What Story Are You Telling Yourself About Your Life?
Psychological studies about human beings reveal that we all tell ourselves stories about ourselves. We do this either consciously or unconsciously. Humans have been doing this since past tens of thousands of years. Why is it so important to know what story we are telling ourselves? We can understand this by an example.
A person who had been a football player once met with an accident which caused him to become paraplegic, or suffering complete paralysis of the lower half of the body including both legs. His response about his condition after some months needs careful attention. He did not begin to lament his situation, speak of his inability to play his favourite sport again or longingly remember the days when he was full of energy and vigour on the field. Rather, he said that he was happier and more satisfied now, as he had begun to lead a thoughtful and calm life. Earlier he would spend excessive time in pubs and other kinds of entertainment, but now instead of having interest in such activities, he was in a better position to understand the deeper side of life.
We all have stories about the various incidents, experiences and situations of our life – both of the past and the present. Why we made certain choices, why we behaved in a certain way, how someone is responsible for what they have done to us, what importance a particular situation in the past had for our future, and so on.
The psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb says of her experience in counselling people about what stories they tell themselves: “We assume that our circumstances shape our stories. But what I found time and again in my work is that the exact opposite happens. The way we narrate our lives shapes what they become.” Had the above footballer interpreted his accident as a story of dashed hopes, he would have only been a picture of despondency, sorrow and depression. But the story he told himself about the most adverse situation of his life was one of finding a new lease of life and discovering profound meaning which he was unaware of before.
This is precisely the reason why the kind of stories we have in our mind about our lives are very crucial, because they can really affect our well-being. These stories can either make us content about what we have and where we are at present and also make us positive for the people around us, or they can make us hopeless about our situation and cloud our minds with negativity and bitterness for others.
If you could not land up with a good job, you may explain it by casting blame on people for not employing you, discriminating against you, making decision based on their biases, and so on. This will cause you to nurture a feeling of hatred through your life for those whom you hold responsible. On the contrary, you could analyze the matter by thinking that the law of nature set by God is that a person gets what he is competent for and not what he hasn’t shown capability and proficiency for. Here, you will be seeing God’s creation plan at work – you have to struggle, work hard and compete for a place in society. You would not waste time raising voices against people and narrating the experience of prejudice you have faced. Rather, you will promptly turn the attention of your mind to strengthening your own self rather than trumpeting about the injustice done to you. Here, you will see the story you tell yourself about this event actually shapes your life – it affects your future course of action in a very important way.
We also have an excellent example from the Quran itself. It is in a story narrated in the twelfth chapter Surah Yusuf. Prophet Joseph’s twelve step-brothers dealt with him unjustly by throwing him into a dry well when he was very young. This separated Joseph from his family and he was taken to another land Egypt, far away from home. He was subsequently raised in the family of an Egyptian nobleman. Finally, due to his extraordinary abilities, the king of Egypt appointed Joseph the administrator of food supplies in his kingdom. Years later when famine stuck the region, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt since the country had enormous stores of food. Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him, but he revealed that he was indeed their brother Joseph whom they had cruelly thrown into the well.
The Quran tells us that Joseph’s brothers were filled with remorse and felt very repentant at their past action. Joseph, instead of bearing ill will against them, forgave them and said: “Satan had brought about discord between me and my brothers.” (12:100) Joseph attributed the jealousy of his brothers and their unfair action against him to Satan, he did not hold his brothers responsible for it. This interpretation of a past incident in his life saved Joseph from harbouring resentment for his own family members. They lived harmoniously thereafter.
We must lead life as conscious beings. We must be aware of our thought processes. This could be aided by writing a diary in which our understanding of our life will clearly unfold before us. We should check where we are going wrong. If we do not correct our life’s narrative we tell ourselves, it would only serve to make our life miserable.