By: Brooke Carson, MSW, LCSW
An important aspect of emotional wellbeing has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and our various experiences. What we choose to emphasize about our experience and how we choose to characterize our experience can have a powerful effect on how it feels and what it’s like to be living our lives.
This has several different aspects. One aspect is about how we characterize what’s happening in our current lives and experiences. For instance, let’s say there are two people both starting work at a company. They have the same level of knowledge and experience and are both pretty young and have less experience than most of the current employees.
One of the new employees might tell herself that this is the exciting start to a new adventure and be proud that she was hired at a company where most of the employees are more advanced in their careers.
She might daydream about meeting a bunch of friends especially in her training group. She might think of being new as a chance to “reinvent” herself as an executive woman.
As she interacts with the more advanced coworkers, she might imagine herself having the opportunity to become very expert in the field. For any of the older readers of this, think of The Mary Tyler Moore Show intro song and scenes. The other employee might place herself in a very different story based on the exact same situation. She may think of herself as the least talented among a bunch of talented people who mainly view her in terms of her deficiency of experience and knowledge.
She may view the fact of not knowing anyone as an alienating experience where she moves among a bunch of people who are all connected to each other but not her. She might think of the new workplace as a group of cliques that resist penetration. She may view this as the beginning of hunkering down with the tough reality that we need to work to pay the bills but we may not get any joy out of it otherwise.
Different Lives, Different Stories
We can see how different the same experience can be based on what we tell ourselves. Even a very short experience can be very different based on how we characterize it in a narrative. Two single women might be getting together with old college friends for lunch.
One woman might enjoy seeing her friends, resonating in the memory of their bonds and enjoying the fact that they are all continuing to value and cultivate the friendships. She might enjoy hearing about their lives, and catching them up on the things she has been doing.
The other woman might attend the lunch anticipating that her being single means that she is different or behind the others in some fundamental way. She may listen to the other womens’ stories of husbands and children, anticipating that her stories of life will seem empty and less meaningful. This may cause her to shut down. Watching the other friends connect, while she shuts down, might seem to play into the theme that she is no longer much a part of the bonds.
Caught-Up In Negativity
This effect of how we characterize our experiences can become especially important when we are in situations in which we are struggling. Many people have heard that people have a tendency to think more negatively during a struggle situation and may catastrophize/ blow the problem aspects of the situation way out of proportion.
Even if we are aware of this general tendency, we can still get very caught up in the negative or catastrophic narrative we’ve constructed. This is often the case because it seems so real given that it is so congruent with the way we feel, which can be very intense while we are struggling.
The important response to this is self-awareness and reality checking. This doesn’t mean candy-coating or minimizing what you’re going through. If you are going through something that is really difficult, it’s invalidating to tell yourself, “Don’t make such a big deal out of it.” The idea in reality checking is to be aware of how I am characterizing what I’m going through and to determine whether or not there is evidence for this.
A college student might be having a really large struggle learning in an advanced math class. He may start to tell himself that it is impossible for him to learn this calculus and that calculus is beyond his intellectual capability. He may also tell himself that whether or not people at his college (or in general) struggle with calculus divides the world into those who are truly smart and those who are inferior.
In response to this type of thinking, he may want to reality check. Why would there be a campus tutoring service for calculus class, if struggling with calculus means it’s impossible to learn? He could ask the tutors if people like him ever improve to be able to grasp calculus.
He can also reality check about finding out about/thinking about other people who aren’t good at advanced math who excel in other areas. He could reality check about his other intellectual and personal strengths, reminding himself of there continued importance. In addition to the ways we characterize our current experiences and lives , the narratives we have about our past experiences are also very important.
Two people might not be where they want to be in life in some way. Perhaps it’s in their careers or their relational lives. One of them might view this as a dip in circumstances and think back on both the successes and failures he has had along the way. He might find that focusing on reminding himself of the past successes can help to build his confidence and feel more hopeful.
Meanwhile, the other person might view not being where he wants to be in life according to a very different narrative. He could view not being where he wants to be as evidence of a downward trend. He may dwell on his past failures, viewing them as more important than his past successes, and as steps on what he now realizes to be the the road to not getting where he wants.
In addition to what we tell ourselves about our past experiences, the narratives that we have as we anticipate our future lives can be very influential on the quality of our experience.
Owning The Future
The future can be a particularly susceptible place for distorted predictions because it hasn’t happened yet and is, in a way, a blank canvas. A huge variety of things could or might happen to us in the future. We can ask ourselves about the types of stories or scenarios for our lives we are focusing on when we imagine our future lives.
For instance, while having some history of mistakes, struggles, failures and sorrows is part of every life, some people paint their future in a way that places the repetition of one or more of these as the central theme of the future. Because I’ve had a lot of trouble making friends, my life will always be without friends. Because I have struggled to find a job/career that I like, I will always struggle with this and will never know the experience of career contentment.
While aging is inevitable and this becomes increasingly apparent as we age, some people start to view their lives as primarily a journey of physical decline. Using past failures to predict a future of similar failures can be tricky because the fact that the past failures happened provides some evidence to support the possibility of recurrence. The same is true of using a few small negative experiences to predict an increasing or “snowball effect” trend or “downward spiral”.
While it is possible that these negative events are the beginning of an increasing or repetitive trend, the key word to the reality check is “possible”. It can be hard to keep this in mind- that it is only a possibility- because we have real, elaborate memories to project onto our images of the future.
A useful technique for keeping this “possible” status in view is to deliberately brainstorm and envision a series of other “possible” scenarios for this aspect of our life.
It can be helpful to envision one or more realistic positive outcome scenarios, some moderate or boring scenarios and some less negative scenarios.
For those who find identifying or reality checking their personal narratives difficult, it can be really helpful to talk about this with friends to hear their ideas and viewpoints. Realizing that a variety of scenarios are possible can help motivate us to take actions to pursue the better possibilities!