The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Self Awareness Jul 9, 2020

It was September 22nd, 2018. I was having a good evening at home before I fell and incurred a knee injury that would take months to heal and years to completely recover. I heard a popping sound from my left knee and a shrill cry escaped my mouth. I experienced minutes of extreme pain which I still feel sometimes when I reflect on the incidence. After moments of unceasing torment, my parents rushed to me. They were hastily trying to find out what went wrong. When they tried to help me walk an hour later, I could not even put my foot on the ground.

The next morning, I was taken to the hospital. After all the tests, the doctor found that I had torn my medial collateral knee ligament. I was prescribed some medicines along with the precautionary measures I needed to take. I was disappointed and sad at my state until the sky fell on me when I was told that I would probably be on bed rest for at least two months before could I resume my normal life. My eyes instantly filled with tears and for hours, I wasn’t able to process what I was told. When I came home, I had a major breakdown and my parents did all they could in that moment and the months that followed to support me, care for me, and make sure I healed day after day.

For weeks, I resented the fact that I had to walk on crutches. I turned bitter because I depended on others to take care of the smallest of my needs. I was not ready to accept the reality that lay ahead of me. I questioned life often, “What did I do to deserve this?” I felt isolated and disconnected because I couldn’t go to work. I was (and I still am) thankful for the unflinching support of my family, close friends, and colleagues who were there for me. But, the loss of autonomy had made me hopeless.

Two weeks into my bed rest when it all got too much to take—I started seeing how I was walking away from the kind of person I’ve always wanted to be—mindful, reflective, and empathetic. Since the accident, I had stopped meditating and journaling, both of which helped me work on my well-being for years. I had stopped reflecting. I didn’t even want to think about the emotional pain that I was going through after the accident, and of all the people—I had become the least kind to myself.

When I stopped running from my thoughts and feelings, did I realize how I was making my ‘narrative identity’—a contaminative one. Dan McAdams who is a psychologist at Northwestern University is an expert on this concept. He describes that a narrative identity is the internalized story which we create about ourselves based on our life experiences. McAdams says that an individual’s life story is not just simply based on the history of one’s life choices. Rather, we individuals make “narrative choices” based on the extraordinary events we experience, good and bad. Such experiences help us make sense of life and shape ourselves.

Based on our narrative choices, we tell two kinds of stories—redemptive and contaminative. The kind of stories that I told myself and my close ones when I was injured, were largely contaminative. Such stories make individuals interpret and express their lives as going from good to bad, and I believed this was true for my own life back then. People who narrate contaminative life stories, as McAdams has observed over the years, are less “generative,” or less driven to contribute to the lives of others. They’re also likely to be more stressed and anxious, and find their lives to not be meaningful.

Reflecting on these aspects, I soon felt that I needed to change my approach towards life. The kind of state I was in, there was no denying that I would experience negativity at times. But I also knew that if I continued to do so over a long period of time, it would change me for the worse. In the long-run it would make me incapable of making contributions to my work. This is when I started using the period of halt in my life as a period of reflection.

After three or fours weeks into my bedrest, I started revisiting pursuits and people that made my life meaningful. I took time to meditate, journal my thoughts and feeling, and reading books. In fact, I participated in a 30-day poetry with one of my best friends—it made me revive my creativity. I talked to friends I had lost touch with over time, and had conversations with some of my dearest people. I utilized my days in trying to reevaluate choices that didn’t add up to my life—ranging from decluttering my social media feed to decluttering my life. I also kept in touch with my beloved people from work and it gave me a sense of hope that the phase would get over before I know. Soon the agony and angst that I had toward life, started transforming into meaningful engagement and gratitude. This change in the choice of my narrative, made me view my own life from a redemptive lens.

As opposed to the contaminative story, people tell redemptive stories about their lives when they see it going from bad to good. Based on several years of his studies, McAdams has found that behind redemptive stories are people who find their lives to be meaningful—as defined by growth, communion and agency. Such stories allow individuals to see their lives in a constructive way. They have a sense of autonomy over their lives, they feel loved, they find it easier to let go and they redeem the obstacles that they face through the good outcomes they experience.

To be able to tell redemptive stories, sometimes all you need is one thing to hang onto that gives your life its meaning. Maybe you already know what it is, maybe you don’t. It can be anything from a relationship, to a pursuit that you most admire, to the work that you do, to that practice that makes you the most alive. Even at times that are most unfavorable, you need to stick to that one thing which gives your lives its agency and makes you better as a being. One such agency in my life has been my work, without which, I can say that I would be a completely different person. My work is a junction that allows me to learn every day and connect my life experience to what I create, for which, I am more than grateful.

Ideally, we’d all want to make positive ‘narrative choices’ and we’d all want to tell redemptive stories, but speaking for my experience—it’s definitely easier said than done. It needs grit, gratitude, and an optimal amount of effort every day to be able to see our own lives in a redemptive light. As we live our lives in the restricting and social distancing times of the COVID-19 a lot of us might be experiencing loss of autonomy, strained relationships, unproductive work indulgence and sometimes, existential dread. It is up to us to take this period either in a contaminative way by blowing all the bad things that are happening out of proportion, or whether we’d like to see ways through we can grow through this period—even if to a small extent.

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Aprajita Jha

Aprajita Jha is Linchpin at My Emotions Matter and can be reached at [email protected]

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