Our lives are a story. There are characters, conflicts and resolutions. There is joy and pain, comedy and drama. There is mystery and adventure. How we tell our tales, and thereby how we see ourselves, plays a huge role in how we live our lives. Because perception is everything.
If we view a failure as a stepping stone or an opportunity for growth, this is very different than viewing it as a billboard shouting our inadequacy. We will likely make very different decisions depending on which narrative we choose.
Right now I’m reading the fantastic book Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW. Schneiderman is a psychotherapist, columnist and workshop facilitator in New York City.
Her book, she writes, “is built around a series of structured writing exercises designed to help you reimagine yourself as the hero of your unfolding story with the power to reclaim your personal narrative through choice and voice.” She helps readers view our lives as objective observers. This is vital. Because when we step back, we gain perspective. We move out of the mud — thick with self-criticism, insults and insecurities.
As Schneiderman writes in Step Out of Your Story, “Stuck in the same old story, many of us remain so entrenched in tales of victimization and martyrdom that we can scarcely imagine an alternate, positive or redemptive reading of the text of our lives. Perhaps because we have been taught to view life through one particular lens, we simply don’t see other, more inspiring versions of our tale that could liberate us.”
Today, I’m sharing several exercises from Schneiderman’s book, which can help us start creating more inspiring versions of our story. As she notes, the intention isn’t to write well or create pretty sentences. Instead, it’s to discover ourselves.
Playing with Perspective
According to Schneiderman, “Third-person narrative uses the pronouns ‘he,’ ‘she’ and ‘they,’ and it is used when the narrator describes someone else’s story, often from a neutral or all-knowing perspective.”
Writing our stories from this perspective is key, because when we gain distance from our stories, we gain insight — without feeling emotionally overwhelmed. We’re also able to view our challenges and what we’ve overcome with more compassion. (In the book Schneiderman shares research that substantiates the benefits of using the third-person narrative, such as this study.)
Schneiderman suggests writing about a recent time that you did something you didn’t want to do but did because it was in your best interest. First write the paragraph in the first-person voice. Then write a new paragraph describing the same chore in the third-person voice.
How did it feel to write in this way? Did you notice any differences between the two paragraphs in what you revealed or what you learned?
Getting to Know the Protagonist (i.e., you)
Naturally, you are the main character in your story. In another exercise Schneiderman suggests creating a character sketch.
As she writes, this is simply “a technique that helps authors flesh out the personalities and interior world of the protagonist before embarking on a novel. It involves answering a series of imaginative questions that paint a holographic picture of how the protagonist might evolve over the course of the plotline.”
Schneiderman notes that there are four essential questions when creating your character sketch. She also shares a list of additional questions (I’ve included some examples in parentheses). Again, she suggests responding to these questions in the third person. Make your character sketch a Cliff Notes version or what you’d find on a book flap. Or just respond to the questions.
- Who is the protagonist? (What’s their age, location, marital status and other basic facts? What are some wounds they have healed? What wounds still need attention? What are some of their personality quirks?)
- What does the protagonist want? (What’s a secret dream they wouldn’t tell you about? What’s driving this desire, such as the need for unconditional love or security? What do they really need? Does this differ from what they want?)
- What is getting in the way? (What tangible obstacles are getting in the way? What emotional obstacles are getting in the way, such as worry or fear?)
- What’s at stake? (What will the protagonist gain if they overcome the obstacles? Who or what do they care about most? What would happen if the protagonist lets obstacles stand in their way of what they want?)
Every day we spin stories. This is how we make sense of our lives. The key is to pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves and to others. The key is to remember that we are the narrators, and we can spin these stories in any direction we want. That is, we can create stories that serve us and support us. We can reframe our stories so that mistakes, failures and tragedies become obstacles we can overcome and lessons we can learn to grow and flourish.
Each of us has this power.
Stay tuned for this weekend’s post, which will feature Schneiderman’s suggestions for accessing our inner superhero when we’re dealing with tough times.