“What do you think of when you consider your past?”
This question was posed to me by a therapist many years ago. I wasn’t sure how to answer the question. The simple truth is that I hadn’t considered my past much at all. So I stammered something about my past being a random collection of experiences, events and relationships. At the time I was too busy to think about my past. To make matters worse, since birth I had been immersed in a culture that was future oriented. In my culture, considering the past was understood to be a waste of time. If it did not contribute to efficiency and productivity it was considered useless.
But what I have learned since then is that I don’t have a ‘past.’
I have a story.
Fast forward a bunch of years. Now I get to pose this important question to clients.
And it is important.
Here’s why: Your past defines everything about how you interpret and filter every relationship, interaction and experience. To quote Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Let’s face it: we all want to “feel better” in some way. But by engaging, learning, and studying our lives as a story, we can begin to do the hard and meaningful work of “getting well.”
Put another way, the first adventure on the path to a meaningful future is through your past.
Becoming an expert at your own story allows you to understand your life:
How you understand yourself and your place in the world?
How and why you interpret experiences the way you do?
Why do you do what you do?
What do you truly love and why?
What are the seats of your great loves and the anchors of your great fears?
So, where do we start?
First, it is helpful to understand that every story shares some common characteristics:
Chapters: Stories are usually divided into chapters or acts and scenes. First, divide your life into developmental chapters. For example, you may consider this framework:
Birth-8 years old
8-12 years old
Middle and high school
College/emerging adulthood (18-30)
Early middle adulthood (30-40)
Middle adulthood (40-55)
Late middle adulthood (55-65)
Later adulthood (65+)
Feel free to use whatever framework makes sense to you and helps you to understand your life as a story.
Relationships: Aside from Tom Hanks hanging out with a volleyball on a deserted island, I can’t recall a single movie or story that did not revolve around relationships. Relationships are what define a story. The first step in understanding your life as a story is to trace the line of meaningful relationships beginning with your earliest caregivers and siblings. You may want to consider friends, teachers, coaches, neighbors and many others who you consider to have had a meaningful effect on your life. (Note: this can be both positive and negative). It is important to note that the earliest relationships and experiences tend to have a more significant effect
Experiences: Begin charting meaningful experiences as they come to mind. Again, these can be both positive and negative. Some experiences you may want to consider:
The birth or death of a family member or a friend
The beginning or end of a romantic relationship
Graduation from high school or college
Illness or injury
A personal loss
Plot twists: These are the events and circumstances that upend our understanding of how the world works. These are times when you experienced significant disorientation and disorder. These experiences almost always have a profound effect on our lives and often serve as initiation points for transition from one chapter of life to the next.
Meaning and themes: Look for themes that show up throughout these dynamics: Relationship patterns, fear, anxiety, hope and joy.
What events or relationships do you celebrate as meaningful and significant?
What do you look back on with regret and/or shame?
What are consistent patterns where fear or anxiety drove decisions?
This work is not for the faint of heart and should not be taken lightly. To venture back into experiences of hurt, betrayal and pain risks retraumatization. Therefore, you may want to consider being guided through this process with a skilled therapist. A therapist can accompany you and provide an empathic container to hold your experiences and partnership in creating new meaning. If you would like to learn more about this approach, this recent article will provide more information.