You Are a Living, Breathing Story

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” – Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

You have often heard the term “life story” and know you have one. But what if there’s more to it? What if, instead of simply having a Story, you are a Story – a living, breathing story? And one that is always capable of positive change at that?

Stop and think about this for a minute: Even with little awareness of the process, over your lifetime you have woven together innumerable thoughts, experiences, observations, and sensations to create the Story that is the “I” you inhabit right now. Just as an author creates her characters’ reality with the words she commits to the page, you create your own experience of reality depending on how you think about it.

Furthermore, your thoughts constantly create reactions and responses within your body, including your brain, causing changes to your physical being. In a very real sense, what you make of your Story makes you: Yes, you are a living, breathing, ever-changing, interactive Story. The wonderful thing is, you can explore your Story at any time to discover how to be less its captive and more of an activator.

The Story you have is your personal account of who and what you believe yourself to be, which determines how you experience life.

While it is based on the actual events and experiences of your life, your Story actually springs from the explanations you invent to describe them and their effects on you. “We tell some of the best stories to ourselves. Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized,” says Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

The events of your life are indeed real: getting married, a serious illness or injury to you or a loved one, having a child, bankruptcy, taking a vacation, cooking a meal, reading a book. The “fictionalizing” happens in the explanations you invent to explain the event to yourself. Defining your experience in a particular way, as opposed to another, makes all the difference in your Story. For instance, believing that illness is a punishment from God, or that it is caused by the food you eat, or that you are doomed to come down with it because “people in my family get this” creates vastly different perspectives on how you feel about the illness and how you might choose to deal with it.

And then there is the Story you are, the living, breathing Story, which arises from the mind-body or the body-mind—the intimate, inseparable, instantaneous connections between your thoughts and your body’s reaction to those thoughts.

This process is so innate and automatic that, most of the time, you don’t even realize it’s at work. Every second, your thoughts are triggering physiological changes in your body that affect your mental and physical health; basically, what you think affects how you feel emotionally and physically, even to the point of changing your brain structure and altering your DNA expression. In this way, you embody your stories—who and what you believe yourself to be—and so become them. But as you discover more about your Story, you can learn to use this ability on purpose and with awareness, becoming more empowered and adding more joy and ease to your life as a result.

Everything is Story.

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”  -The Talmud

You cannot exist outside of story: Just as fish live immersed in water without realizing it, so you live immersed in story, unaware that it is everything, including “our identities, our selves, our meanings and purposes, our theories about the world,” according to narrative psychiatrist Lewis Mehl-Madrona in Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story.

As if your personal stories alone were not enough to create your living, breathing Story, you live steeped in the cultural stories of your time and place, including issues like politics, gender, religion, economics, aging, money, and history, all of which play unimaginably complex roles in your Story. Even “America” is a story, and the America you live in and support depends on which story you believe. As James Baldwin wrote, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do.” (The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985)

The Science

You can’t you survive without your story-making ability. Without it, you would be doomed to unending chaos and confusion as your brain continually sought out new explanations for your experiences instead of relying on what you already know—or, more accurately, what you think you know. As writer and spiritual teacher Mark Matousek explains, “[Story] is how we brave existence on a mysterious planet. To cope with mystery, we create story. Having no idea who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, or what life means, we adapt by giving names to things and pretending the names and stories are real.” In other words, most of your Story is fictional, created by your brain to help you understand what you believe is happening and what it might mean. It is what you say it is.

The essential story-making function of your brain is so entwined with your very existence that the stories you tell (and thus live out) create physical changes in your brain as you move through various experiences, think about them, and experience the emotions connected to them. This ability of your brain to undergo change throughout your life in response to environment, thoughts, emotions, and behavior is called neuroplasticity. As Jo Marchand writes in Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, “Ultimately, science is saying that rather than passively experiencing the world around us, as most of us assume happens, to a large extent we construct and control that experience. ‘Our bodies are not only receptors of information,’ says placebo researcher Ted Kaptchuk. ‘We create the information.’”

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As the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote hundred of years ago, “The words you speak become the house you live in.”

This also includes your thoughts, which are language-based and are the way you communicate with yourself. These words create our experience of reality, and in a very real way, when we change the words we use, we can change our lives. Recent neuroscience research by Dr. Andrew Newberg shows this to be true. (Words Can Change Your Brain)

Your story-making ability is your superpower. The good news is: you (mostly unconsciously) invented the old stories that have created your experience of reality to date—so you can consciously create new ones that serve you better. When you use this superpower thoughtfully and with awareness, you can transform your experience of reality, even if the events of that reality do not change. To do this, you need to be curious about your Story and open to listening to what it has to tell you. This practice will offer insights and discoveries as to how you might enhance your life.

Become An Activator of Your Story

“Maybe it’s time to give up what you think you know.” – Dee Schneider

My Story changed in a drastic—and good—way after a friend said those words to me about 17 years ago. For some reason, they struck me in just the right way at exactly the right time, and I was able to change a long-standing, painful pattern that had kept me unhappy for several decades. When I finally saw this part of my Story and was able to change my thinking about it, my life truly did change for the better. When I realized I no longer had to believe my old thoughts, I became more of an activator of my Story instead of its captive.

“Okay, how do I become an activator of my own story?”

There are various ways to become more of an activator of your Story. My preferred method begins with journaling, where I can turn nebulous thoughts to tangible objects on the page and so “hear” myself in ways not possible with any other method. Then I can use the insights and discoveries that arise to explore and reflect on my Story and its patterns with fresh eyes and an open heart. Many times over the years, a surprising aha! has popped to the surface that caused me to shift  in new directions that eventually changed my Story in large and small ways.

Now that I know about Story, and how everything is story, I see my entire life—in fact, the whole world—in a new light. Many doors that would have remained closed to me, or even invisible, opened as I gave up what I thought I knew and changed my Story accordingly.

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Two recommended journaling books: Journal to the Self: Twenty-Two Paths to Personal Growth by Kathleen Adams (1990, Grand Central Publishing) and Your Brain on Ink: A Workbook on Neuroplasticity and the Journal Ladder by Deborah Ross and Kathleen Adams (2016, Rowman & Littlefield)

Barbara Stahura, certified journal facilitator, began her journaling work in 2007 by guiding people with brain injury and family caregivers in harnessing the power of journaling for healing and well-being. Today she presents journaling programs on a number of topics under the umbrella of A Living, Breathing Story: Journaling to Discover Your Empowered Self. She has presented journaling programs for state Brain Injury Association/Alliance conferences, the National Guard Bureau and the Arizona National Guard, people with cancer, equine-facilitated therapeutic groups, Ivy Tech Community College, University of Southern Indiana, and elsewhere. Co-author of the acclaimed After Brain Injury: Telling Your Story, the first journaling book for people with brain injury, Barbara is a member of the faculty of the Therapeutic Writing Institute. http://www.barbarastahura.com