A few years ago, I came to realize I was choking from a toxic “all or nothing” story. But this story, operating below my conscious awareness, had been animating me for decades. So, in middle age, I’m in a revision process. Yet I’ve begun to experience sweet relief and hope for the future.
Human beings are narrative creatures. We are story-formed—we think, imagine, feel, and remember in stories. Each of us weaves these stories into a master story, “our story.”
Your story significantly influences how you perceive the world, process emotions, make decisions, build relationships, and pursue work. Your story is not a mere chronology but an interpretive lens through which you view yourself and your experience.
And yet, your story tends to operate below your conscious awareness as you automatically and effortlessly impose patterns on your experience. We all have a story, but we differ widely in our awareness of our stories and the health of our stories.
Our stories may remain unexamined for several reasons. Digging into your past can seem impractical. Even if such a quest was desirable, how does one find the time? For some, examining your story may seem self-focused, overly introspective. And for many of us, looking back over our life experiences is painful. There’s just too much shame and trauma in it.
I am sympathetic to those objections and have felt them myself. However, left unexamined or unattended, our stories tend to take control of our lives and become increasingly unhealthy. When your story is unexamined, you act out of compulsion, living reactively. You become controlled by a story you did not choose and become a slave to someone else’s story. You assess yourself in terms of group expectations.
An unexamined story becomes unhealthy when characterized by chronic fear and the desire for control, undermining trust and cooperation in relationships. Some people act out their stories passively, others more aggressively. Some just try to “fit in, ” others seek to force conformity to their will.
My story was, “I’m either a success or a failure.” Though that story drove me, I was not unaware. Such all-or-nothing thinking led to anxiety and harshness.
So, when people come together with unhealthy stories, we create a culture of anxiety, anger, dishonesty, conflict, miscommunication, loss of creativity, and loneliness.
Healthy Stories Empower
On the other hand, living in a healthy, consciously chosen story leads to a more robust personal, social, spiritual, and professional life. You will grow in confidence, reduce your stress, unleash creativity, make better decisions, improve your communication, and feel more connected in your relationships.
In this two-part essay, I will flesh out the meaning of a “healthy story,” the benefits of attending to your story, and how the process of discovery and communication works. First, let me explain what I mean by “story.”
What is “Your Story”?
Let’s begin with what your story is not. Your story is not a chronicle, a mere history of the facts and events of your existence. Nor is your story to be equated with your professed beliefs, whether moral, political, or religious. Further, your story is not the same as your career roles.
Your story, then, is not about the propositions or people you agree with or the position you hold. It’s about you and goes beneath your outward behavior.
Put positively, your story is an interpretation of your lived, embodied experience. It provides meaning through a narrative structure. Through its patterns, your story suggests who you are, who and what you love, and the manifestation of your passions and skills.
Your story is a lens through which you view yourself, helping you answer, Am I successful? Am I good? Am I loved? Your story includes your perspective on what you’ve accomplished and desire to achieve. So, your story is not a neutral or detached look at you; it’s an assessment, a value-driven thing. Your story casts praise and condemnation on you.
Your story has multiple authors. It begins with your family, and it is added to by you, your friends, authorities, associations you respect, and the culture.
Your story includes a larger story, a grand narrative, which can be religious, scientific, social, or artistic. Your story forms part of your larger group identity—even if it’s merely a loose affiliation with a group of free-thinkers. It will help explain why you take an antagonistic or defensive posture toward other stories. My larger story draws on the ancient traditions of Christianity. But fear not, I won’t be preaching. The process I share here is not religious.
We all have a story that tends to operate below our conscious awareness, but we differ widely in our awareness of our stories and the health of our stories.
What is a healthy story?
A healthy story is consciously chosen. In other words, it can’t be simply handed down or compelled. Perhaps you’ve had a story pushed on you. Maybe you accepted that story in order to belong, to be accepted. But to accommodate to the story, you might’ve killed a part of yourself.
A healthy story is not static—it fluctuates, having times of health and sickness. Your story will have revisions as you learn and grow. And your story is not final (it’s still being written).
A healthy story is increasingly owned. It’s not avoided or forfeited to someone else. Casting blame is a failure to own, a story sickness because it’s living from another person’s or group’s story, letting them author yours. There’s no reason to deny you’ve been hurt. You may need to critique, even call out victimizers, but if you blame them for all your troubles, you avoid and disease your story.
A healthy story is increasingly connected to other stories but not enmeshed. There’s independence but not disconnection. A healthy story helps you set boundaries. It enables you to say, “No, that’s not me. We have a relationship I value, but we are different. I have a different story than you, even if our larger stories overlap.”
A healthy story is not romantic or pessimistic. It embraces and makes sense of both your strengths and weaknesses, your successes, failures, and hurts at the hands of others. It’s not exaggerated and or in denial of the negatives. It’s realistic, honest, and hopeful–not all or nothing.
A healthy story is increasingly vulnerable, out in the open, not hidden. It’s increasingly consistent across different social settings.
A healthy story usually requires time, effort, and difficulty. Self-examination can be painful, triggering buried shame and anger. Old intellectual and emotional habits die hard. I’ll come back to this process later in part II of the essay.
Why Attend to Your Story?
So, I’ve promoted and hopefully clarified the notion of an examined and healthy story. As I will show later, it takes some work and will involve some pain. Is it worth the trouble? I say, yes indeed.
Cultivating a healthy personal story gives your life coherence (meaning), connection (membership), and creativity (making). The three are related: as you see purpose in your story, in your lived experience, you connect to people and contribute creatively, you make. A sense of meaning makes you more communal and creative, and being collaborative and creative deepens purpose and meaning.
First, a healthy story gives your life coherence. Your story provides meaning because it arises from your lived experiences in the world, your desires, and the skills you’ve cultivated—rather than being dictated to you by other people. Patterns emerge, events seem less random, and you are less bored.
You might feel your life only has meaning when important people validate you or pay you lots of money. However, a healthy story gives your life meaning even if no one else cares. Some people probably will value what you offer, but you are not living for that. A healthy story does not require a particular response from others—otherwise, they are writing your story.
Second, a healthy story connects you to other people, increasing your sense of human “membership.” A healthy story brings you out of isolation, and your social confidence grows. You connect better to people because a healthy story is true to the human experience. Your story, while unique, has links to the stories of others. That’s why stories characterized by boasting or self-loathing tend to disconnect you from others. We don’t necessarily lie or exaggerate, but many of us, myself included, are too cautious regarding self-disclosure and vulnerability. The more authentically human you are, the more people tend to connect to what you say and offer.
Third, a healthy story encourages creativity, the making of things. Creativity and making are not limited to what is typically called “art.” “Making” can be a painting, a piece of music, etc. It can be functional, a piece of furniture or a lamp. But making can be a meal, a hospitable place and the way it’s decorated, a social atmosphere of warmth and safety. It can be humor, encouragement, well-considered words spoken or written. It can be the honest telling of your story and offering patience and attention to others’ stories.
You may say, “I’m not creative.” But you do make. It’s scary to put out the fruit of your passion. But a healthy story embraces the gifts and talents you have rather than striving to live up to the expectations of others. That’s originality, authenticity. You admire originality in others but probably conceal it in yourself.
But without a healthy story, we tend not to make, or we make only to sell what people say they want. In that case, we are making for the market rather than for connection and membership.
There’s a lot to be gained by looking closer at your story and seeking to bring it to health. You will start to shed insecurity and anxiety and enjoy the gift of being yourself, which will help you connect to others personally and professionally
In part II of this essay, I will discuss how to become more aware of your story, make revisions, and begin to reveal your story slowly to others.
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