How Re-Writing Your Story Can Change Your Life

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So what’s your story? We all have one, you know — a story about ourselves, where we come from, who we are, and what our place is in this world.

Sometimes we follow a script that others have written for us without even realizing we’re doing it. Other times we get so used to a role we’ve played for so long that we forget there are alternatives. Still other times we feel stuck in a role we fashioned for ourselves but would like to break out of if we only knew how.

Our personal narratives give our lives meaning. Sometimes, especially when we’re struggling for a better sense of identity and purpose, our narratives simply have to be re-written. As hard as that can be to do, re-writing our personal story is almost always a powerful and life-changing enterprise.

A longtime acquaintance of mine (as always, details in this particular “story” have been altered to ensure anonymity) had come to a point in her life where the script of her life needed some major revisions. As the baby in a large family of high achievers, “Barb” had long perceived herself as the kind and compassionate yet relatively incapable one, always struggling to measure up. She’d lived with herself long enough to see the truth in what others had long seemed to know: she simply didn’t have the intelligence, focusing capacity, or tenacity to compete in the big leagues, and over the years, she’d learned to accept her fate. But she was grateful for the modest life she was able to make for herself and was especially proud of her family. Then one day, tragedy struck. Her husband of 15 years passed away unexpectedly and she now had to be both the sole parent and provider. That would mean getting more than a part-time, relatively undemanding job, and she wasn’t sure she could do it.

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Barb rose to the challenge, but it wasn’t long before she had to once again face the all-too-sobering reality of her inadequacies. She wanted to deny it but she simply had to admit it: she just didn’t have what it takes to make it. The demands of her job and her family were increasingly proving too much for her. The proof was in the panic attacks she’d begun to experience and the helplessness she was beginning to feel. Despite her best efforts to cope, her anxieties and despondency only grew, and eventually she succumbed to a paralyzing depression.

When Barb first reached out to me, she’d already secured some professional help. While the medications her family physician had given her were helping her mood somewhat, she was still experiencing panics and was feeling pretty sure that the only way out of her misery would be to accept the fact that she simply didn’t have the resources to deal with so much stress. She was actually sick and tired of the “sweet and kind but relatively incapable” script she’d been living with her whole life, but she wasn’t sure she wasn’t appropriately typecast in the role.

One of the best things about getting the right kind of help for anxiety disorders is that unlike many who have never had to struggle with anxiety, folks who have to deal with debilitating fears day in and day out gain more than freedom from panic and depression once they master the methods of anxiety management. They gain a sense of self-efficacy and confidence they never before dreamed of having and truly become a new person. (For more on this topic see the articles “When Fear Paralyzes” and “How to Break a Vicious Cycle: Target the Weakest Link”.)

I remember vividly the first time Barb “nipped” a potential panic attack “in the bud” by rehearsing the strategies she’d learned to de-escalate in the face of some typical “triggers,” thus ridding herself of her most feared symptoms. That’s when the story of her life really began to change. “I dealt with an irate customer today and I doubt they had any idea I was having to use every strategy I’ve learned just to keep my focus, address the situation, and resist the urge to go home sick,” she boasted with a smile. “And I didn’t pick up the phone to call you, to beg my doctor for more medicine, or to complain to my sister that I just couldn’t cope. Why? Because I can cope. I proved that just today. I might forget it sometime when things really get rough, but I can always remember that I did it today, so there’s no reason why I can’t do it again.”

It would take several months before Barb had re-written her life narrative sufficiently to want to part company with my support, and by that time she’d already earned a promotion at work (along with a hefty raise in pay) and was laying the groundwork for a promising new career. “I never thought of myself as a leader type,” Barb related, “but I think I might have what it takes to be on the management team. In fact, I’m being groomed for an entry level management position now!” Barb’s life role had changed from “sweet but relatively incapable” to confident, tenacious, and fairly driven in a relatively short period of time. She came to realize that re-writing life scripts is not so much a matter of fanciful speculation or talking yourself into a different view but rather a matter of doing things differently and changing the interpretive self-talk that so often unconsciously accompanies your actions. In the process, the way you’ve always seen yourself simply has to change.

Barb never really lost her “sweetness.” Her warm, gentle, yet now confident and decisive style eventually propelled her to the highest levels of management in her company. Hers is an inspiring story. It’s a story that in its early stages definitely needed some major revisions. Barb re-wrote her life narrative and the role she played in it not with a pen but with the actions she was willing to take to change the old habits she once let define her. In the process, she changed not only how she saw herself, she changed her whole life.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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