Mental Health

Is Your Self-Narrative Making You Miserable?

Don't be your own worst enemy.

We all have personal narratives about our lives — but if they’re embedded with negativity, they become self-sabotaging scripts. Here, our experts Linda Miles, Ph.D., and author of Change Your Story, Change Your Brain ($15.99, Amazon), Timothy Wilson, Ph.D., and author of Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By ($11.88, Amazon), and Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., and author of Family Narratives and the Development of an Autobiographical Self ($44.53, Amazon), share how to turn the page to new possibilities and change your self narrative for the better.

Make Sense of the Spin

Our minds create stories about ourselves and others as shortcuts to help us make sense of the world. “These stories are so familiar to us, we don’t even notice them,” says Miles.

If, say, a friend let you down at a formative time, you may replay the script to read, “I can never count on anyone” as a subconscious defense mechanism. “When you find yourself using words like always or never, you’re starting to uncover story patterns.”

Your Body ‘Tells’ on You

“Your body senses narratives before your mind catches up,” says Miles. “Stories aren’t always logical and are often rooted in the stress response.”

Say you see a friend’s Facebook page bursting with photos of a recent trip, and you feel a sinking sensation in your stomach. That’s a sign that you’re setting off a nonverbal script by comparing yourself to her. Counteract this tension with a few deep breaths. “Once your body releases anxiety, you can more easily let go of the story that triggered it.”

Shift your View

No matter how truthful they seem, our stories can trick us, says University of Virginia psychology professor Wilson. “It’s called ‘naïve realism’ — the idea that we see life as it is, when, in fact, we filter it through our preconceptions.”

Telling yourself it’s impossible to find love after a certain age? Step back and look around, and you’ll notice plenty of people that are dating in their 60s. “Adopting a third-person perspective gets you out of your story and shifts your outlook.”

Recall the Good

When a negative event infects our larger narrative, it can lead to a “contaminated life story,” reveals Fivush. “We get stuck in that defining moment, and it colors all the other stories we tell ourselves.” The opposite of a contaminated narrative is a redemptive one, and it starts by mining meaning from the past.

To try it, recall a turning point in your life and look for silver linings. Maybe a career setback led you to repeat the story that “life isn’t fair.” Is there a more positive filter you can use? Is this change inspiring you to spread your wings? “A redemptive story describes how we persevered, so we can make meaning out of the event.”

Revise a Challenge

A proven way to change our narrative is to literally write a new one, says Wilson, citing the example of late novelist Sue Grafton. “One of her goals was to create a heroine who would inspire her to write a different life story,” he says.

Through her bold lead character of Kinsey Millhone, she began seeing herself as more courageous and the world as less daunting. Take a page out of Grafton’s book by journaling about a recent setback for 10 minutes a few nights in a row. Would your heroine have done anything differently? “Revising” a challenge can give you insight into the small shifts you can make to write your next chapter.

Share Stories

Narratives, by their nature, are meant to be told. “Sharing your stories with loved ones gives you a framework to reevaluate them and find new inspiration,” says Fivush. As Miles puts it, “When the people we trust listen to our stories with loving attention, we can begin to heal our past and move forward toward a happier future.”This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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