How to Understand the Stories That Shape Our Lives

We make sense of reality by means of story. It’s human nature. And the stories we tell ourselves deeply shape our lives. They determine how we see ourselves in relation to others and how we connect our disparate experiences into an overarching narrative.

There’s a term that therapists like to use: “making meaning.” It refers to the process by which we take our experiences and transform them into a narrative. Maybe you’ve noticed how two people can see the same situation in completely different ways. Have you ever had the experience of saying something you think is innocuous, only to have a friend interpret it as a veiled accusation or an attempted guilt-trip? Or the reverse—taken an innocent comment by a friend as a slight?

This is a result of “making meaning.” We are engaged in an ongoing, never-ending process of making educated guesses about what is going on in our lives—based on intuition, which is based on past experiences, which leads to making assumptions—about other people’s intentions and perceptions. And sometimes we may not even be aware of the assumptions we’re making—which can lead into some pretty messy territory!

Sometimes the narratives we tell ourselves can get in the way of our happiness. Have you ever had a running narrative in your head to the tune of “Nothing I do is quite good enough” or “Everybody is trying to hide something from me,” or “I’m always running behind, and if I stop working for second, everything will fall apart” or “Nobody will ever love me, because I’m too (insert negative self-judgement here)”? I think everyone has a few of these broken records playing in the back of their heads from time to time. Can you identify what yours sound like? Can you think of moments they’ve shaped how you interpret a situation?

It’s all too common for these kinds of harmful narratives to get in the way of our relationships. If you’re primed by your running narrative to think that people find you disappointing, for instance, consider how much damage could come from living through that narrative in your closest relationship—and consider the relief that could come from recognizing the narrative, checking your assumptions, and discovering that the reality of the situation is much less all-or-nothing.

Checking our assumptions is an essential relationship skill, and getting to a point where this can be a stress-free aspect of conversations with our partners will prevent or remedy a lot of suffering. If we want to avoid being controlled by narratives that may not be accurate, we need to ask nuanced questions and really listen to the answers. We also might benefit from honing our ability to bravely share the fears and vulnerabilities that underlie the assumptions we make. Here are some steps:

  1. Pause. The best thing to do in a charged moment is the exact opposite of what you instinctively want to do. Instead of charging forward with your anger, defensiveness, or anxiety, pause. You have plenty of time to address what’s going on. There’s no hurry. Breathe. Notice what you’re feeling, in body and mind.
  2. Identify our narrative themes. What fears return to you again and again? When you feel anxious, lonely, angry, or sad, what stories run through your mind? Can you think of times you have interpreted a perhaps innocuous situation negatively, and can you identify what you were thinking at the time? Once you identify your narratives, they become less automatic. You can start to set them apart from your immediate experience, notice them, and question them.
  3. Reframe the situation. Describe what you’re noticing, as neutrally as possible. Don’t catastrophize or draw connections to the past. Notice the assumptions you’re making, and make an effort to think of at least one or two alternative explanations. “My partner pointed out the dishes in the sink. This set off a narrative in my head that they’re mad at me, and I’m a big disappointment to them, but another possibility is that they are reminding me that the dishes are not yet done and people are coming over for dinner later, and is true that I agreed to do the dishes; it might not be coming from a critical place, it might be coming from a helpful place. Or maybe they are looking for a way to re-open the discussion of who should do the dishes. Or maybe they are not really thinking, and it was an expression of their own mood, not really anything about me at all.”
  4. Check your assumptions with your partner. Once you’ve paused, identified your narrative, and reframed the situation, you may already feel better. But if you’re feeling unsettled, it’s a good idea to check in with your partner. You might say something like, “Darling, what you said just now brought up some feelings for me; what did you actually mean when you said it?” Or perhaps, “What’s going on for you right now about (fill in the blank with the current topic)?” You’re likely to find that the situation is much more nuanced and less negative than you may have assumed, and your partner may be able to provide you with a fresh understanding of the experience. Even if it turns out your partner was criticizing you, at least you can have a reality-based conversation about it rather than relying on assumptions and mind-reading.

It’s important to remember that the goal of this process is to check your negative assumptions, not to avoid meaning-making altogether. At the end of the day, meaning-making is pretty unavoidable—and it’s not a bad thing. Meaning-making is also how we find joy, fulfillment, and compassion in our lives. It also helps us avoid potentially dangerous or difficult situations. However, if we can reframe our negative narratives, we can open up doors to better ones—ones that allow us to view ourselves and our partners with more compassion, appreciate the the joys of everyday existence, and see ourselves as participants in the scheme of life. Our narratives quite literally give our lives meaning. Shape them with care.

What Kind of Partner Do You Aspire To Be?

I have a deeply-held belief that everyone has the capacity for growth and change.  Not only can we change if we challenge ourselves to do so, but also we all have room to grow.

The Developmental Model teaches us to ask our clients “what kind of partner do you aspire to be?” Asking people to reflect on where they can grow keeps them from grouchily obsessing over how they wish their partner would change, and frees them up to identify their own motivations for change. It encourages them to imagine the possibilities for their life, and their relationships, on their own terms, rather than in reaction to someone else.

Paradoxically, when clients are able to do this, it often ends up making space for their partners to become more considerate, more reliable, and more present. Nobody likes to feel pressured, coerced, or guilted into changing. In fact, pushing someone into a defensive posture is a pretty effective way to ensure that their behavior doesn’t change.

The truth is, differentiation of self is a lifelong project. We all have more work to do if we’re going to truly embody the fullness of who we want to become, in the relationships we want to have, and in the world in which we want to live. The way we draw closer to that person is by choosing, every day, to be a little more patient, a little more courageous, a little more compassionate, a little clearer about our values and how we might express them.

As the days get shorter, and winter holidays approach, many of us, and many of our clients, experience internal and/or relational challenges. This year, I am asking myself, and invite you to join me in asking: “what kind of person do I aspire to be in this world, in this family, in this relationship? What can I do to get closer to that?”

Stop Negative Meaning-Making In Its Tracks

Human beings use narrative to make sense of the world, to sort patterns out of the chaos. Narrative is a powerful tool. The stories you tell about your life shape your decisions as well as your emotions. But sometimes we can be trapped by our own narratives, telling ourselves the same hurtful story over and over again.

One of the most important things I want my clients to know is that negative meaning-making is optional. There are infinite ways to interpret your experiences. It’s possible to make a choice to interpret them in a way that brings you more joy and hope and less fear and pain.

Here are some good ways to stop the process of negative meaning-making in its tracks:

  1. Breathe. When you start to feel yourself getting wound up by a distressing thought, it’s always good to take a moment to pause, inhale deeply, and exhale slowly. Focus for a time on just existing in your body. Making the exhale twice as long as the inhale is a good goal, and takes quite an internal shift to achieve; this is how you know it’s working.
  2. Recognize your pattern. If you’re thinking “this always happens!” or “why does everyone treat me like this?”, chances are that you’ve caught yourself in a moment of habitual negative meaning-making. Take moment to notice the pattern of meaning-making, or your tendency to interpret events through this particular lens. You might take a page from Byron Katie and ask yourself “am I absolutely certain this is true?” or even “could the opposite be at least as true?” I love these questions for shifting habitual thoughts and meanings.
  3. Think of alternative interpretations. Take moment to imagine a different meaning you could make out of this situation. You don’t have to believe in it, but just consider it. What are at least three other explanations for what’s happening?

With practice, it becomes easier to disrupt the cycle of negative meaning-making. You will find that it’s much easier to recover from a negative experience when you don’t fan the flames of self-hatred, jealousy, disappointment, or despair. The stories you tell about yourself shape your life. Choose them wisely.