Reframing Your Life Story

Changing your story may change your life.

Posted Sep 22, 2019

Your life story – even when you try sincerely to express the full meaning of your life, is still just that: a story. When you tell your life’s story, you make choices about what events and incidents are included. There are many other experiences you could have chosen. Which stories you choose communicates the frame within which you view your life.

One way to change your life is to “re-story” your life. By looking for events that contradict your current frame you may be able to reclaim parts of yourself. Some of those other stories, the ones you didn’t tell, might convey an entirely different frame for your life. As a result, there is value in “re-storying” your life, modifying your narrative to tell a different story. In the process you may re-discover neglected parts of your life story, putting an emphasis on different capabilities, seeing yourself in a different light.

As Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, leaders in the field of Narrative Therapy, put it:

“…In any life there are always more events that don’t get “storied” than there are ones that do — even the longest and most complex autobiography leaves out more than it includes. This means that when life narratives carry hurtful meanings or seem to offer only unpleasant choices, they can be changed by highlighting different, previously un-storied events or by taking new meaning from already storied events, thereby constructing new narratives.”[1]

Is the World a Safe Place or a Dangerous Place?

Have you noticed that there are some people who approach life as if there’s a disaster lurking just around the corner? Others approach life as if the world was designed for their benefit, and when something bad happens, it is the exception that proves the rule.

George Lakoff and his associates have actively investigated why some people see the world as safe, while others see it as dangerous.[2] They have gone further and linked these fundamental frames to people’s political beliefs. As Chris Chittenden summarizes the research: “Those who see the world as more dangerous will tend to have a conservative view and focus heavily on issues such as national security and closing the border. Those who see the world as predominantly safe will tend to have a more progressive view on these subjects...If someone sees the world as unsafe and people as a potential threat then their initial stance is likely to be a defensive one.”[3]

Lakoff and his associate Elizabeth Wehling have linked these fundamental beliefs to people’s political attitudes in a field called Moral Politics Theory. As they describe their findings:[4]

“Moral Politics Theory holds that individuals’ political stances stem from deeply held moral beliefs that are conceptually anchored in parenting models. Conservatives endorse a Strict Father model, while progressives endorse a Nurturant Parent Model.

“Let’s talk about the Strict Father model first. In this model, the father is the head of the family. He is the legitimate authority and his authority is not be challenged. The family needs such a moral authority because the world is a dangerous place, and the job of the father is to protect the family against evil…

“The Nurturant Parent Model starts with the notion that it’s moral to show empathy, to nurture, and to take on individual as well as social responsibility. In the Nurturant Parent family, parents strive to raise their children to become nurturers through guiding by example, through being nurturant toward others. One way of doing that is to empower one’s children to follow their dreams, whatever those might be…. To teach children empathy, parents lead by example, showing a high degree of empathy for their children. They seek to understand their children’s viewpoints, and they speak to them in an open and respectful manner….”

These frames are so fundamental that the prospect of reframing them is intimidating. They are, however, the basis for much couples’ conflict. In Your Brain’s Politics, Lakoff and Wehling carefully examine the underlying assumption of each frame in a way that may be helpful to couples with differing parenting models.

What is the Elevator Speech that Sums Up Your Life?

Marketing and public relations people advise their clients to have an “elevator speech” ready to describe a product or activity they are trying to promote. An elevator speech is the speech you could give an important person during the time you have until the next elevator stop.

People’s life stories often have an underlying theme that is much like an elevator speech capturing their life. These might include:

  • It doesn’t matter how hard I work, life is still going to pile a bunch of crap on me.
  • I’m just not up to handling all the challenges life throws at me.
  • I can do anything to which I set my mind.
  • I got the short end of the stick when it came to my childhood, but I’ve done a pretty good job of overcoming that.
  • There’s my life before the abuse and my life since.
  • Life has been very kind to me.

Learning to Frame our Life Stories

Three frequent ways that we learn to frame our life stories are:

  • Family myths
  • Descriptions of the kind of person we are
  • A traumatic event, such as abuse or the death of a par

Family Myths

Individual life stories are often reinforced by family myths. Family myths often provide a "necessary fiction" for covering up something in the family. Perhaps Daddy is an alcoholic, or Mother isn't emotionally stable. Together the family creates a story which accommodates this imbalance, permitting the family to act as if things were quite normal. Typically, the narrative life story of the family members must fit within the prevailing family story. The problem is that these fictions often become self-defining beliefs from which it is difficult for the individual family members to escape.

Family myths are finally just that, myths. They help us organize our lives and assign meaning to our experiences, but sometimes they no longer prove useful. So we turn from the old myths. We seek new beliefs which can hopefully help us make sense of our lives when the old myths fail us.

Often, we reject the old myths when we begin to feel held back by them or when we discover that they do not provide us with room enough to realize our own potentials. A creative person who thought himself dull may eventually blossom when he breaks free of the family's definition of who he is supposed to be. A woman who dutifully played the role of "good mother" may suddenly bloom when she is free of parenting responsibilities or when circumstances require her to explore potentials that lie outside the role prescribed by her family myth.  

Definitions of Who We Are

We also develop life stories which describe ourselves as a particular type of person. Bill is a very cautious person. Maria is a risk-taker. Sam is creative at work but fails in relationships. And so on.

Fredrico saw himself as a weak person, often unable to stand up for himself. When asked to go back over his life and remember examples of situations where he successfully stood up for himself, he was startled to find a number of such experiences. Then he could begin to look at what was different about the situations where he was able to defend himself. Soon he began to see himself as stronger, able to protect his own interests, and more aware of what circumstances made him feel passive. He was beginning to re-story his life.

In re-storying his life, Fredrico began by looking for “unique outcomes.” He looked for stories that contradicted the dominant narrative. Somewhat to his surprise, he finds them. There are instances where he did a good job of standing up for himself. He has experiences he can build upon. He certainly prefers this new story to the story that has limited him so much. Now it is his job to strengthen the new story and extend the new story into the future.

Restorying Abuse

When there is a major trauma it is hard not to let that experience dominate the life narrative. For Gwen, the trauma was childhood sexual abuse. When Gwen tells her life story, it usually begins by her explaining that as a little girl she was sexually abused by her Father. She has few childhood memories before that experience, except that she knows she was always considered a very beautiful child. But she also worries that this is what attracted her father to her. As a result, she has very ambivalent feelings about being seen as beautiful, even as an adult. One of her deepest fears is that she somehow did something that brought about the abuse.

She’s always attracted men, but she’s always had trouble letting anyone be close. Over the years she made a number of efforts to establish close relationships, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. The truth was that since the abuse she was suspicious of all men.

Childhood sexual abuse, particularly from a loved father or known authority figure (coach or teacher or grandfather) who was supposed to protect her was a very painful experience. Unfortunately, Gwen had no help dealing with the situation, and soon her entire life story evolved from the hurt and pain of that experience. The abuse led to a mistrust of men. She both hated and loved being admired for her physical beauty. When Gwen started into therapy she basically felt inadequate in all her relationships. She felt herself a total failure. She had numerous stories of how people reached out to her, but she felt incapable of responding and managed to reject them all.

There are numerous factors affecting recovery from abuse: the type of abuse, the severity of the abuse, the length of time of the abuse, the age or ages of the child when the abuse happened, whether any other person or family member believed the child and supported the child, and the child’s own ability to cope with difficult situations. All of these factors contribute to the ability of an individual to be able to re-write their story. Usually, it requires the help of a mental health professional trained in this issue.

Re-storying Your Life

It’s quite possible that you need to re-story your life. Most people don’t have the time or commitment to try to re-story their whole life. You may want to focus on those parts of your life that touch on the issues that are the basis for conflict with your partner. If the conflict has to do with child-rearing, sex, handling of money, work on those issues.

Here is an activity that you can both engage in that will help you focus on issues of concern:

  1. Go back over your life and think of those incidents that had something to do with the issues that are in conflict now. You may find it easier to break up your life into chapters based on age, or important events such as a parental divorce, moving to a different city, etc. Childhood experiences are particularly important because you may have developed beliefs based on these experiences without the benefit of understanding the situation from an adult perspective.
  2. Now look for those incidents where you, or someone you admire, acted differently than you believe you and your partner should act now. How did those incidents turn out? Did the outcome you would have predicted result, or did something different happen? How do you feel about the “characters” in these dramas?

I think you’ll be surprised how many such incidents you’ll remember. Don’t expect them to all emerge immediately. It may take several days for them to pop up into consciousness.

You may discover a wider range of possible behaviors than you thought possible. There will be occasions that confirm your present feelings, but there will also be experiences that show other possible behaviors and possible outcomes.

One of the ways to reframe your life is to change your self-talk. We program and re-program ourselves with the inner voice that observes and judges our behaviors and the events in our life. Developing positive self-talk is a significant way of reframing ourselves, and we’ll discuss it in the next post.

References

[1] Freedman, Jill and Gene Combs, Narrative Therapy, The Social Construction of Preferred Realities, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1996, pg, 32.

[2] Lakoff, George, Don’t Think of an Elephant, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, 2004.

[3] Crittenden, Chris, www.talkingabout.com.au/TheWorldASafePlace, page 1.

[4] Lakoff, George and Elisabeth Wehling, Your Brain’s Politics, How the Science of Mind Explains the Political Divide, Societas, 2016, pages 37-39.