Have you ever watched the show, ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’. Contestants have to answer general knowledge questions but during the show the hosts tells little anecdotes about the contestants, and the contestants elaborate, explaining that yes, they once did ride a yak in Tibet or were robbed by a gondolier in Venice. These little stories are part of the show’s format. Are you a good story teller? Do you have people in stitches over brunch? Can you instil wisdom into teens by recounting your own lost youth? Do you engage your family by recounting misadventures at work? Do you know what the most important stories of all are? They are the stories you tell yourself about your life.
I read a wonderful article on the BBC website recently by psychologist Dr Chris Jarrett. He explained that how you talk to yourself about the major events of your life has a major impact about how you feel about yourself and your future. The stories you tell yourself about your life can even change your personality.
Dr Jarrett put it this way. Imagine you moved to a new town when you were a child, and at your new school you were badly bullied. How you shape your memories will have a huge impact on who you are now. You could tell yourself it was just another time in your life when everything was going well, but then there came change outside your control, and everything went bad. Or you could tell yourself that you survived and became a survivor as a result of being bullied. You started to learn about resilience and coming back from hardship, and that has helped make you the success you are today.
Everyone has set backs
The truth is that we have all had things go wrong in our lives and we have all made mistakes, but if you want to have a really healthy attitude then you need to be strong and put a positive spin on your past.
Dr Jarret says the way you tell your story, especially to yourself, will shape who you are. Dr Jarrett refers to that old show, ‘This Is Your Life’. On this show, famous people recounted the most important times in their life and at the shows’ end were presented with a book that featured the pivotal turning points and memories of their lives. For the show, these life stories were compiled by researchers. But Dr Jarrett says we all walk around with an invisible ‘life book’, yet we are the ones who write it … in our heads.
What are the major events of your life?
What are the most important moments of your life and how do you feel about them? Yes, there will be successes and failures. There will be times you achieved at work and times when you made the wrong decisions. You will have fallen in love and relationships will have ended. You will have moved houses, state, perhaps even countries. You are your story. A research team led by Kate McLean at Western Washington University wrote a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, called ‘The Stories We Tell about Ourselves reveal Ourselves, Construct Ourselves and Sustain Ourselves through Time’. Dr Jarrett says this paper argues that we are constantly revising and updating our personal stories, but whether the stories have a happy, sad or ambiguous ending will have a fundamental impact on our personalities.
“People differ from each other with respect to their self-defining life stories in ways that are not unlike how they differ from each other on more conventional psychological characteristics such as traits,” says Dr Dan P McAdams who wrote another research paper ‘The Psychology of Life Stories’.
Good stories equal good mental health
Other research has also found that if you tell yourself positive stories about your past you are more likely to have better mental AND physical health. For example, if you tell yourself that the bullying was just another time when your life went wrong, you are more prone to depression and anxiety. If you tell yourself it was a tough time, but you got over it, survived and are probably tougher for it then you are more likely to be a strong, happy, positive person.
You are the author of your own memories. What would happen if you decided to re-interpret a lot of your past and try to see it in a constructive way? I am not suggesting that you downplay trauma or unhappiness. What I am saying is give yourself well-deserved praise for overcoming, surviving and triumphing, because you have triumphed – you are still here. Modify the story you tell yourself about your past and see the good then you will become a happier person now.
Look for three positives in your past
Psychological researcher Jonathon Adler looked at the types of stories people tell themselves about their lives and found there are three positive themes common in people with strong mental health. The first theme is autonomy. Does the individual feel they had some control or autonomy or do they perceive themself as a powerless victim? People who recognised they had some control over the circumstance (even if it was limited) tend to have better mental health. The next theme is connection to others. If people have lots of fond memories about good times with friends and family, they again have better mental health. It is preferable to have good stories about a marriage, even if it ended, rather than see the whole relationship as a disaster. The final theme is how the situation shaped you. Even if it was a challenging time, did some good come of it?
Your past is what you make it!
I have often said that life is what you make it. Have a positive attitude, work hard, grow your resilience, be hungry for knowledge and success and love. Life is what you make it, but after reading Dr Chris Jarrett’s article I have now also come to the conclusion that your past is what you make it. Find some good in all of your memories, learn a lesson, applaud your own resilience and spend time thinking about all the wonderful things you’ve done with friends. These are definitely tales worth sharing … with yourself!
ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.