Nothing is more natural to human experience than story telling. A timeline is a unique way to tell your life story, a contemplative exercise that provides an opportunity to capture the positive and negative shifts of your life on a single trajectory – from where you may also choose to create new, potentially healing shifts in meaning.
In Part 1 we looked at the benefits, as well as the Phase 1 and 2 steps of putting together your timeline on paper.
In this post, we probe more deeply, with Phase 3 questions designed to deepen your awareness and knowledge of certain aspects of your life story, and how past experiences shape the present; and Phase 4 questions that open space to better understand and perhaps to consciously reinterpret past experiences (Phase 4), potentially creating new shifts in meaning and conscious healing action.
Phase 3 – Deepen awareness of self and life
Phase 3 questions open space for deeper reflections, a process started in Phase 2 of growing your awareness in how certain events and key decisions influenced the direction of your life and character at present.
Awareness is key. Making conscious what is subconscious in itself activates dynamic processes of neural integration in your brain and body, such as growth of new neurons and changes or expansion of existing connections between neurons.
The goal here is to use the timeline you put together in Phases 1 and 2 to deepen your awareness, more specifically, to develop your capacity to consciously observe how past experiences and responses shape the present, and additionally, to understand, perhaps even to appreciate, the value of past events, even negative ones, in strengthening who you are today.
Looking at your timeline, in a notebook or journal, write down your responses to some or all of the following thoughts and questions (or similar ones):
- Identify any negative turns, big or small. Reflect on what you may have gained or learned. Consider any redemptive value and how this might have contributed value to your life.
- Identify key decisions that, in retrospect, were fruitful. In each case, what made the choice effective? What positive results did it produce? How did you respond at the time (thoughts/feelings) to each decision/results? At what point did you know this decision was a ‘good’ one?
- Identify choices that didn’t turn out well. In each case, what made this a poor choice? What were the costs? How did you respond to each (thoughts/feelings in response to choice/outcomes)? When did you conclude this to be a poor choice?
- Which decision-making strategies work? Which do not?
- What are key differences, and similarities, can you identify between the ‘strategies’ you’ve used to make decisions that are effective versus ineffective?
- Look more closely, see if you can identify the ‘steps’ you take (patterns of thought/feeling/action) think/feel/act) in executing effective strategies; do the same for the ineffective ones.
Phase 3 questions can also be helpful in fostering mutual understanding and teamwork between partners in couple relationships, or a group of friends, extended family members, business associates, and so on.
Phase 4 – Create new understandings, shifts in meanings
Want to dig even deeper? Your thoughts form an internal dialogue that has a powerful effect of every aspect of your life. Old patterned thinking reinforces what you already think and believe, which is not okay where it also unnecessarily activates your body’s survival defenses.
Once you’ve explored Phase 3 questions, you need to re-write some aspects of the story of your life in ways that help you better understand yourself as a being who not only seeks to find meanings and connections, but also is a creator of meanings.
A cognitive shift in thinking patterns is not enough, however. In fact, it is impossible to make cognitive shifts without new emotional shifts in meanings. When you make a genuine shift in how you think or act in a certain situation, this produces a shift in attitude, meaning it directly effects changes in your body’s physiological-emotional states.
You need to develop your ability to make conscious shifts in how you emotionally experience certain events by how you interpret them, in other words, what meanings you ascribe.
How vital is that? Quite! You absolutely need a way to be in charge of your body, when you are triggered, so that your body does not unnecessarily trigger your survival response. And the right questions are often key.
When these shifts are positive and empowering, though they may be ‘uncomfortable’ (especially at first), they allow you to stretch in new uncomfortable directions, i.e., to allow yourself to get to know yourself, to care and to fully accept yourself, warts and graces with compassion. Simultaneously, your brain is tasked to form new neural patterns and connections.
Ready to create new shifts in meanings? Once you’ve explored Phase 3 questions, look again at your timeline, this time writing down your reflections and responses to some or all of the following questions of Phase 4:
- What strikes you or stands out in looking over your timeline?
- Can you identify any ‘stages’ or ‘turning points’ in your timeline?
- Is your timeline crowded in some places and spacious in others? What does this mean (to you)?
- Is there a ‘center’ or a central theme (or two) in your timeline and life, overall?
- Can you identify a driving question in your mind that, consciously or subconsciously, has driven your actions and choices throughout life? If so, how did this shape you, your choices or events?
- What were your most pressing emotional drives, or the primary reasons or purpose beneath your decisions?
- Who are/were the most significant people in your life? How?
- What are the milestones or markers associated with each stage? What does that mean (to you)?
- Do milestones mostly involve people, accomplishments, events, etc?
- Is there anything you’ve omitted or left out, i.e., people, accomplishments, events, etc.?
- What if anything would you change or add, if you could? Also, how would each of these changes or additions affect your life, or even change its present course?
- Considering your decision making strategies (Phase 3), what changes, if any, might further enhance your decision-making strategies, knowing what you know today?
- How would your timeline be different had you drawn it in a different stage of your life?
- How would other significant people in your life draw your timeline differently?
- Continue to your future, where do you want to be in a year, 5 years, 10 years? What do you expect your future timeline will be. It helps to put it down on paper.
Reflect on the value of these and similar questions, in opening space for new connections, shifts in meaning, gems of insight, wisdom and other food for thought.
Be prepared, however. Such probing thoughts and structural changes to neural pathways of your brain cannot occur without some level of discomfort and stress. It is ‘supposed to be’ uncomfortable to reflect on these ideas. That’s your brain at work. (Similarly, it is supposed to be uncomfortable to run 7 miles in preparation for a half-marathon. That’s your body at work building strength and stamina.) It helps to remind yourself of this. You may find it helpful to think of these processes as gifts that can potentially free you from negative patterns or blocks than prevent you from more fully living your life, getting to know, understand and accept yourself better – and thus also developing the capacity to more deeply know and accept others, and so on.
On the other hand, if this exercise, at any point, produces intense or overwhelming feelings, stop what you’re doing. Instead, consider seeking the assistance of a professional therapist.
The choice is yours, and always there.
One’s life story is rich with meaning, and a useful way to capture those meanings, similar to having a snapshot of your entire life, is developing your personal timeline with a timeline exercise.
The quest for meaningful connection via telling and sharing stories is uniquely human. Whether we realize it or not, once we learn language, we become lifelong storytellers. We’re equipped with emotional drives to do so, that is, to meaningfully connect — to matter — in relation to others, which is all about developing our capacity to communicate and share our stories with one another.
The effectiveness of the timeline exercise, and questions similar to the above Phase 3 and 4 ones, rests in that they can help identify any fear-based thinking patterns that need to be challenged and replaced with new, more compassionate understandings of self and life – and others.
In addition to capturing these meanings, this exercise is an opportunity to accordingly shift the focus of how you relate, i.e., to your self, your life, your past, as well as your thoughts, emotions, needs, passions, wants, and so on. When you apply focused attention to these processes, it means you get to actually choose the specific changes you want to create in your brain and life.
Life is a lifelong process of telling your story, filling in the details as you go along, interpreting and reinterpreting the meanings. The personal lifeline exercise can be an amazing opportunity to take the reins as captain of your life, by taking key decisions out of the hands of your subconscious mind, and choosing instead to step into the role of conscious choice maker and captain of your life ship. It highlights how your life is shaped not just by the power of past events, but also by your expectations and beliefs about what possibilities the future holds.
Telling and re-telling your story is a process of interpreting and reinterpreting the meanings. Your life story is rich with meaning, and putting your timeline on paper can capture essential meanings, and bird’s eye view of your entire life.
It takes courage, however, to examine old ways of doing things, and then to consciously act in ways that liberate your mind from old stories – and to stand instead in the truth of your highest aspirations of who you yearn to be.
The power of the timeline exercise resides in using it to create positive, changes in your brain.
Creating a timeline of your life’s story is a process you can use to make new sense of your life, and the power of your choices, and grow the courage, integrity and compassion you need to take the reins of your body-mind emotional energies, to disallow them from ruling your life and to take the reins as the agent of your life. Thinking of yourself as a communicator, creator and choice maker opens up space and opportunities to create new shifts and healing meanings, a new reality.