The way you tell your stories can shape your life.
The words and perspective you choose for your stories don’t just shape your narrative. They shape your life--and even your future.
We all have verbal stories, and for those of us who keep a writing journal, we have written stories as well. Some are small, like a recounting of our day. Others are epic.
Let me tell you a story of my own.
Picture it: Banff, 2018. I drove 450 miles to meet up with friends and attend a concert. The band: Blue Rodeo. I’ve adored them for decades. The venue was a beautiful outdoor amphitheater nestled in the mountains. The forecast was for a high of 80F and sunny clear skies.
It sprinkled rain throughout the concert. Whee! Now I can say that I’ve literally danced in the rain.
But then lightning struck. And struck again. The organizers came on stage about five songs before the end of the show. We were told to evacuate immediately due to safety issues.
Feeling restless and at loose ends, two friends and I decided to walk around the grounds of our on-site hotel. As we walked, we bumped into three members of the band who were staying at the same hotel. One was Jim Cuddy, one of the band’s frontmen. Squee!! I fan-girl over Jim enough so that he knows me by name. I got to talk to him for a bit and got a sweet photo with him too. Day. Made.
That night, I had a horrible migraine (the kind that makes me vomit). I got very little sleep. In the morning, I needed to get out of our dark stuffy room. As I paced a bit outside, texting with a friend, I glanced up to see Jim walking right towards me. “Good morning!” he said and gave me a hug. Nice way to kick off the day, hey?
My friend Dawn and I planned to spend the day exploring Banff. We started at the storied and opulent Banff Springs Hotel. As we walked around admiring the incredible grandeur of the place, my migraine kicked back in. I thought I would feel better if I ate, so Dawn and I found a restaurant serving brunch. Only, instead of eating, I ended up lying face down and prone on a padded booth seat, trying to manage my nausea. I failed. Miserably.
So much for brunch. But, with my nausea spent, I was ready to keep exploring. Dawn and I moved on to the next stage of our adventure: driving to nearby Moraine Lake. The scenery on the drive was absolutely breathtaking. However, there was no parking available at the lake and it was closed to further visitors.
We decided to just drive back. We stopped at a couple of roadside turnouts on the way, to take selfies with the mountains behind us.
Let me tell you something: that was one of the best 24 hours I’ve ever spent. I saw a favorite (and iconic) band at an incredible venue. I got to interact with Jim – twice! I have a gorgeous photo with him, to commemorate that time I danced in the rain to his music. I got to see Banff Springs Hotel and all the glorious mountain scenery on the drive. I also got to spend the day with one of my very favorite human beings, my friend Dawn.
But, it would be so easy for this story to go a different way, wouldn’t it? The other version would be: I drove 450 freaking miles and ended up standing in the rain for a concert that was cut short to boot! Sure I saw Jim, but I was hoping to also see the other frontman, Greg Keelor, and ask him to autograph his solo CD. I had a horrific migraine that made me vomit multiple times. I hardly slept. I was humiliated lying in the booth at that posh restaurant while other diners tried to pretend they didn’t see me. Then, to top it off, I drove another 70 miles to see a lake and it was closed! Seriously!! Who even heard of a lake being closed??
Here’s the thing, though: studies actually show that focusing on a silver lining isn't just about feeling happier in the moment. Telling positive stories creates “a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.” It also makes you happier over time.
The opposite is also true. Focusing on negative things in your narrative can lead to negative experiences down the road. For example, let's say your stories about your job focus on your boss’ negative characteristics. In that case, you might convince yourself that she would never approve a raise or promotion, and so you never bother to ask for one.
Focusing on two positive themes, in particular, has been shown to improve your mental health and even impact your future. The first is communion, which is feeling like you have good relationships. The second is agency, which is feeling like you have control over the events in your life. In one study, once people began telling stories where they had agency, their mental health improved, AND they actually started taking more control of their lives. Essentially, they wrote “a new version of themselves and [then] lived their way into it.” Isn’t that powerful? And amazing?
If you look at the two nutshell versions of my story, you'll see more communion and agency presented in the positive version. In terms of communion, I spoke about spending time with Dawn and interacting with Jim. In terms of agency, I chose to walk around the grounds after the aborted concert, and that’s why I was fortunate to bump into Jim and the other band members. Also, I chose to go to the hotel despite my migraine. Finally, even though the lake was closed, in my story, I chose to focus on the scenery and the time with my friend.
In the negative version, I don’t talk about friends at all and only mention Jim by name, without saying I interacted with him. There is no communion. Also, I blame my bad day on the weather, my migraine, and the closed lakes. I don’t seem to have any control over the things wreaking havoc in my life.
But if I focus on the positives, am I being fake? When I post positive stories on social media, does it make me complicit in the mental health issues of those platforms? Am I contributing to the “compare and despair” problem?
Not necessarily. The key is to not obliterate the negatives entirely. Don’t pretend nothing bad ever happens. In fact, telling stories where bad things happen but there is still a silver lining or a happy ending, can give people hope.
Always remember that your stories are malleable. You can frame them any way you wish. If you have a tendency towards negative narratives why not do an experiment? Take one of those stories and find a silver lining. Pull out your writing journal or personal diary. Rewrite it to focus on that silver lining, with reference to communion and agency. And to max out the positivity, why not find a reason to be grateful for that story, and write it down in your gratitude journal too?
The way you tell your stories can shape your life.