The language we use creates our reality. We literally tell ourselves into being. The holiday season in particular invites us to have a story ready to tell other people and to explain to ourselves the changes in our lives.
Why We Tell Tales
The primary function of a story is to make sense of our worlds, to help create order out of the chaos of life, especially during difficult times. Our emotions and motivation comes from the story that we believe about ourselves and our lives.
Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of The Redemptive Self, states: “We find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”
Stories can serve us well, helping us to heal from grief by retelling our loss as a source of meaning for a new life chapter, or they can become distortions prolonging our suffering by causing pain and disappointment to linger far into the future.
For example, if you are divorced, what are you telling yourself about your relationship? Your relationship may have been filled with anxiety and characterized by tension, but now that it is over, are the loving times you held hands and the meaningful moments you shared the whole story?
Conversely, are you fanning the flames of anger and resentment by focusing on the bad behavior that peppered your marriage? The whole of your partner is negated, and everything your ex ever did or thought was wrong or bad. For the marriage to have failed, they had to have been a rat—still are and always will be. The question still haunts you: How you could have entangled yourself with such a lowlife?
What you tell yourself about what has happened to you will either limit or expand your horizon. Are you an unfortunate victim destined to be unhappy forever, or can you convert your loss into an opportunity to find new meaning in your life?
Creating a better story for yourself leads to more creativity, options, and hope for your life. Being more creative in developing a story that works for you makes you more likely to be energetic and involved.
How To Create a Better Story
McAdams writes: “Generative people … tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner.”
How do you want your story to end? Start by writing down how you see your loss as a potential source of meaning in the world. What are a few small things you can do to begin your next life chapter?