What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Did you know that you are a storyteller?
We all have stories of ourselves formed by life experiences and relationships. We tell ourselves these stories, and we reveal the details of these stories to others through our words and actions. Our stories reflect our values and strengths.
We need these life narratives in order to make sense of the onslaught of information from the world around us. In any given day, there is just too much information to take in. We use our narrative as a template for making sense of it all.
Sometimes, we go about our lives just fine with our story. Things fit into it well. We can feel good about who we are.
At other times, we begin to overlook potentially important information. We can discount our skills. We can lose sight of our true priorities. We may be unable to receive and process constructive criticism, and we close ourselves off to feedback.
It can also be difficult to learn from mistakes either because we feel defeated or we can’t acknowledge them. Our stories can become saturated with problems and threats.
Our life narratives don’t always match what others see in us, either. We may minimize the same details that others find meaningful. We may see ourselves as we were in the past without acknowledging important changes. We can be harsh to ourselves and believe that others see us the same way.
When our story about ourselves is restricted in this way, we may be limited in how we cope with challenging situations. Our story may only allow for a few solutions. We may default to strengths and values that don’t always help.
For example, when we are anxious, we may focus on our desire to find control and certainty. We may rely on our skills of planning when there is nothing that can be planned. We end up feeling even worse.
When we are angry, we may focus on our value of justice. Instead of resolving the conflict, we can get stuck on what is fair. We can lash out or seek retaliation. Again, we can end up feeling even worse.
What could be different if we could expand our stories?
There is one simple exercise that you can try for yourself: self-affirmation.
If you are thinking of Stuart Smalley’s famous quote, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” when you hear the word affirmation, think again. According to research on self-affirmation theory, when we engage in self-affirming activities, we are better able to handle life’s difficulties and learn from our mistakes.
A simple way to do this is to identify your values and strengths. Then, choose one to investigate. You can think of it like directing a scene in a movie or writing a chapter in a book about your life. How would this strength or value be portrayed?
Maybe you value your creativity. Think back through your life and explore how creativity became important to you. List the ways that you have shown your creativity. How might you solve problems using this skill?
The key to this exercise is to choose something of meaning and value to you. It is also helpful to look beyond the part of you that feels threatened. If your creativity feels threatened, for example, it could be helpful to explore other facets of yourself.
When you do this, you broaden your understanding of yourself. You can move beyond the threat or challenge before you, and you can identify your internal and external resources.
Try it out for yourself. What changes when you expand upon your narrative?
Cohen, G. C., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The Psychology of Change: Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333-371. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115137