For the holidays, rethink the greatest story you ever told: Your own
We enter the holidays and 2023 with a greater focus on well-being, our own and that of others. Even if we look forward to the holidays, most of us need a break and can feel a higher level of mental distress.
Our well-being and the ability to deal with stress are in part determined by our narratives about ourselves and the world. Our self-narrative is often a collection of stories — our own, those of others, and those we think that society has about people like us. Through them, we create our personal version of reality based on experiences and perceptions. These affect everything from the way we see ourselves to how we interact with others. They also determine how well we cope with setbacks and challenges.
Around this holiday time, whether we are off, working, alone or with family, our thoughts are likely to drift to the memories and emotions of our childhood. Here we explore how to make this break a different one and find ways to openly discuss with loved ones the stories that shape but also limit us to connect more deeply with each other, and improve our odds of having a (more) happy new year.
What are stories, and why do they matter?
Stories have been around since the beginning of time. They help us share knowledge and experiences through emotionally engaging content and play an essential role in our society. Every day we consume stories in different formats, from each other, through traditional media outlets and especially on social media.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, stories tend to be static, while narratives are more often subject to change because of interpretation. Narratives change as we make sense of the world around us, and being narratively intelligent describes a person’s ability to tell the story of their life and the surrounding environment (Randall, 1999). That’s why self-narratives feed from different stories to which we are exposed.
Human are active information processors, according to Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. We create stories by observing our environment, interpreting the information we receive, and responding accordingly. It helps us understand why people behave the way they do and gives us insight into how we can change our behavior for the better. We are not just products of our environment, we actively shape it.
From a more practical perspective, Landmark Worldwide describes humans as meaning-making machines. Transformation, in their language, requires becoming aware of the meaning we are making, of the stories we believe without realizing that they are just that — stories. Things happen to us, and we make them mean something and create automatic associations. When things do go the way we want, we develop coping mechanisms that shape our identity in childhood. Humans tend to conflate what happened with the story they tell themselves of what happened. We do it all day, and we survive that way, but it comes at a cost.
In other words, stories foster our sense making and meaning making processes. They are the sense giving vehicle. Through sense making, we make sense of the events and experiences that occur in our lives. And through meaning making, we give objects, events, and experiences personal significance by attaching labels to them and assigning values to them. In this context, a story is “a portal through which a person enters the world and by which their experience of the world is interpreted and made personally meaningful” (Connelly and Clandinin 2006).
If your self-narrative is negative, it can hold you back from achieving your goals and reaching your full potential. For example, if we have a story about not being heard and seen as a child or teen, people talking over us in Zoom might feel painful and personal. If your self-narrative is positive, it can help you to overcome any obstacles that come your way. So it is important to pay attention to the stories you are telling yourselves.
Reframing the dialogue: Unpack the holiday suitcase
The holidays are a time for family, friends, food, and fun. But one of the things that makes them so special is the stories we tell each other. Whether it’s a story about a holiday tradition or a memory, whether your story is a feel-good Hallmark Christmas movie or The Nightmare Before Christmas, shared experiences and common traits shape your family’s identity.
Familiar stories about Christmas, Hanukkah, or other holidays, remind us of who we are and where we come from. They provide us with a sense of continuity. They remind us that we are not alone in our struggles and celebrate the joys of family, friendship, and love. Stories are a great way to pass on traditions and values from one generation to the next. They are also great ways to get stuck repeating past habits. How can get get unstuck?
More specifically, how did the stories about you, told by your close family and friends influence your self-narrative? How we catch ourselves being influenced by these stories and rewrite our self-narrative? What if we asked loved ones to tell us their story as a gift this year? And learn how characters in the story of our lives evolved and how their stories shaped our own?
1) Approach stories like a child, with a “beginner’s mind.”
Those of us who lost parents and loved ones this year will never get to hear stories we heard a thousand times before. Some of us were probably not paying total attention 90% of the times we heard them. If you catch your mind wandering when an “old story” gets told, if you find yourself already always listening to your uncle as an old bore, ask yourself:
- “What could surprise me in this story today?”
- “What new question could I ask about it?”
- “What will I miss about this story if I never heard it again?”
2) Don’t just ask about events, ask about people and emotions, too.
When we tell old family stories around the dinner table, we can not only relive those memories but also connect to our heritage. We learn about people and what matters to them when they share their favorite memories and traditions. Yet when we reminisce, we often talk about what we think we were like at the time, but not necessarily about what made us that way. We tend to share memories of what we did, rather than who we were.
- “What did you feel when this happened? How did you adapt?”
- “What did the move mean to Grandma?” What coping mechanisms did she develop?”
3) Don’t assume what impression you make, solicit input.
Our identity formation mechanisms rely on the perceptions of others and the integration of those perspectives with our own perspectives. When we expose ourselves to new experiences, certain questions arise about our own interpretation of ourselves, much like challenges and conflicts shape the character of the protagonists in our favorite stories. But most of the time we speculate about how we occur to others — often we learn, through gossip or surprising outcomes — that we were totally off.
- “If you were to describe me to a future boss, what would you say?”
- “When you talked to your friends about us when we we were kids. what did you say? To what extent were you right?”
- “How did you experience our behavior during the critical stages of our toddler and teen years and early adulthood?
4) Don’t stay stuck in the past, explore alternative narratives.
The ability to see things from another person’s point of view is an important skill for understanding others and resolving conflicts within oneself and with others. That’s why asking those close to us to tell stories about themselves is so important to understanding ourselves — it allows us to see the world through the eyes of others and learn about ourselves from their experiences. To parents you could ask:
- “What childhood experience had the greatest impact on you and why?”
- “How did you feel when you were expecting me? When I was born?”
- “How did they put us to sleep and teach me to separate? What kind of caregivers do you think you were and why?”
5) Don’t roll your eyes, open them — yours and those of others.
It often find it hard to show the same level of humanity to our families that we try to show to friends. For example, when your mother pretends to be discreetly enquiring about your dating life, don’t just internally roll your eyes and always already listen for her as an intrusive nag. Ask her what the real nature of her concern is and how dating was for her. She might take the opportunity to reveal some insecurities. These might or might not match yours. But a door is open. The reality is that you cannot escape the question — if you walk away, your mother’s thoughts and your reaction to them will follow up anyway.
- “What prompts you to ask me this question? Was this a concern in your childhood or youth, too?”
- “What meaning as you ascribing to my being single?”
6) Don’t assume, instead enquire actively.
We often assume that we know our loved ones, and so we stop enquiring. Pick a relative or good friend and ask them:
- “What is the story of your life?”
- “What made you the way you are?”
- “How did the story of your life shape mine?”
- “What is the story of my life, in your opinion?”
- “To what extent do our stories bring us closer or keep us apart? and how can we do more of the former and less of the latter?”
7) Don’t keep it all in your head, write it down.
Landmark encourages participants to write out their stories so that they may become visible. The goal is to read our own stories over and over again till we realize how some of their aspects are absurd. Psychologist Jordan Peterson’s take on this is self-authoring to explore the power of stories and meaning maps. Which leads us to bibliotherapy, an interesting perspective on the power of processing read or heard information, used in the treatment of depressive episodes in children and adults.
Happy 2023 story!
Practicing a different kind of dialogue with loved ones could help you enter 2023 with more resilience and empathy and a new sense of identity. To move forward, please take the time to go back and explore how the stories of your parents and relatives shaped yours. After all, we are the sum of all the interactions in our life.
We wish you and your loved ones all the very best!