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Moving On: Narratives Help Motivate Us to Change Our Lives

Stories clarify issues, garner support, and embolden decisions.

Key points

  • Although some motivations for change are clear and direct, others require narratives and stories explaining why we are moving on.
  • A successful story tells why the current situation is a problem, identifies heroes and villains, marks a crisis, and paints a bright future.
  • Good stories also prepare people for transitional difficulties. When told well, they encourage listeners to support our life changes.

Most of us think of motivations as internally felt push-and-pull processes. At times, we change our behavior because something happens that makes it no longer comfortable to remain where we are.

Think of losing your job or learning that your spouse has left you. That “push” functions much like a shove in the back or pain in the stomach. Our reactions are attempts to regain our balance.

At other times, behavior change stems from aspirations for a better life. We hear that a new employer is offering good jobs at good wages; a faraway college grants us a scholarship; our adult children suggest we move closer to them. Although we could remain in our current circumstances, those enticements “pull” us away.

Commonly, these two processes combine. Many immigrants come to this country because it is too dangerous to remain where they are and because they believe their families will be happier here. Bored teenagers dream of making it big in a faraway city. Late-career workers—tired of their routine or feeling pressure to retire—make plans for the next stage of life.

While we think of these matters as personal decisions, others strongly influence them. It may be our spouse or partner who wants us to retire. Our best friend is enrolling at our chosen college. Immigrating, we seek some locale where others from our country have settled.

Sometimes, the reasons behind these changes are clear and compelling. But more often, it’s not at all evident whether we should make a change or what that change should be. For those more complicated or subtle life shifts, we need narratives, publicly acceptable stories of why we’re moving on.

Saying that a narrative is publicly acceptable means that the people we talk to will agree with its rationale. That said, feeling justified in our projected change is even more important. After all, other people’s judgments of us can usually be handled, if not by convincing them, then by finding new associates who don’t know the full story of our life shift. Escaping one’s self—with never-ending opportunities for doubt and recrimination—is a more difficult proposition.

In that light, let’s consider the stories we offer ourselves and others. How do we assemble a rationale that gets us out of our current predicament and on to something else?

Woe is Me: Situations as Problems

Most of us like to complain, at least about some things sometimes. As discussed in another post, complaining is more than letting off steam. It formalizes issues; it solicits the opinions (and ideally, support) of others. When reciprocated, it strengthens relationships.

When being fair-minded, we acknowledge that the negative qualities we complain about mixed with positive ones. Our difficult boss is the one who hired us when we needed work. Our commute is terrible, but we only go to the office four days a week. I once worked beside a man at a foundry with a difficult, dangerous job. He said he hated it but kept going because he only had 12 years to go until his pension. All people, I suspect, make such calculations.

For change to happen, situations must be defined as serious problems that require action. A doctor tells us that our current routine is damaging our health. A neighborhood gang is threatening our children. The landlord just raised the rent to a level we can’t pay.

Perhaps more common is our perception that the current situation (which we’ve always put up with) is gradually worsening. In the old days, or so we tell our chums, people treated each other as human beings rather than functionaries. Our position, if not the greatest, was at least secure. There was the prospect of advancement. And our associates were a friendship base.

At some point, we conclude, matters changed. Now, we’re doing more for less reward. New supervisors have come in; they care little about the people already here. Old friends have moved on. Rumors circulate that the organization is struggling and may need to close.

There’s even an extreme version of this where we convince ourselves that we are about to be fired—and thus should quit before the axe falls. At any rate, the situation is becoming unworkable.

Heroes and Villains: Personalizing Our Dilemma

Charles Dickens famously begins his classic David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life story, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” I submit that we all would like to be that hero who plots their destiny.

Of course, taking that role requires believing we deserve to manage our affairs. Being who we are, we shouldn’t have to put up with current circumstances. Society’s celebrated values of individualism, freedom of choice, and open opportunity spur us on. Like every American, we should craft our own life.

Psychologists report that most of us have self-affirming biases. Routinely, we play up our positive attributes, insights, and contributions. Our failures—all too clear in our moments of deepest privacy—we try to shunt aside.

For such reasons, we tend to stress our positive role in the situation at hand. Sure, we’ve made a few mistakes. But those difficulties are insignificant when placed against our record of steady contribution over the years. Clearly, we deserve better than the way we’ve been treated.

We identify some people as positive influences (think of mentors, those who “believed in you,” and good friends). However, many other associates can be cast as rivals, detractors, obfuscators, and incompetents. Usually, we put up with their malefactions—until they start to do things that directly damage our standing.

The principal candidates for villainy are those who have authority over us—bosses, teachers, coaches, and the like. Such people, or so we think, have trouble appreciating our good qualities. Oddly, they favor others (especially those who kiss up to them). Their frequent displays of poor judgment make us wonder if we shouldn’t have their positions.

At any rate, what person hasn’t reported to their trusted companion: “You’re not going to believe what so-and-so did today?” It’s one thing to find distress in an abstract situation: it’s quite another to confront that situation’s human face.

I’ve Had It: The Precipitating Event

You express your grievances to a sympathetic listener. They agree with you. But they also tell you not to do anything rash. They have experienced similar treatment. This is just how the world works.

Then something happens to make the situation impossible. The villain crosses a line. Commonly, that act is an assault on your safety or dignity—or on the well-being of someone you care for. Today, someone doing a job you normally do was seriously injured at your dangerous workplace. Differently, an authority figure humiliates you in front of your peers. Your desk or locker is vandalized. You heard people discussing the prospect of your position being eliminated. It’s time to go.

It is not just that this occurrence pushes you over the edge. It’s that now you possess a compelling rationale for making the change.

Greener Grass: The World Beyond

Pushed out of comfortable circumstances, most of us have few illusions about the future. However, if we have little time to plan, we believe the next situation will be better than our current one. That positive vision is a key element of the change process.

Our next job, when we get it, won’t be perfect. However, it will be a chance to learn new skills and make new friends. Maybe we’ll change our residence. Anyway, we were getting stale in the old pattern. Life is about change.

Some of my friends who are now retiring make a similar assessment. Retirement will be an opportunity to take up sports and hobbies. There will be reading, traveling, gardening, and long hikes. Presumably, one will be less stressed, healthier, and more fulfilled.

The same can be said for the transition from school to the working world (“I’m ready to have my own place, earn money, and be an adult”). The new romantic partner (a replacement for the old, cantankerous one) gets the same rosy treatment. Optimism is the order of the day.

Pep Talks: Confronting the Transition

We recognize that getting from Point A to Point B will have its challenges. Formally quitting our current situation will be hard; getting a new placement will be too. That new job, we tell ourselves, will have its own “learning curve.” The new romantic partner will require a “period of adjustment.” Life after school won’t be a cakewalk. We’ll probably start near the bottom and “pay our dues.”

Assessments of this sort are essentially declarations—again, to others and ourselves—for what lies ahead. The future may be bright, but the path to that future is clouded. We tell ourselves that we have shown fortitude in getting to our current stage of life. We are now older and wiser; this is the occasion to demonstrate that we are the resilient person we say we are.

So armed, we set forth into the brave new world. If we tell our story well enough, people will applaud our quest.


Henricks, T. (2022). “Why We Complain: Grumbling is a Way of Building Relationships with Others.” Psychology Today. Why We Complain | Psychology Today

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