We humans are all narrators of our own life stories. We are meaning-making creatures, even those of us with no religious beliefs. Our lived experiences shape the way we see ourselves and influence the creation of our internal ‘screenplay’. McAdams (2001) life story research discussed multiple psychological theories related to culture, societal influence, gender, life stage and many other factors, which determine our internal dialogue and the way we see the world.
How we think it will be and how it is
Most of us are incredibly good at painting colourful pictures in our minds, of how we think life will be, and often, we do the same with how it has been, putting our past episodes, good or bad, in an ‘experience box’ from which we can construct our life stories. We really are all far more creative than we might think, even those of us who don’t relate to being creative in any way. Most of us expertly adjust our narratives to explain the less exciting or desirable parts of life, so that with all the confusion and chaos we find along our journeys, we can make sense of, and perceive a sense of control over our destinies.
Yet one of the certainties of life, is that there is no certainty, which is particularly poignant now, when Covid-19 has impacted all of us. Many people feel a loss of control over our lives, dreams, and freedoms, in a way they never have before. The changes in the way we live, for many of us, are a mismatch for the stories we have made up about our lives so far or futures.
Stepping out of our comfort zones can be good for us
When our reality is far from the way we planned life, this can cause a lot of internal turmoil, since our internal narratives are frequently based on a lot of ‘shoulds’, or fixed ideas. Our ideals are linked to what we have decided are acceptable outcomes, based on our social conditioning and life experiences. Since life often doesn’t work out as we planned, our fixed ideas can do us more harm than good, where we stay firmly rooted in what we thought would be a worthwhile life chapter, which may no longer be possible or viable. Resilience researchers agree that being able to reconsider, learn from our difficulties and adjust to new ways of being, even in traumatic circumstances, leads to personal growth, and the development of new personal resources. Leaving our comfort zones may actually be good for us.
Why do we stay stuck?
Many of us stay in situations which stop us thriving, simply because a change of mind is often not the easy choice. Change of any kind is often coupled with fear, loss, letting go and vulnerability. Becoming unstuck is a time when we need to decide whether staying in our comfortable but no longer useful place is more painful than facing the unknown. In my own experience, the choice to stay stuck is often far more uncomfortable than, as Brené Brown (2015) puts in in her book Daring Greatly, having the courage to step into the arena.
Being brave enough to let go
Once we have made the decision to move forward in a new direction, there will often be a cost, whether that is emotionally, physically, socially, or financially. Yet what we stand to gain could be far greater if we are willing to have the courage to try. When I look at my life story, the times where I was prepared to metaphorically jump from a flying plane and hope my parachute opened, are the times where I have achieved the most, gained the greatest sense of wellbeing and freedom and realising my own potential for growth. Willingness to be truly vulnerable is probably one of the most important life lessons I have learned and has led me to take steps towards a richer and brighter story, often more vibrant than anything I could have envisioned before taking the leap of faith. When we are prepared to be vulnerable, we will allow ourselves to face the emotional upheaval; mourning a relationship that no longer serves us, reaching for that new job that brings us meaning, moving to a new house. We will do whatever it takes to be brave enough to write a bold new chapter.
Rethinking your dreams
One of my personal favourite quotes is by Joseph Campbell (2003), who writes about The Hero’s Journey as a mythical, metaphorical idea of our journey through life. He says, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Maybe now, more than ever, a flexible approach to life’s ups and downs and the ability to rethink our dreams might serve us more than staying frustrated and stuck that life didn’t work out as it might have. Though it is definitely not always easy, if we can keep our minds open, then maybe, the best is yet to come.
Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.
Campbell, J. (2003). The hero’s journey: Joseph Campbell on his life and work (Vol. 7). New World Library.
McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of general psychology, 5(2), 100-122.
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