In his book, The Healing Power of Stories (1996), Taylor said, “You are your stories.” Most of us have had life experiences we’ve not fully explored, much less understood. The ones that cause us the most trouble are the ones that lead to such feelings as anxiety, fear, depression, or excessive anger and grief. In The Untrue Story of You (2014), Hubbard suggested how these untrue stories about us evolve and interfere with our feeling fully alive.
McAdams, in The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (2006), explored hundreds of life stories. He discovered that people who told their stories as “redemptive” stories healed faster than people who did not look for a silver lining. “Redeem” can mean a method of overcoming “the faults or bad aspects of [something].” The redemptive self-stories McAdams writes about were metaphoric; they had a liberating attitude that conveyed positive outcomes, such as, “good can come from bad.” These self-stories were infused with feelings of hope, confidence, perseverance, determination, and support. They resulted in healthier and more mature emotional lives.
My daughter, Hilary, struggled with a heart condition from diagnosis at age seven till open-heart surgery at 28. As her condition worsened, so did our stories about her health and well-being. Neither Hilary nor I fully explored – much less understood – enough about the drama we each quietly created in our minds. We also didn’t realize how we expressed this drama in our stories about her condition.
At the beginning, her diagnosis was labeled “benign.” There was “nothing to worry about.” When she was 10, however, her cardiologist told me privately that her valve problem was actually very serious. A young patient of his, with a condition just like Hilary’s, “had died from it.” Frankly, I could have done without knowing this last bit of information. From that point, my stories changed dramatically. They went from “Everything is alright” to “She might die.” I cried for three days.
I don’t remember the non-redemptive stories that ran through my mind during those dark days, but I do remember that I knew I had to pull myself together for Hilary’s sake. The stories I was telling myself were terrifying to me and certainly would be to her. I had to find the strength to reframe these gloomy stories to redemptive ones. I knew that whatever stories I told myself, even in the quiet of my mind, would be communicated to her. Somehow, I began to create stories of hope, confidence, perseverance, and determination. She did, too. We started sharing our stories with each other. They were constantly evolving as we continued our search to find that elusive silver lining, the lemonade made from lemons, the positive outcome. We took many twists and turns along our path to that final day of her open-heart surgery.
Her surgery went stupendously. Her mitral valve was repaired and works as well as any person her age with a healthy heart. (To read the full story of Hilary’s and my journey, see Through the Land of Oz: Self-Advocacy in Today’s Health Care System)
Consider how your own stories evolved. Have you already converted difficult stories into redemptive ones? And if you haven’t yet done so, how might you start?
For a perspective on how other family stories can come about, read psychology writer JB Allyn’s post, Birth Order and How Family Stories Evolve.
Hubbard, Bryan (2014) The Untrue Story of You
McAdams, Dan P. (2006) The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By
Taylor, Daniel (1996) The Healing Power of Stories
Note: In this post, the author, Diane H. Engelman, is not directly or indirectly giving psychological or medical advice. Nor is she prescribing the use of any technique to treat medical, physical, or emotional problems. The author intends only to offer information of a general nature that may assist you in seeking personal growth. If you choose to use any of the information the author presents, she assumes no responsibility for your choices or actions.