(Excerpted from Connection: How to Find the Life You’re Looking for in the Life You Have (Sounds True 2021) © Kristine Klussman, PhD)
Many people are plagued by what they feel like is a less than idyllic childhood or life story and carry that around as a burden or something to turn away from, forget, or feel ashamed about. Regardless of what happened to us, when we view our lives that way, we are disconnecting from our past by believing that our history was devoid of meaning. This is often a huge area of disconnection for people, turning away from events of the past that appeared to serve no purpose other than causing pain and suffering.
Your life story is a golden opportunity for meaning making. If yours includes pain and turmoil, you can rewrite it in a way that feels personally meaningful—a version you can be proud of. Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is based in part on just such a goal: the therapist helps the client coauthor a new story of their life that is constructive and meaningful, and that emphasizes strengths and resilience. This type of therapy has been shown to be enormously successful, particularly with veterans, troubled teens, and people working in the social justice realm.
I had the opportunity to experience firsthand the life-changing impact of rewriting my life story at a women’s retreat—forever changing my relationship to my past, for the better. The instructions were simple: Write your life story in a form you can share with the group in under ten minutes. Be as honest as possible, and feel free to cast yourself as the hero of the story, using some creative analogy. This was a novel concept to me, and I was totally unprepared. Though my history had many tales of goodness, it had always felt overshadowed by sorrow and a series of unfortunate events related to a dramatic parental divorce, family members’ substance abuse, and my sisters and I being raised apart. For so long, I had dismissed my life story as not worth telling because of the seeming pointlessness of those unfortunate aspects. But this invitation to cast myself as the heroine somehow changed everything and helped me rewrite my understanding of my history.
After struggling and feeling blocked for some time, I finally picked Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games as my heroine analogy since I resonated with her primary motivation of taking care of her younger sister. As I prepared my narrative to share with the group, I rewrote the unfortunate and traumatic events of my life as necessary challenges that were preparing me for who I was meant to become, and I recast myself as the fiercely protective older sister who slayed dragons with my bow and arrow in the name of justice. Suddenly my life story felt like a story of triumph and courage, rather than shame and wasted opportunity. That simple exercise, which took only a couple of hours, enabled me to understand the meaning and significance of my life history in a whole new way, providing life-changing perspective. For the first time, I felt connected to, and even thankful for, my past. Even more surprising, rather than seeming farcical or like wishful thinking, my revised life story feels like a truer version than the old one.
I now frequently use this exercise in my workshops to invite people to reconstruct and reframe their pasts. If you’re doing this at home, I recommend following Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey as a starting point. This iconic narrative follows a hero who is unexpectedly called to adventure or challenge and who faces internal and external obstacles, setbacks, and triumphs along the way. (The online YouTube cartoon of the hero’s journey beautifully articulates this allegory for those who prefer videos to reading.) Campbell’s narrative trajectory is the basis of nearly every dramatic plot or movie we have ever seen—and for good reason, since it is each of our stories as well.
Other, nonwriting methods of reflection can also be helpful for connecting our past with our present. One of my Connection Lab study participants shared the experience of listening to old music albums on a long car ride and how self-connected it made her feel:
When I first started listening, I thought, Wow, I can’t believe I used to be so into this. However, as I listened more closely to the lyrics, I realized how perfectly they fit those times of my life. It is not who I am anymore, but it is a complete reminder of all the good and bad times I have had, the different friends and relationships I have made it through, and all the times that have led me to where I am today. Those times are another thing I am grateful for. Without having lived all of my, as I like to call them, “past lives,” I wouldn’t know myself as well as I do today, and I am proud of who I am.
The broader lesson from this exercise is to consider the adversity in your life as a gift. Instead of things that happened to you, think of them as things that happened for you in order for you to learn the lessons you needed to become the person you are. It can feel like a stretch, but try it on. Look for the lesson and the ensuing personal growth or for the strength that occurred through each phase of difficulty, and recast your villains as your perfect teachers who were there to teach you something you needed to learn in order to move forward on your journey.