As a former holistic health practitioner and transformational life coach, my inbox gets filled with emails from people looking for answers. From physical ailments to heartbreak and loss, the cries for help cover the gamut of human emotions, and new years is a common time for this type of inquiry.
A recent email explained that the writer had been married for fifteen years and that life was good until a couple of years ago. That’s when his wife stopped wanting to have sex as much, and now they barely have sex at all.
He went on to share, “Last night I discovered that she’s been having secret late-night phone calls with a man at her office. I can’t believe this is happening. My mother had an affair when I was young, and it broke our family apart. I’m broken-hearted. What should I do?”
I respond with great care to these types of emails because I know that every email I receive is actually a story written by a specific author—and that another version of this story exists. If I’ve learned anything about being human, it’s that we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives. We don’t purposely mislead. Most of what people tell me is true—from their perspective.
Each of us embraces stories about our lives—our choices, our triumphs, our failures, even the supporting characters. Stories can help us to make sense of our lives. But what happens when the stories aren’t complete or are just plain wrong?
Sometimes, stories keep us stuck. We tend to think that our circumstances shape our stories, but what I’ve found is the opposite. The way we narrate our lives shapes how they turn out. That’s the danger of our stories—they can be inaccurate. But it’s also their power. Because if we can change our stories, then we can change our lives.
As a writer, I must edit my work. But wearing an editor’s hat is also necessary when working with clients. As an editor, I have to ask myself: What material is nonessential? Is the protagonist moving forward or stuck? Are the supporting characters vital, or are they distractions? Do the plot points reveal a theme?
People’s stories tend to lean toward two themes— freedom and change. When I edit, I start with those two items first.
Let’s start with freedom. These stories include the feeling of being trapped, imprisoned by our families, our jobs, our relationships, our past. Even by our perceived shortcomings (I’m short, I’m fat, I’m old, I’m…). But we don’t do anything to set ourselves free because freedom comes with responsibility. And if we take responsibility for our role in the story, we might have to change. That’s the other common theme—change.
Many people say, “I want to change.” But what they really mean is, “I want another character in the story to change.” Why wouldn’t the protagonist (the hero of the story) want to change? It might be because change—at least positive change—involves loss. Loss of the familiar—even if the familiar is unpleasant. At least we (the protagonist) knows the characters, the setting, and the plot—right down to the recurring dialogue. There’s something oddly comforting about knowing how the story’s going to end.
To write a new life story means venturing into the unknown. It’s to stare at a blank page. Every writer will tell you there’s nothing more terrifying than an empty page. But once we “boldly go where no one has gone before” and edit our story, the next chapter (and the next, and the next) becomes more comfortable to rewrite.
In our society, we talk a lot about getting to know ourselves. But part of getting to know ourselves is to un-know ourselves as well. To release the version of the story we’ve been telling ourselves so that we can live our lives and not the story we’ve been telling ourselves about our life. And that’s how we get to freedom.
What would happen if we removed our personal, short-sighted lenses and looked at our stories from another person’s point of view? What would we see now? What would we write now? What changes would we make?
With a courageous edit, we can write a much more nuanced version of our life story. Just by doing an edit, we open ourselves to many more possibilities of what the plot can become.
Our life story is our legacy. It’s also our obituary. The good news is, we get to shape this story while we’re still alive. We can choose to be the hero, not the victim. There’s nothing more important than the quality of our lives and the stories we tell ourselves about them.
When it comes to the story of your life, aim for a masterpiece.