This article was last updated July 8, 2023.
I recently watched the movie Zoolander, which I had seen long ago and had never revisited. One of my favorite moments came when Zoolander, the title character, says the following:
I was recently reminded of this quote when I watched a TED Talk by writer Emily Esfahani Smith titled "There's More to Life than Being Happy." I mean, being happy is so hard, especially right now. Isn't that a worthy goal in and of itself?
Well, as it turns out, happiness is a pretty fleeting goal and one that's hard to sustain over the long term. During her research, Smith found that something a little more sustainable than happiness was the search for meaning. While happiness comes and goes, a meaningful life can help us to weather the storms of life while maintaining the capacity for happiness.
One of the four pillars Smith identified as essential for a meaningful life was Storytelling. According to Smith, the story we tell ourselves about our lives, our abilities, our character, and the people around us really shapes the way that we feel about ourselves and about our lives.
This resonated strongly with me. As a writer who is paid to tell stories and help people shape the story of themselves and their businesses, I know first-hand how a fresh perspective can renew your sense of who you are.
Meeting yourself for the very first time.
I frequently write bios for clients both old and new. When I do so, I see first-hand the difference a new set of eyes can make in shaping the way we see ourselves. I often have agents and brokers -- distinguished professionals with decades of experience -- respond in disbelief when they read the first draft of their new bio.
Is that really me?
I sound so important!
Are you sure this is right?
You got all of that from what I sent you?
Who is SHE?
While it's kind of funny -- and a testament to the truth that most of us are strangers to ourselves -- it's also kind of sad to me. I think our self-concept is so important, so to see people with so little sense of their own worth and accomplishment is sometimes frustrating.
"YES!" I want to say, "That's you! You're freakin' awesome! Own it!"
Five Ways to Reframe the Narrative
Thus, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about our lives can make an important difference in the way that we experience life -- and the way that we live it. But how do we change our existing, unhealthy stories? Here are five tips.
Connect with the current story.
For a long time, I was transitioning out of teaching, which was my career for almost twenty years, through random freelance work and eventually into content writing. Along the way, I had gotten my real estate license, working primarily behind the scenes in marketing and contracts while my teammate handled more of the client work.
One evening I was at a restaurant with some friends and was introduced to some of their friends who were there. When they asked me what I did for a living, on impulse I said, "I'm a writer." It was the first time I had ever said that.
You see, even though I already made my living as a writer, I hadn't yet connected to it. I still thought of myself as a teacher in transition or a real estate agent dabbling in content creation. To me, writers all lived in New York and wrote Very Important Things like novels and plays. Saying the words "I'm a writer" put me in touch with the reality of my life and my purpose.
Maybe you need to talk out your story with a friend or counselor. Maybe you need to journal to take the measure of who you are and what you're doing. However you choose to do it, you need to connect to who you are right now -- not two years ago or two relationships ago or two jobs ago.
Revise without blame or shame.
When we process our story, there's sometimes the tendency to explain why the current story is the current story. Think of the difference between "I'm divorced" and "My husband left me for another woman." While the same person may be able to tell both of those stories, they are radically different in tone and effect.
In the same way, people may talk about who they are and what they do by talking about their troubled childhood or about mistakes they have made in their lives. By framing their story with another story — absentee father, high school dropout, teenage pregnancy — people subtly cast blame on others or on themselves for the way things have turned out for them.
When you are reframing your story, drop those elements that you may tell automatically in favor of keeping the focus on you. This is who I am. This is what I do. These are my plans for the future. Say what matters and stop trying to excuse or explain away the things you don't like about yourself.
In the process of revising your story in this way, you'll stop being a victim or a ne'er-do-well or a mess. You'll know yourself and define yourself on your own terms and under your own steam.
Embrace the power of progress.
Around the time my older daughter turned 10, I began looking at ways that I could start a company. I knew that as a schoolteacher, my options for financial progress were limited at best. In the years that followed, I planned or tried all of the following:
small events caterer
educational product designer
curriculum database designer
pop culture blogger
real estate agent
Some of these never got beyond the planning and research stage. Others I poured plenty of time and effort into. In every case, I either lost interest or failed to pursue opportunities, underestimating the amount of time it would take to make any of these goals into realities.
I could look at that track record and think of myself as a failure. However, it never even occurred to me that they were failures. I learned something from everything I ever tried, and I'm still learning now.
I love what I do and I love my clients and the colleagues I talk to every day. It would be so easy for me to look back at the two decades I spent as a teacher and say, "What a waste of time." I never do that.
The time I spent teaching English, developing content for lectures and lessons, and coaching students on their writing is essential and integral to the work that I do every day. I literally could not do what I do without it.
Stop beating yourself up for the past and stop thinking of stepping stones as failures. Identify the ways in which your past experiences led you to your present reality and be thankful for each one.
Bonus? This will also allow you to look at your current circumstances in a new way, even when they're not ideal. Instead of wallowing in defeat, you'll be reminded that "this too shall pass" — and will no doubt make for a great story someday.
Reimagine the sequel.
Sometimes we get stuck in a trajectory that we've laid out long ago, forgetting that the story — and its next chapter — isn't yet fully written.
Maybe you never found "the one" and settled down. Maybe a marriage has ended. Maybe you've experienced a financial setback. Maybe your kids are on a path that is different than the one you had planned for them. Maybe your life is different than you had hoped it would be. The reason why any or all of these could cause you pain is due to their deviation from your expectation.
We don't only tell ourselves stories about our past. We also tell stories about our future. Where and when we'll retire. How we'll live. What we'll do. What life will be like. While that type of forecasting is valuable and envisioning your future is essential for goal-setting, sometimes things don't work out exactly as you planned.
If you remain in that place of cognitive dissonance and fail to integrate your changing reality, you'll always feel upset and dissatisfied. If, instead, you change the story and rewrite the sequel, you can find new sources of satisfaction and delight.
Just because things are different doesn't make them worse. That old story you used to tell about your future was just that -- a story. Tell a new one and you'll create a whole new way to understand and embrace your circumstances.
Continue to check in with yourself.
Who are you? What do you do? What matters to you? Are you still answering these questions the same way you did five, ten, or even twenty years ago? If so, it's probably time for you to check in with yourself and reframe your story.
My late mother, God rest her soul, was a great mother for a child. She never really got the hang of parenting an adult. One day, my daughters and I were visiting her house. I was 40-something with a Master's degree and a good job teaching in one of the most prestigious high schools in the country. In addition, I had two incredible children and a beautiful home that I was proud of.
We were getting ready for bed when she asked me, out of the blue, "Don't you regret that you didn't work harder in math? You really never did the homework like you were supposed to. Just think what you could have done if you had tried."
Bless her heart. In her mind, I wasn't the accomplished adult in front of her -- I was the screw-up teenager who was bad in math and failed Algebra 2. And in that moment, of course, I felt like that screw-up, too.
You see, that's the other problem with telling ourselves false, outdated stories. There are other characters in those stories and the way we see the story affects the way we see those characters. Telling ourselves old, upsetting stories keeps us stuck and prevents us from appreciating the people we love the most — even when they're standing right in front of us.
I hope that the story you're telling yourself, about yourself, your life, and those you love, is a good one. If it's not, if it needs work, do the work. Continue to write and rewrite as needed, then tell your story from the heart -- and don't forget to include the happy ending.