They say there’s a novel in all of us, but it seems to me that the stories you tell yourself on an average day could write a novel a day for the rest of your life. And still not make a dent in your story.
For example, there’s the story about:
- The woman on the train who appears to be judging your appearance negatively.
- The man in the other car whose sole joy in life is cutting you off.
- Your boss makes themself look better by taking credit for your work and picking on you.
- The ex-best friend who snuck behind your back and stole your boy/girlfriend.
- That person who deliberately sicked their dog on yours.
There’s a lot of stories out there.
Of course, a story isn’t a story without characters – at the very least a protagonist (you). And probably an antagonist or two as well.
The protagonist (or hero) is the main character. In the grand narrative of your life, that’s clearly going to be you.
What we love about a good hero is that they grow and change as a result of overcoming the obstacles put in their path. But sometimes we cry because the story is a tragedy – our hero doesn’t overcome the obstacle. They’re doomed by a bad decision or the capriciousness of the gods.
The antagonist (or villain) is usually considered bad just because – no reason required; they’re just pure evil. But they’re nothing more than an obstacle in our hero’s path. While they’re commonly people, they can also be institutions or natural events. Even animals, kerbs or rocks.
In her book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggests that being true to yourself relates in part to how you explain your life to yourself. Whether your narrative identity (story) is positive or negative has a long-term impact on your physical and mental health.
In this story, you’re in control of your life – a common version of this is the local girl/boy made good.
Overall, it’s a positive story for you, because you are responsible for every good thing in your life. Your antagonists are most likely people who have gone against you in pursuit of resources, and you have beaten them every time.
It might not be such a good story for your friends and family, because you may be casting them as obstacles to overcome. And potentially trampling roughshod over their needs and wants in favour of your own.
This story is all about your web of relationships – for example, the beating heart of a thriving extended family.
This is another positive story; the people you surround yourself with give you meaning. Your necessary sacrifices are for their benefit or you are lifted high by their love and attention. Your antagonists are more likely to be those who threaten the people you hold dear, at which point you will put down your mild-mannered persona and do what needs to be done.
Again, this one might not be so good for others. You may be casting them in such a way that they can’t cope or perhaps even exist without you.
The redemption story is about gaining special wisdom by overcoming challenges – it’s common amongst those whose antagonists are not people.
Most motivation speakers, for example, overcome a variety of challenges and share the special wisdom they gained to inspire you to live better lives. Or me! I overcame illness, got a transplant, and am here to suggest you could be living more of a life worth living.
If this is you, your loved ones may find themselves excluded or relegated to support roles as you step out to share your message.
This is the only personally negative storyline we have; the circumstances you find yourself in have ruined your positive start. You’re living the tragedy scenario.
In this case, your family gets the benefit; you are the black sheep who went rogue – you’re a lesson to others. You might even find that the family cuts you off as they try to limit the damage you’re causing or prevent you from infecting others.
Hard as it is, your only way out is to choose another story:
- Agency: take control, turn your life around and live out your promise.
- Communion: remember you have a place in the scheme of things, earn back trust and be an example for others.
- Redemption: consider this a dark time giving you special knowledge about overcoming darkness and despair.
Stories are amazing things.
We have the favourites we love because we know exactly how they are going to end. And now and again, there’s one that captures our imagination because there’s a surprising twist in the end:
- The woman on the train comes over to tell you she thinks you look amazing.
- The man in the other car gets your attention and tells you your boot (trunk) is open and you’re about to lose your load.
- Your boss apologises for behaving badly and gives you an excellent grade in your performance review.
- The ex-boy/girlfriend dumps your ex-best friend and comes snivelling back.
- The dog was spooked by an umbrella, and its owner runs after it shouting to warn you.
So, what’s your story?