Triumph or Tragedy: How You Tell Your Story Matters

A few difficult chapters should never be mistaken for the entire plotline

Posted Dec 10, 2017

Milo, a 30-something political reporter, had recently begun working at a fledgling online news magazine when an editor from a major newspaper invited him for coffee. He met the editor in her office, where she peppered him with questions about his new employer and complimented him on his increasingly visible body of work. On the way out, Milo shared an elevator with a renowned journalist who had offered him tips about breaking into the industry 10 years earlier. Milo, who often second-guessed his abilities, suddenly felt reassured. Perhaps he was on the right path after all.

A few hours later, Milo attended a press conference with a local politician, who scoffed at one of his questions. Suddenly, all the good feelings from the morning evaporated, and he felt like a glorified hack.

Later that evening, Milo recounted the chain of events during our psychotherapy session together. He disclosed that he regretted his choice of questions at the press conference. It was an embarrassing error. Consequently, he wondered if the positive meaning he had read into the morning meeting at the daily newspaper been "a lie."

As a psychotherapist with a background in journalism, I gave the matter some thought and framed my answer in a metaphor. "It's like writing an inspirational chapter of a story and erasing it because of a typo," I said.

"I've actually done that," he replied, laughing at his own folly.

Haven't we all? While making mistakes is not an especially pleasurable experience, when people become depressed, it is usually because they overemphasize the typos in their lives or mistake difficult chapters for the entire plotline and conclusion. They also under-value the important lessons that come from harder chapters which, if we read them correctly, can help us move on to happier ones.

Milo's concern about telling a true story suggests that there is only one version of explaining or understanding what we experience from moment to moment that is actually valid. Whether or not we realize it, we are constantly sifting through various competing narratives to make sense of our world  - whether it's sharing our day with a loved one, explaining to ourselves why we didn't get that promotion, stating our opinion about a newsworthy event, or deciding why we bought fat-free yogurt instead of ice cream.

But if there are infinite ways to tell our stories and still infinite more ways to interpret them, how then do we know which version is the "true" story, and, more importantly, does it really matter?

Positive psychology and a growing body of research suggest that how we tell our stories makes all the difference. In fact, how you tell your story not only affects how you feel about your story, but also affects how it unfolds.

Take the 2006 Blockbuster, "The Pursuit of Happyness." The true rags-to-riches film chronicles exactly 28 chapters in the life of Chris Gardener, a suddenly single father who battles homelessness and ridiculous odds to earn a coveted entry-level position at a major San Francisco brokerage firm. The genius of this film is that 27 of the chapters, wrapped into gritty little headings like "Locked Out," "Being Stupid," and "Riding the Bus," are about the "Pursuit" part of the equation. Only the last chapter, as the narrator points out, is entitled "Happiness."

If Mr. Gardener had gotten stuck in one of these chapters, misinterpreting his difficulties as a never-ending story of struggle and victimization, he may have failed to muster the courage and resilience to succeed. Consequently, the film might have been called "Giving Up," and its message would have been lost.

Here are two versions of a better-known story. Carefully read through both and decide which one is the true account of what happened to the main character.

Version 1:
A young Kansas farm girl who feels ignored and unappreciated by her guardians runs away from home, only to be swept up by a tornado where she accidentally kills an evil witch, is pursued by her doubly sinister witch of a sister, makes friends who don't seem to know their own strengths, places her life and her hope in the hands of a wizard who turns out the be a fraud, nearly loses her dog, and only makes it back home because the slippers she took from the dead witch at the beginning of her journey had magical powers. If only she had known, she would have spared this scary, life-threatening journey. All of this doesn't really matter because, eventually she ends up home safe and sound, even though her relatives don't believe her story and think her adventure was just a nightmare.

Version 2:
A young Kansas farm girl who feels ignored and unappreciated by her guardians runs away from home, only to be swept up by a tornado where she accidentally kills a wicked witch and inherits her magical ruby slippers. While initially feeling lost, alone, and afraid of a much more sinister witch, the girl receives benevolent guidance from a good witch and makes several new friends who discover their strengths as they join her on her journey. While facing death and potential disillusionment in the form of a kind, but fraudulent wizard, the girl learns that value of friendship and love. This lesson frees her to fulfill her wish of returning home, where she wakes surrounded by loved ones. Even though they don't believe that she ever left Kansas, it doesn't really matter, because she has come to understand that really, Auntie Em, "there is no place like home."

Obviously, this is Dorothy's story in the Wizard of Oz. As you may have discovered, both versions describe the same series of events. But if you were Dorothy, which version would you choose to tell? Which version would sustain you through good and bad times? Which one would you want as your legacy?

How we tell our stories not only matters, but also it can mean the difference between whether we see our lives as meaningless nightmares or enriching experiences that leave us all the wiser.