When we look back on our lives, we often aren’t watching a perfect recording of what has happened to us.
Instead, our brains are creating a story. Certain memories immediately stand out to us more than others, then our brains find meaning in those memories and transform them into a coherent narrative of events.
Our brains are “meaning-generating” machines. We don’t just observe our world, but we add meaning to it. We can’t help but look back on our past and think, “This happened in my life because of X, and then that led me to Y.”
We all tell ourselves these stories whether we realize it or not. Some people try to take conscious control of these stories through cognitive therapy, where individuals work on finding new meaning in their past, present, and future.
There’s a great book that just came out called Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life which teaches you step-by-step writing exercises you can do to reframe your stories and find new meaning and insight in them.
It shares really interesting exercises in introspection, and provides a practical way for you to dive deeper into your story and begin taking conscious control over it. The book includes a healthy combination of both “cognitive therapy” and “writing therapy.”
In fact, studies show that expressive writing by itself can be a great way to improve both your mental and physical health. This book just provides an awesome framework for you to do it.
Write your story from a third person perspective
The first major lesson in the book is that it helps to write about your story from a third person perspective.
So instead of telling your story using “I” or “Me” (which is what we normally do), try using “He” or “She” or your first name. If you really want to be creative, you can also make up a nickname for yourself.
By using the third person instead of the first person, it allows you to distance yourself from your story and not become too personally attached to it. The is sometimes known as the objective narrative, or “fly on the wall” perspective, which in itself can be a freeing point-of-view.
One study shows that thinking about your life from a third person perspective can help you detach from your feelings and make them less intense. Researchers say that “self-distancing provides a valuable framework to help people reframe stressful events in adaptive ways.”
This is also why the book is called “Step Out of Your Story.” Because often we need to step back and become more aware of our story from an outside perspective before we can begin rewriting it.
Define your protagonist
To start, one good writing exercise is to give a short summary of your protagonist. Write 5-7 sentences about yourself (in the third person), and focus on the answers to questions like:
- What are the basic facts about the protagonist? Age? Gender? Marital Status? Current Residence? Job?
- What was his or her childhood like? In what ways did this influence the protagonist?
- What are some strengths of the protagonist? What about weaknesses or vulnerabilities?
- What does the protagonist want? What are they searching for?
- What is getting in the way of the protagonist and his or her goals? What’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t get what they want?
Remember to answer these questions in the third person. You’ll find that this process alone can help you clarify who your protagonist is and what their current struggle is.
Summarize the current chapter of your life
It’s very helpful to recognize that your current situation is always just one chapter in a much bigger story. And no single chapter defines the whole book.
For this writing exercise, we will focus just on this current chapter in your life. Try to write 8-10 sentences giving a short summary of this chapter – you should focus on the past few months or the past year (but don’t go back much further than that).
Think of this summary as the “Cliff Notes” version of this chapter. You don’t need to dive into too many details, just give the broad strokes of what is currently going on in your life. And don’t forget to write in the third person!
Once you finish your summary ask yourself, “What is a good name for this chapter?” Being able to delineate your current situation into a single chapter can be a great way for you to keep a bigger picture perspective.
Identify the antagonist
Every story has an antagonist. This is the “opposing force” that is creating conflict or friction with the protagonist.
Try to look back on your summary and identify the antagonist in your current chapter. In most stories, the antagonist can be one of four different forces:
1) Self vs. Other – Another person, whether a lover, boss, coworker, relative, or friend.
2) Self vs. Society – A social culture, government, corporation, religion, or tradition.
3) Self vs. Nature – A natural disaster, storm, earthquake, or struggle in the wild.
4) Self vs. Self – A negative belief or behavioral pattern, a physical or mental illness.
Your story may include more than one antagonist. Almost all stories have some version of “Self vs. Self” – usually described as some internal conflict – or lesson that the protagonist needs to learn.
Create a dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist
Another way to explore your story is by creating a dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist.
Even if your antagonist isn’t another person, you can still personify it and create a dialogue with it. For example, think about the internal conflict between “Self vs. Self.” What aspects of yourself are working against you?
Maybe your current chapter is filled with “Fear” or “Doubt” or “Anger.” You can create a dialogue with those negative emotions by thinking of them as their own unique character.
Protagonist: Every time I’m trying to make a change for myself, you come into my life, why do you do that?
Fear: It’s my job to protect you. I don’t want you to get hurt.
Protagonist: I understand, but sometimes I feel you’re holding me back from reaching my full potential. Do you really need to protect me from everything?
Fear: You have been hurt in the past. I don’t want you to be hurt again. I want to keep you safe no matter what!
Protagonist: I thank you for wanting to keep me safe. But sometimes it’s good to step outside of my comfort zone if I really want to grow and improve. Can you give me space to make my own decisions – even if they end up being a mistake?
Fear: I will try to back off. But I can’t promise anything.
This is just one small example of what your dialogue might look like. I’ve written before about the benefits of creating a conversation between your positive self and negative self, this is just a more specific version of that.
Identify your supporting characters
Of course every story has supporting characters. A protagonist rarely overcomes their challenges completely on their own, instead they rely on other characters along the way to help guide them.
Batman depended on help from Robin. Harry Potter depended on help from Hermione and Ron. Dorothy depended on help from the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man. Most protagonists have people in their lives to help support them and push them forward.
Take a moment and ask yourself: Who are the supporting characters in your story? Family, friends, teachers, or other role models? How do they bring out the best in you? How do they help you on your journey?
Often times even just reminding ourselves of the supporting characters in our lives can give us a sense of relief and remind us that we aren’t alone in this.
Imagine a climax or resolution
Behind every antagonist in our stories, there’s potential for growth and improvement. Now that we have a better idea of the current chapter in your life, it’s time to think about how the climax of your story might unfold.
What would an ideal climax look like in your current situation? Write down a short 5-7 sentence summary of an ideal event or situation where the protagonist finally defeats their antagonist.
If your story was a movie, this would be the key scene everyone is waiting for. What would happen? How does the protagonist overcome their obstacle? And how does the protagonist come out a better person at the end of the day?
For example, if it’s a love story about overcoming fear, then an ideal scene may be the high school student who finally finds the courage to ask his crush on a date, and she says yes!
Now imagine what the climax would look like if things didn’t go exactly as planned.
Write a second version of the climax where the protagonist doesn’t get their ideal, but still takes the experience and grows from it. What would happen? How does the protagonist come out a better person at the end of the day?
Maybe the high school student finally works up the courage to ask his crush out on a date, and she rejects him in front of everyone. However, the student finds out that he had it in him to take a chance, and later finds another date who gives him a chance.
We don’t always get picture perfect endings to our stories, but that doesn’t mean there are no lessons or morals to takeaway from them. Being able to identify growth even when things don’t go exactly as planned is key to finding new meaning to our stories.
Use other story elements
Here are other story elements mentioned in Step Out of Your Story that I didn’t get to touch on. These can also play a big influence on how we tell our stories:
- Tone – Pay attention to the words and phrases you choose to use when telling your story. Does it feel more cheerful and optimistic, or dark and gloomy? The way we tell our stories can play a big role in the feelings we takeaway from them.
- Motifs – Look back on past chapters in your life and compare them to your current chapter. Are there any themes or motifs that seem to keep coming back up? Why do you think this is?
- Symbolism – If you had to choose a symbol or object that represented an empowering idea in your current chapter, what would it be? How can you integrate this symbol into your story?
- Metaphors – Metaphors can also play a powerful role in how we describe our lives and how we frame our experiences. Here’s more on the metaphors we live by.
- Epilogue – Wrap up the current chapter of your story by summarizing what will likely happen in the next chapter of your life. Looking into your near future is a good way to prepare your mind for it.
There are more story elements we can use to improve our own stories and change the way we tell them.
At the end of the day, the meanings of our lives change depending on the stories we choose to tell ourselves. While we can’t change the facts behind the events that have happened to use, we can change the way we see them and how they fit into our life story.
Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life is a great book if you want to learn more about how to tell your own story in an empowering and insightful way. I highly recommend it to anyone who is wanting to reframe their life.
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