We all write our own life stories. We use stories to explain why we did things a certain way and to make sense of how we ended up living where we do, working at the job we’ve got, or falling in-love with the person we’re with.
Often these stories have a strong narrative thread that holds them together. We do a pretty good job of making them interesting, sequential and meaningful.
Our tales of past doings would make great films, for instance. Any audience would understand the central motive of the protagonist. They’d root for us, understand our failings, leave the movie theatre content with having ‘got’ what the film was all about. Of having understood our motivations.
That’s part of their purpose. The stories we tell ourselves convince (ourselves and those around us) that we’re where we ended up because of X or Y rather than because of WTF-knows. Life that’s unexplained, complicated, full of loose ends and unanswered questions, just doesn’t make for a satisfactory yarn.
I’ve been thinking about my own stories recently and I wanted to share some of the conclusions I’ve come to.
You have more than one story
Whenever you have to tell your own story, it’s disconcerting to find that you have not one, but two or three or four ways of interpreting your life thus far.
You might have felt it if you’ve had to write a CV for a new job, or a ‘bio’ for your company website. Or maybe this feeling comes up whenever you have to introduce yourself to someone new.
I get it every time I sit down to rewrite my About page for this site. It’s why I never get very far. Right now there’s a story on there that I told myself a couple of years ago about my motivations for starting this blog.
I don’t buy it anymore. I want to rewrite it but, everytime I try, I can’t untangle the two or three versions of how I came to be who I am today.
I want to be honest and true, so it freaks me out that I have all these versions of my past. It makes me feel like a fake. It also feels slippery. Like the ground beneath my feet isn’t as steady as I thought it was and I might fall down or disappear into it.
Each story is a version of the truth
Despite my background in academia, deep down part of me still naively believes my past is something concrete and my history can be boiled down to a singular narrative.
But history just isn’t like this and even historians tell stories – they are stories grounded in fact but they’re still stories. When I wrote my history PhD I had scraps of evidence to work with. Most of it was just lists of stuff in household inventories. But I turned it into a story about women and relationships and what it meant to be female. I told a story.
And we do the same with our own histories. We try to fit strings of memories (some of them false, or belonging to other people, or interpretations of faded photographs) into a coherent story in order to make sense of the twisty turns of life.
We do the best we can with the evidence available.
It’s like playing dot-to-dot when some of the numbers are missing. You start off faithfully following the outline you’ve been given but then the numbers jump from 23 to 49 and, all of a sudden, you’ve got a huge gap to fill.
You can’t leave a gap there because something definitely happened and you really want to finish the picture. So what do you do? Draw a line going straight up, shearing off the nuance? Try to mirror earlier parts of the picture and create a pale imitation of what actually happened? Go bonkers and spiral, wibble and zig-zag your way there in an attempt to express how you feel right now?
Whatever you do, you’re not usually trying to trick the world. You’re just doing the best you can with the information you’ve got to hand. Just like historians weaving a narrative out of oddments found in household inventories.
Stories bring connection
Humans love storytelling. From early infancy engaged parents bathe their children in stories that entertain, educate, warn and advise.
Stories help us to understand one another and stay connected. When we meet new people we pick which stories we’re going to tell based on our instincts about what will have the most success in bringing connection (if we want it) or creating a barrier (if we don’t).
And when families come together, we’ll trot out the same old accepted versions of stories from the past, remembering anecdotes, finishing each other’s stories in this act of common narrative.
We all might have different versions but we’ll agree on a shared hybrid to avoid conflict. If we stubbornly insist on our own interpretation we sever the connection and risk an argument.
Stories are patterns
Our need to create a coherent narrative where there isn’t one is also due to our love of patterns.
Our brains dislike uncertainty. But they love finding patterns. It’s how we’ve evolved. Pattern recognition helped keep us safe when we were living in caves, fighting with wild animals, foraging for survival.
Pattern recognition also helps us to think on our feet and make quick decisions based on a split-second survey of how we’ve reacted to similar situations in the past.
But pattern recognition isn’t truth. It’s a shortcut.
Whenever we feel uncomfortable, or scared, or uneasy, we will look for a pattern – find a story that will help us explain what’s happening to us and try to find a way to solve it.
It’s important which story we choose
But I’m learning that I’ve got to be careful about which stories I choose. Because they dictate how I live my present and my future in a very real way.
I feel this acutely whenever my mood swings.
My first impulse is always to find the story behind why I feel the way I do. Is it a hormonal blip caused by my PMDD? – Perhaps I need to adjust my HRT? Is it tiredness – I can’t function when I’m tired. Didn’t Nelly wake me twice last night? Is it stress – I always take on too much work and then burn out. Maybe I’m working too hard?
But whichever story I pick will dictate how I act out my future – for good and bad.
If I pick PMDD, I’ll email my consultant and maybe tweak my hormones, which is perfectly sensible. But I might also hang onto the story for too long. I might get used to taking it out on my husband, feeling that it’s not my fault. Our relationship might become strained. His reaction to me will feed into my bad mood. The cycle will perpetuate. And I’ll keep blaming my hormones…
If I pick tiredness, I’ll go to bed a little earlier. But I might also feel some resentment towards the child who woke me up in the night. I’ll try not to show it of course. But I might unintentionally feed into the unease she’s already feeling as an overtired kid. This story might just guarantee myself another broken night’s sleep. And another.
And if I pick stress, I’ll dial back on the work I set myself. I’ll forego writing here and I’ll just focus on the bread-and-butter stuff. This will take the pressure off. But it will also guarantee I don’t do the thing I love. After a while I’ll feel dissatisfied that I haven’t written in a while. My mood will plummet further.
You can always write a new story
We create stories to make sense of ourselves. To create harmony and coherence out of the messiness of life. But if we’re not careful, the stories we choose can keep us in a small, unhelpful rut.
I’m not prepared to throw all of mine away. Some of my stories about the past are absolute humdingers that I’m very attached to. Others do a really vital job of flagging things up that might need fixing – whether that’s my hormones, sleep or workload.
But I am trying to see them as what they are – versions of the truth. Not cold, hard facts. Not a script that I have to keep regurgitating year in year out.
And I’m also coming to realise that I can rewrite the narrative any time I choose. I can reinterpret my past in a way that serves my future.
I can just decide to write a new life story.