yourself to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. To talk health, happiness, and prosperity to every person you meet. To make all your friends feel that there is something worthwhile in them. To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true. To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best. To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own. To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future. To wear a cheerful expression at all times and give a smile to every living creature you meet. To give so much time to improving yourself that you have no time to criticize others. To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble. To think well of yourself and to proclaim this fact to the world, not in a loud word, but in great deeds. To live in the faith that the whole world is on your side, so long as you are true to the best that is in you.’ – Christian D. Larson
As you speak this light and truth into your life, may it become so.
©2016 Susie Lee
There are going to be days when you doubt your destiny, lose your way, or feel insecure with who you are. This is a part of your journey. You’ll never have it all together, you won’t always be happy, and you won’t be sure of who you are all the time. Instead of beating yourself up over it, just go with the winds of change within yourself. In life, there will be seasons of growth and change, and there will be seasons of restlessness and rest. We can’t always be productive, purposeful, and passionate. Some days, just getting dressed will be a huge accomplishment. If you’re in this cold dark season, be gentle with yourself, keep moving, and stop criticizing yourself. You’re not going to stay stuck in this place of complacency forever. I know it may feel like it now but you’re not – you’ll get your zest and motivation back. Until then, just live and be.
©2015 Susie Lee