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Changing Your Story: How to Live a Happy Life

How to change the story and experience of who you are.

  • To change your life, you first need to know who you are and what you are.
  • Moving past the superficial, and the stories about yourself that others have told you, you can connect with your particular story.
  • With those questions answered, you can begin to rewrite your story by engaging in the process of narrative reconstruction.

Some people just do not seem to be able to stop themselves from re-initiating a conflict, or having the last word, or leaving a difficult interaction with a loved one in a loud and tumultuous exit. Other people just go numb, do not know what to say, and become non-responsive in an argument. After the dust settles, I often hear people exclaim, “That’s just how I am,” or “that’s just me,” or “I just can’t seem to help myself. I doubt if I’ll ever be able to change.”

When people say this, the first thing I ask is, “Who or what does the word ‘I’ refer to in those statements?” “Who or what is the 'I' that cannot change?” The answer is pivotal to what any given person will be willing to do to initiate a change process in their own life.

For change to happen, you need to know who or what you are actually trying to change.

Try answering this question — say it out loud or write it down: What are you?

If you answered, “I am a woman, man, girl, boy, person etc.,” try again. You may have a biological sex, but being a man or woman, etc. is part of your identity. In other words, two different biological males may have an entirely different version of what it means to be a man. This narrative is actually a part of who you are. So, for the “what” question, I typically encourage people to go even more basic.

You might answer the question with, “I am a body, a brain, or a soul or consciousness.” Each of these answers has its own set of strengths and limitations when it comes to your ability to actualize a change process. If you are a body or a brain and you view that aspect of you as having a core deficiency or impairment (if, for example, you were born with autism or ADHD), you might not believe in your ability to change it. You can of course pursue medical interventions including medication. But these interventions are likely to be compensatory and not change the underlying deficit.

If you view yourself as being a soul or consciousness, on the other hand, then you might believe that you are connected to a body and brain that have autism or ADHD, but that the core of you, your soul or consciousness, would remain intact. In this way, autism or ADHD are physical and mental experiences that need not be central to your identity (although they could be).

Now answer the question (again out loud): Who are you?

If you answered with your name, try again. Your name is just a space-holder; it is a verbal pointer to what other people see—the body, personality, and story of you.

You may view yourself as a person who is good-looking, outgoing, confident, charming, and successful. This would be an answer to “who” you are. But these are just ideas and stories that you have learned to tell yourself (yes, even the good-looking part). Alternately, you may view yourself as unattractive, depressive, lonely, overly emotional, and reactive. This would also be an answer to “who” you are. But (and I do not mean to be invalidating) this is also just a story. These stories, or narratives, are likely to be ones that you have told yourself for so long that they become automatic, unchallenged, and just matters of fact. But the story is not you. It is the recounting of an experience, the meaning you derived from it, and how you think it relates to other people and the world. But depending on how you answered the “what” question, your core remains pure and intact.

Many people believe that we are all born as blank slates (this is still debated in the fields of psychology and philosophy). You were not born as an angry man or a hostile woman. The blank slate is like a new computer before you plug it in. It has all of its parts, but it does not yet have an operating system. In order to run, it must be programmed. And programs are written by people. They are sequences of code that organize data, have rules for processing it, and yield output in the form of thoughts, feelings, or behavior.

Who you are is a program—a story or “narrative.” Your early programming and story were written early in childhood by adults who taught you the basic rules about the world (it is safe and secure… or hostile and scary). This early programming formed the base of your personality.

A little later, in middle childhood, you probably took a more active role in writing your story, but you probably were not consciously aware that this is what you were doing. During your teenage years, you probably spent a lot of time deciding on what was not going to be part of your story (like your parent’s style and music choices) and writing other people (friends, enemies, heroes, and lovers) into your story.

And then, if you made it this far, you find yourself in adulthood, interacting with and experiencing the world in ways that do not always feel so good or yield positive outcomes. And you look at your therapist and say, “That’s just how I am,” as if you have accepted the story as some unshakable truth you cannot change. To this, I answer, "We cannot change what you are, but I can help you write a new story and change your experience of who you are. If you change your story, you just might start thinking, feeling, and behaving differently."

You can call this act of changing your story narrative reconstruction.

Here are some of the core activities that I do with my clients:

1. Recover (remember or reassemble) the story that your elders and the world gave you in childhood.

a. Write out on a timeline with key events and memories that stand out to you. Try to put it in chronological order as best you can.

b. Recover the experience and the meaning (self-referential thoughts, feelings and memory) and core beliefs about yourself that came out of these various experiences.

c. Imagine interacting with yourself as a child and giving the child a different way of interpreting the events and the related core beliefs that they instilled.

2. Do not give other people’s story of you (you’re so neurotic and emotional! ... or cold and indifferent!) more weight than your own story of you (I am an open and honest person).

3. Create and write your own moral code.

a. For example: “I am rigorously honest even when it hurts me. I stand up in appropriate ways for the rights of people (including me). I am bold and determined.”

4. Create various avatars or archetypes and try them on for size. Imagine being this person and playing a role.

a. Examples: the wise person, wild woman, warrior, wizard, shaman, scholar.

Without stepping fully out of your life, you can change your narrative and try other ideas about yourself on for size. Remember: You write the story. So you can keep what you want of the old and step out boldly to write the new.

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