The Power of Personal Narrative
Use your own story to spur growth.
Posted June 24, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
How do you tell the tale of your greatest challenge or adversity?
Even when we believe that we’ve created a happy, ideal life for ourselves, our course can be not-so-gently redirected, taking us to a further revelation of human potential through a road paved with great pain.
How do we propel ourselves through and beyond to allow these challenges to become catalysts for forward-progress?
The answer can lie within how we shape our personal narratives.
At 26, life not-so-gently removed me from the financial career and community I knew, placing me face-to-face with a life-threatening case of lupus. For two years, I was bedridden, as I did everything in my power to regain strength.
As hard as it was to be “removed” from the life I had previously known, something magical happened when I embraced the opportunity to be introspective and to become an observer of life.
Illness forced me to take what I call a “park bench perspective,” as if watching relationships, synchronicities and connected events play out before me. I was able to clearly see how all the pieces fit together.
As I applied this perspective to my love for writing other’s life stories and helping them shape their brand messages, their narratives began to touch upon the true depth of what it is to be human. One after the other, their stories became powerful tools for healing and catalysts for transformation.
How are you framing your story?
Is your backstory your springboard or your anchor?
An empowered narrator understands that their backstory is the foundation, not the focus. Access the past for present support, with an emphasis on future-mindedness. What has happened in your life is designed to serve as your springboard, propelling you forward to contribute what you’ve learned to others.
When psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl tells the story of his time in Auschwitz in Man’s Search for Meaning, he does so from an empowered perspective, speaking authentically about his own strength and struggles, while empowering others to look within to see their true potential. As the forefather of “meaning-making,” his work inspires us to use our past experiences to offer value and thereby create purpose from them.
Trent University Researcher Paul T.P. Wong has extended Frankl’s work into the 21st century, and each of us can too, by using our narratives as accessible mediums for the creation of meaning. Through strategic storytelling, points of unbearable pain can be transformed into points of deep relatability and valuable insight to help ease the way for others.
How do you create a powerful personal narrative?
When we look at our experiences with a more objective eye, we can begin to unveil and extract the meaning that lies therein. In the article "The Voice of Reason," Pamela Weintraub references psychologist Ethan Kross’s work about the correlation between relating to ourselves in third-person and success in life:
“By toggling the way we address the self—first person or third—we flip a switch in the cerebral cortex, the center of thought, and another in the amygdala, the seat of fear, moving closer to or further from our sense of self and all its emotional intensity. Gaining psychological distance enables self-control, allowing us to think clearly, perform competently ... Released from negative thoughts, we gain perspective, focus deeply, plan for the future.”
Along with accessing clarity of our strengths and successes, and authenticity about our struggles, addressing ourselves in third-person also allows us to see the gifts and lessons embedded in our journeys—the indispensable assets we have to share with others.
If you struggle to shape the fullness of your narrative in first-person, try writing or speaking your story in third-person. From there, translate into first-person. Allow yourself to feel and release the pain while savoring the moments of strength and resilience. This emotion is a gift because it is what allows you to relate to, understand, and empathize with others facing similar challenges, support their growth, and guide your personal healing in the process.
What are the key components of a powerful personal narrative?
- Be real, but empathetic about your struggles – Understand the importance of empathy and compassion in enabling you to relate to others and them to you. A client of mine phrased this beautifully when she said, “My audiences love me because of my struggles, not my successes.” What hits in the heart for you will for others, especially when you frame that narrative in universal human values.
- Be a cheerleader for your feats and successes – Too often we over- or under-rate our experiences. There is a difference between being unique and being special. Ask friends, clients, or colleagues how they see your journey. Watch for commonalities in describing your abilities and strengths. Look for descriptions of the unique lessons that you have to share.
- Be focused on your audience, always – There is a true sense of transformation that rushes forth when we make the audience the focal point of our personal story. We can transcend our experiences by sharing the valuable knowledge, wisdom or insight gained to help ease the way and provide clarity for others facing similar experiences.
While it may sound counterintuitive to make your personal story about others, when you frame your narrative as a contribution to a cause bigger than yourself, your life becomes a platform you embrace to access valuable lessons and strategies for others.
When we ask ourselves how we can contribute to bigger-scale growth, we enable ourselves to create meaning from even the most unfathomable experiences and build resilience. Applying this “bigger than self” narrative methodology in business deepens our relationships and creates brand distinction through deeply human relatability and support.
Personal narratives in the new economy business
France researchers Keith Hart, Jean-Louis Laville, and Antonio David Cattani have termed the new economy as “The Human Economy,” with an emphasis on the need to “find ways forward that must involve all humanity somehow.”
With a shift from developing ideas to delivering value, we each have the capacity to draw from our personal journeys to create a better collective future...and as we extend our communication beyond the needs of ourselves or our organizations, and focus on those of humanity as a whole, we grow together as a global society.
How can you contribute your personal narrative to spur growth for others?
Keith Hart, Jean-Louis Laville and Antonio David Cattani, The Human Economy: A Citizen's Guide, Polity Press