As human beings, we are designed to tell stories. It's how we make sense of the world. Stories teach us lessons. Stories entertain us. Stories educate us. Stories are incredibly important and without them, we would lose a big part of what makes us human. Stories are beautiful. I am not talking in this blog about the kinds of stories we see in books or hear while we sit around a campfire. I'm talking about the story of our life that we are often told to "write" from a young age. This is the kind of story we try desperately to write and it can do more harm than good.
From a young age, children are asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It is considered healthy to have goals and aspirations; and for the most part, it is. Without even realizing it, we are given messages from our families and from society at large for what our life story is supposed to look like. What career we're supposed to have. How we're supposed to look as we age. What will make us happy and what won't. Where to travel to. How many kids to have. Ask anyone, mostly of any age, and they'll probably be able to tell you what they expect their life story to be. It may be a 4-year old saying, "I want to an astronaut when I grow up" or a 24-year old saying, "I want to get married by 30 and have two kids by the time I'm 35" (that was me, by the way). It may be a 54-year old saying, "I want to retire in 10 years and then go to Hawaii for a month." Again, this sounds all fine and good...right? Until the story we've been telling ourselves all this time doesn't happen. Then, what?
Well, this can be when a lot of questions, depression, and anxiety can set in. Because whether we like it or not, the life story that we write for ourselves may vastly differ from the way our life actually winds up being. For example, if you would have asked 5-year old me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you in no uncertain terms that I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I stuck to that goal all throughout my child because it was my passion. I danced 6 days a week all through high school and the life story I was writing for myself was that I would get into a ballet company when I was 18 years old and dance there until I retired (probably somewhere around age 35, like most dancers). After that, I didn't know my life story. That was all I had written. So you can imagine how devastating it was when I had to have a hip surgery at 17 years old and stop dancing. My life story that I had been writing this whole time was now useless. The story couldn't end the way I wanted it to. I had to re-write it.
I have a friend who moved out of state to live with her boyfriend. She started writing a story for herself: they would get engaged, get married, start having children soon after (an all-too-common story that most of us have started writing at one time or another). But when the relationship grew stagnant, it ended. And now, she's having to re-write her story, which means starting from scratch. She will soon have to figure out moving back to Washington state, where she will live, what she will do for work, let alone wondering when she may find love again. When relationships end, it's a common catalyst for re-writing your life story. When I had to stop dancing that was my first re-writing and then when my relationship of 8 years ended, that was the second re-writing (and I'm sure I'll have many more re-writings to come as life keeps unfolding). There could be any number of events that result in a re-write. I know someone who lost his son to suicide last year; he's figuring out re-writing his story. The company you've worked for for the last 15 years lays you off unexpectedly; time to re-write your story. Your child is born with special needs; time to re-write your story. You're severely injured in a car accident; time to re-write your story.
I believe that we are happiest when we're not writing our life story. Don't get me wrong: set goals for yourself. Make plans. Have dreams. But don't expect things to turn out how you want them to because the truth is this: life throws us curveballs all the time. And then we're faced with two choices: to cling to the story we've been writing in our heads all this time or to re-write it with an understanding that we don't know how it's going to end now. My actual life story has turned out so much better in real life than the story I was writing for myself. I didn't write a story in which I became a therapist, for example. And I see it all the time with my clients where their actual life story does turn out vastly different than the one they had written themselves (though they also typically decide they like the real life story better, too).
The name of my practice is "Next Chapter Counseling" for a reason. A time will come for you (if it hasn't already) where your story will need to be re-written. As you reach that point and face decisions about what your next chapter will look like, stay open-minded, grieve the loss of the story you've told yourself all this time, and read on for what unfolds next.