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
Updated September 19, 2017
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Illustration: woman in window with pencil, notebook page
Credit: Gracia Lam

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.

Illustration: woman in window with pencil, notebook page
Credit: Gracia Lam

Give yourself a more positive “story prompt.”

In one influential study, Tim Wilson, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, gathered first-year college students who were floundering academically. “Many were telling themselves pessimistic stories like, “College is a harder place than I thought. Maybe I don’t belong here,” says Wilson, author of Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By. “If that’s your story, it can really spiral downward. You think it’s hopeless, so you don’t try.”

To get them out of this self-defeating mind-set, researchers showed some of the students videotapes of older students who shared that they too had struggled at first, but once they learned the ropes, their grades climbed. Students who were exposed to this brief, one-time intervention got better grades and were more likely to stay in college than those who weren’t exposed to it. “Perhaps this new prompt made them think, “Maybe my negative story wasn’t right. Maybe I just need new study skills,” says Wilson. The mental revise spurred them to action.

You can try this kind of story edit yourself. Totally lost it with your kids after the third Popsicle accident of the day? Instead of thinking, “I’m a terrible mother for making my kids cry,” try a more charitable interpretation: “Parenting little kids is a tough job for everyone.” Now, who wants to play with the hose!

View difficult people as characters meant to teach you something.

Not many enduring classics have this plotline: Everyone got along great! We grabbed lattes, did some shopping, and went home happy! Instead, the most treasured tales have antagonists—enemies our hero must use his inner strength to overcome. Where would Harry Potter be without Voldemort?

Rather than just steaming away, think of your difficult in-law or unreasonable boss as an antagonist in your story, suggests Kim Schneiderman, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City and the author of Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life. “Just like good fiction, life is about character development,” she says. “These people push you to discover your strengths and your resources by presenting you with challenges. Ask yourself, ‘What are they here to teach me?’”

To gird yourself for battle (e.g.,Thanksgiving dinner with your overbearing mother-in-law), imagine yourself as the hero in a novel. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I hope the main character would do in these circumstances? What would I root for the outcome to be? How might she grow from this experience?’” says Schneiderman. She suggests you even sketch out the scene in writing using the third-person voice. Be as literal or as imaginative as you like. You don’t have to be Shakespeare here: Simple sentences are fine. (“Jen took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. Leveling a cool glance at the older woman, she at last said out loud what she had been thinking for years: ‘Thank you for the parenting advice. But I do things differently.’”)

You are not trying to script the encounter in advance, she says. “Instead, the idea is to gain some distance and recognize you have control over how you react to conflicts. This exercise kicks you out of victim mode and lets you see these kinds of small, daily challenges as a way to grow.” That type of attitude shift can make you feel—and therefore act—more empowered in real life.

Observe yourself with some distance, as if you were a character in a book.

We often feel paralyzed when facing a big decision—a career move, a breakup. Yet we have no trouble doling out brilliant advice to a friend in the same situation. Adopting a narrator’s fly-on-the-wall stance can cool your emotions and let you approach your problems with the same wise detachment, says Ethan Kross, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In one of his studies, subjects were given five minutes to prepare a speech—a classic stress inducer. He asked one group to talk to themselves using “I” words (“OMG! What if I faint dead away?!”). Members of another group were told to refer to themselves as they would another person (“Jen just needs to take a deep breath and smile”). The result: Subjects who adopted the third-person perspective were calmer and more confident and performed better than the “I” sayers.

You can try this whenever you face a stressful situation, says Kross (“What should Jen do to make sure she doesn’t blow her deadline?”). Or visualize a daunting event in advance, observing yourself as if from a distance: Envision this cool customer’s actions, acing the presentation and modestly accepting applause.

Write about a painful time to make peace with it.

We want our lives to make as much sense as a well-plotted novel, with no strange turns or loose threads. That’s why big setbacks are so disorienting. “No one anticipates their story will be, You graduate, get married, have kids, get cancer,” says Adler. “When bad things happen, you have to find a way to fit them into the story you thought you were telling.”

One well-documented way to do so is through expressive writing, a technique pioneered by James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. In studies, Pennebaker asked people to spend 15 minutes a day for four days writing about their most painful experience—a loss, an estrangement, an illness. They were asked to pour out their emotions and reflect on how the experience connected with their past, relationships, and work. Those who did this kind of writing showed a host of benefits, from less depression to fewer doctor’s visits. “Writing may help you reframe the event in a more meaningful way and figure out a way to make sense of it,” says Wilson. Just wait a few weeks, he advises, so you have some distance.

Swap stories with loved ones.

“We connect around stories. When we share a story, we are offering a piece of ourselves,” says Anna Osborn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, California. When you first met your spouse, for example, you might have stayed up till the wee hours telling tales about your past. Alas, over the years, your talk often dwindles to composing the shopping list for your next Target run. “You may be constantly interacting, but you’re not connecting,” says Osborn. Her prescription for such disconnection: sharing your stories again. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” (answer: “Fine! Yours?”) ask, “What was your biggest success today? What was your biggest challenge?” These prompts make you explain the why and share the emotions behind the highs and lows, she says. Stash the iPhone and really listen. “Think about how you are supposed to act at story hour at the library. Your job is to be truly attentive,” says Osborn. You can narrate shared memories or describe in detail something surprising that happened. Good feelings will flow.

You can do the same with other relationships, says Osborn: a states-away sister, a dear but drifting friend. If the other person is game, find a distraction-free time to ask such ponderables as “What was the biggest turning point in your life?” or “What is one memory that always brings you joy?” These kinds of questions, she says, “ask us to search deep into who we really are, what makes us tick, which allows for real connection.” How’s that for a happy ending?