We naturally think of our own lives as stories, psychologists say. Changing the way you tell yours can help you handle whatever plot twists come your way.

By Jennifer King Lindley
September 22, 2017

Humans are transfixed by stories. We freeze—popcorn handful in midair—when the movie hero finally comes face-to-face with the villain. We stay up way too late to see how a potboiler ends even though we’re too grown-up to hide a flashlight under the covers. We get lost in the experiences of strangers through podcasts like The Moth and StoryCorps and of our friends via Instagram and Snapchat.

Stories are how we naturally conceive of our own lives as well. “Our lives are so complex that we need some way to make sense of them,” says Jonathan Adler, PhD, a professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. “When we construct a narrative, it allows us to hold on to the important parts, filter out the trivial, and find a meaningful pattern in it all.”

Day-to-day life is a mash-up, after all: What you had for breakfast. The traffic jam. The birth of a child. Like an editor, our brains pull out significant conflicts, important characters, and turning points to shape our sense of who we are. You might share with a new friend your “journey” with an eating disorder, your “battle” with cancer. We’re living through events while also interpreting them as we go along, says Adler. “You are both the main character and the narrator of your life,” he says. “You may not have control over all your circumstances, but you can choose how to tell the story.”

The problem, say experts: You’re not the most reliable narrator. You might give yourself the most deflating interpretation of your circumstances (“I got downsized: Decades of work have added up to nothing!”). Or you lose the plot entirely when life throws an unexpected twist (“How can I be struggling to get pregnant? I am meant to be a mom!”). Then you go around in circles instead of moving forward. To study how we create our personal stories, researchers at Northwestern University have interviewed hundreds of people to elicit their life narratives. Their findings: Those who tend to weave “contamination stories” in which key points in life are described as tainted (“The promotion was my career goal, but now I’m stressed by the responsibility”) measure lower on levels of well-being than those who naturally tell “redemption stories” that emphasize the silver lining (“Our bankruptcy was hard, but it brought our family closer”).

It all may sound a bit too Joseph Campbell. But as this emerging field of “narrative psychology” grows, researchers and therapists are finding practical, do-right-now ways you can tweak your own inner stories. Such edits can help you become more resilient, have better relationships, and—happily ever after!—make better decisions.

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