How to Rewrite Your Past Narrative
Your past has subjective meaning, which you can reframe.
Posted July 26, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
According to the Theory of Narrative Identity, developed by scholar and researcher Dr. Dan McAdams, we form our identity by integrating our life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of ourselves, which gives a sense of unity and purpose to our lives.
This life narrative integrates our reconstructed past, perceived present, and imagined future. All three coexist at the same time. Hence, from an experiential standpoint, the past, present, and future are not separate and linear, but holistic and co-occurring.
Your past, present, and future are all happening right now—at least in your mind. As American writer and Nobel Prize laureate, William Faulkner famously put it, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
When you change the meaning and narrative of your past, you simultaneously change the narrative of your present and future. And vice versa. Changing the narrative of your present and future simultaneously alters the meaning or narrative of your past.
The story we hold of ourselves is continually evolving and changing based on the experiences we are having. No, the facts about your past can't change. But the story you tell yourself about them absolutely can change.
Unfortunately, most people are not strategic about their narrative identity. They aren’t conscious of the meaning-making process they instinctively go through in their day-to-day life, and as a result, they often shape limiting stories based on the emotions they are experiencing.
Your entire identity and view of the world is a meaning. A story. The questions to ask yourself:
Is this story serving you?
Is this the story you want to tell?
The story you have in your mind about the world at large and yourself as an individual is far from objective.
Chances are, much of who you believe you are is based on stories that you tell yourself, that have come from experiences in your past. Potentially traumatic experiences wherein you didn’t or haven’t had an empathetic witness help you to positively and powerfully frame those experiences.
A fundamental aspect of reframing the past is to shift what was formerly seen as a negative experience into a positive one. Having studied this for over a decade, I’ve never seen a more useful reframing technique that what Dan Sullivan calls, “The Gap and the Gain.”
According to Sullivan, most people are living in “The Gap.” They always see what’s missing. For example, I could get my daughter a candy bar on my way home from work and when I give it to her, she might say, “You didn’t get the one I like."
That’s the gap.
My daughter didn’t notice or appreciate the fact that I went out of my way to get her a gift. Or that she got a candy bar. Or that she got a treat she wasn't expecting.
She only noticed that the thing wasn’t what could have been. She didn’t realize that she just gained something. She only saw the gap.
Most people live their entire lives in the gap. Dan teaches his entrepreneurs instead to live in the gain.
This is actually quite simple: Rather than measuring yourself against your ideals, you measure yourself against where you were before.
This is very effective for goal setting. Most people don’t like goals because it's emotionally difficult to deal with failure. It also turns out that succeeding or reaching your goals is often a letdown. But these emotional problems are not inherent problems with the goal setting or imagination, but rather, about focusing on the wrong thing. Fundamentally, these emotional problems are occurring due to unintelligent meaning-making and narrative construction.
When you get emotionally attached to outcomes, you’re living in the gap. When you live in the gain, then all you see is progress. What you focus on expands.
This is important to how your brain works. When you create meaning, then you create a lens through which you see the world. Psychologists call this selective attention. We “selectively” notice or pay attention to things that matter to us. Things which are relevant to our narrative. Our brain ignores information that doesn’t fit with our narrative.
For instance, when you buy a new car, let’s say a Tesla, you start to see Teslas everywhere on the road. The reason you didn’t see Teslas before buying yours is that Tesla wasn’t relevant to your narrative. But once they become meaningful and part of how you see yourself and the world, then you see them.
Selective attention is why Sullivan’s concept of the “Gap” and “Gain” is so important. When you live in the gap, as most people do, then all you see is what is lacking—in yourself, others, and the world at large.
When you’re in the gap, you could be a billionaire but not happy. All your brain sees is what is missing. Being in the gap also makes you the victim of your past. The past or some experience is “causing” you to be the way you are.
Psychologists have found that when people view themselves as depressed, then they don’t notice or pay attention to the several intermittent moments throughout a given day when they were feeling good. Additionally, when you view yourself as depressed, then the only memories that easily come to mind are those which align with your current viewpoints. The whole past becomes colored by your present identity. What once may have been good experiences are tainted by your current narrative.
Shifting to “the gain” not only allows you to see your depression differently, but it also allows you to see all the moments when you truly weren’t depressed. You can become more mindful of your past. You can see that, indeed, there were many previous experiences where you weren’t feeling depressed. You can then start to focus on those experiences more.
But when you shift your focus onto the gain, all you see is benefits, even if you didn’t exactly reach your goal. This is fundamental to reframing your past.
Think about your past for a minute. Think about all the areas where you see “gaps,” or negatives. How could you reframe the meaning of those experiences? How could you turn your gaps into “gains”?
This is how you strategically remember your experiences. You remember your past intentionally, not reactively. You are the one who assigns meaning to your experiences. You’re the one formulating the story.
So how could you shift the gaps of your past to gains?
What good has come from that experience?
Remember, meaning-making is all about assigning cause-and-effect, shaping the bigger picture, and shaping your identity. Re-remembering the past is about changing the cause of the events, altering your view of reality, and altering your view of yourself.
Russell Wayne Baker was a highly regarded and famous American journalist, narrator, and author of Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography. This thing about that autobiography, though, is that it was originally rejected by publishers as “uninteresting.”
In response to having his story rejected, he told his wife, “I am now going upstairs to invent the story of my life.”
The result was the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, Growing Up. The truth is, this “re-invented” version of his story was no less true than the original version he wrote. Because, the past, like the future, is a story we make up. Of this, Gordon Livingston M.D. said:
“Each of us have similar latitude in how we interpret our own histories. We have the power to idealize or denigrate those characters that inhabit our life stories. We just need to experience both alternatives as reflections of our current need to see ourselves in certain ways, and to realize that we are all able color our past either happy or sad.”
Using myself as an example, I grew up in a broken home. My parents got divorced when I was 11. That divorce led my father into a deep depression, and ultimately, to becoming an extreme drug addict. Throughout my teens, I had little stability and barely ended up graduating high school. I made a ton of mistakes and faced a lot of emotional pain and confusion.
During this period of my life, I created all sorts of meaning to help me understand and navigate my experiences. Part of that meaning was that my dad had failed me and my younger brothers. That he was a bad person, and that he didn’t care about us.
I felt like a total victim with everything happening to me. Almost a year after graduating from high school and basically doing nothing, I decided to change my life. I was done playing video games 15 hours per day. I didn’t exactly know what my future was, but I was sick of feeling out of control.
I’ve since changed my life. I went to school, earned a Ph.D., started a successful company and created a healthy and happy marriage. My past doesn’t define nor limit me.
Through my transformational process over the past 10+ years, I’ve become a new person over and over again. I’ve learned to look at my past differently. I’ve learned to look at my parents and their choices differently. I view my past with increasing compassion, not judgment. Thus, my narrative and the meaning of my past has changed dramatically from what it was during the experience, and to me, that’s a huge sign of growth.
Part of shifting from the gap to the gain is getting more information. On multiple occasions, I’ve talked to my dad about that period of our lives. He’s since cleaned up his own life and even spent a few years as an addiction recovery guidance counselor. In hearing about those years from my dad’s perspective, I’ve been greatly humbled. He was going through great trauma himself. Not only did my parent’s divorce shatter him, but his kids abandoned him in his greatest time of need.
I’m not justifying my dad’s behavior. But I am choosing how I remember my experiences. I’m choosing to remember the gain, not the gap. For instance, during my experience, my story about my father was that he had failed me and my brothers. During my mission experience, my story was that I had forgiven him for what he had done, in losing sight of his responsibilities and becoming a drug addict.
Having studied psychology over the past 10 years, as well as addiction, in addition to becoming the parents of adoptive children (by the way, my father was adopted), I’m seeing my father with increased compassion. Moreover, over the past 10 years, I’ve watched my dad change his life, get himself under control, and become one of my best friends. He is one of my absolute heroes. So now, my narrative about the whole experience is awe for what my father went through and for who he became as a result.
The more emotionally developed I become, the less negatively impacted I am by my past and the more I get to shape the meaning of it.
The same is true for you.
At this point, it is your job to completely reshape your past narrative. The first step is shifting from the gap to the gain. Here's how to do it:
Step 1: Think about three to five key experiences that you feel have negatively impacted your life.
Step 2: List all of the benefits or opportunities or learning that has come from those three to five experiences.
Step 3: Think about your current view of the cause of those experiences. Then, rethink the cause. Is it possible that there's more to what happened than you initially thought? What would it mean if something else caused this event?
Step 4: Think about how these experiences have shaped your view of life and of the world. Then, rethink your view of life and the world. If you looked at this event differently, how would that change how you view life? How would it change how you feel about other people?
Step 5: Think about how these experiences have shaped your identity, and how you view yourself. Then, rethink your identity. Focus on the gains, not the gaps. How have you grown because of these experiences? What strengths or opportunities have come because you went through this? Why is your future going to be different because you’ve been through this? What are you committed to doing and being because of what you’ve learned? How could you help other people? Given that you’ve gone through such difficulty, what does this say about you as a person? What does this say about what you could do in the future?
McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current directions in psychological science, 22(3), 233-238.
Treisman, A. M. (1969). Strategies and models of selective attention. Psychological review, 76(3), 282. Chicago.