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What’s your story?

Is it possible to rewrite our personal history? Yes, say psychologists, and changing our view of the past can have a powerful impact on our future. By Anita Chaudhuri

We used to do it round the campfire, then it was the office water cooler, and now we have Twitter, Facebook and Blogspot. Telling stories about our lives is part of what makes us human, but recounting episodes from our lives also has the power to alter the way we view the past, not to mention the sense of direction and optimism with which we may approach our future.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, most of us view our lives as stories. Looking back, it’s possible to discern a series of distinct chapters and a cast of characters that will inevitably include heroes — a favourite teacher, a first love — and villains — the ex-husband, the toxic boss and so on. And, like the best novels, every life story has challenges and suspense, for no one knows for sure how things will turn out.

‘We are all tellers of tales, and we seek to provide our scattered and often confusing experiences with a sense of coherence by arranging the episodes of our lives in a way that makes sense,’ says Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology at Northwestern University in the US and author of The Redemptive Self.

Much like a favourite film, our personal life stories can be compelling and seductive, causing us to revisit them over and over again. And we often dwell on certain life events at the expense of others. ‘Starting in late adolescence, we manufacture our dramatic personal myths by selectively mining some experiences and neglecting or forgetting others,’ says McAdams.

This was certainly true for Holly, 38. ‘I often used to revisit the time my father told me he was leaving our family because we were “suffocating” him,' she says. 'I was only eight, yet for years I took this to mean that I was needy and clingy. In all my subsequent relationships I was overly independent, trying to disprove the “needy” tag. I’ve only recently started to re-evaluate that time, and to see that my father was really talking about my mother. That awareness has completely changed how I approach relationships, and I’m now happily with a partner for the first time ever.’

According to psychotherapist Susan Cowan-Jenssen, ‘We remember certain events and not others because for some reason we have given them greater meaning. You are more likely to dwell on something years later if you personalise that event and believe it was your fault. It can be a simple thing such as an argument between friends or a parent falling ill.’

In the course of his research, McAdams has analysed thousands of high points and low points in people’s life stories, and has found strong correlations between people’s current lives and their personal narratives.

Those who are prone to sadness or depression have as many good memories as the rest of us, but they are often tinged by some negative detail, for example the wedding day that was great except for a quarrel with a relative, or the fantastic new job that nevertheless came with a difficult boss.

The most revealing aspect of our life stories is whether we see past events as ‘contaminative’ or ‘redemptive’. When we get stuck on a negative episode of our life story from which we can’t bounce back, for example, that’s contaminative. The most common example is the end of a seemingly perfect romantic relationship, frequently but not always at a young age.

‘There’s a sense with the person that they’re never going to get that same feeling back, and they go through life from that point on yearning to experience it again,’ says McAdams. ‘It’s a bit like being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Their parents divorcing is another common event people cite, or losing their job, or illness. For some, that is enough to contaminate everything that follows.’ People who are more disposed to sadness, neuroticism and depression are more likely to react in this way, as are people who describe bad events in a fatalistic way, as if they have no power over the outcome.

By contrast, the other response to negative life events is the redemptive story, where we try to put a positive spin on what’s happened, and believe something good has come from our suffering. There are different categories of ‘bouncing back’ stories, the most common of which include sacrifice, growth, self-improvement, learning and recovery (for example from addiction or illness).

‘People who turn their stories around like this tend to score high in a trait known as generativity,’ says McAdams. ‘They’ve gone through life telling themselves, and others, “Listen I’ve gone through bad things but I usually come out on top”.’ Generative personalities tend to be community-minded, outgoing and engaged with the wider world.
So how can we use our storytelling instinct to our advantage? Apparently, people who are most conscious of living life as a story, and use language such as ‘turning point’ and ‘footnote’ and ‘epitaph’ when writing about their lives, are the most successful at making positive life changes. ‘They are considering that life is a story whose direction can change as the result of one scene,’ says McAdams.

This is backed up by research from Ohio State University, which revealed that students who talked about themselves in the third person, viewing themselves as a character in a narrative, were more likely to change their future behaviour than those who used the first person. Students who replayed difficult events in the third person were far more likely to believe that they had changed and grown since the negative event took place.

Writing your own life story can also help clarify whether you are getting stuck on negative episodes, and can help you to find other, more positive events, to offer comfort and inspiration. And remember, no one’s life story is perfect. In fact, the type of personality that is most likely to create a happy, balanced life is the person who makes the best of a bad situation; they don’t need perfection to flourish.