How to Rethink Negative Memories and Improve Your Emotional HealthLizzie Heiselt
We all have stories we always tell: some that are about how we miraculously survived the year we spent living in the sketchy part of town, others that explain why we are never, ever, ever going to eat a bowl of oatmeal again, and more that we tell just to make people laugh. But are some of the stories we tell ourselves holding us back? Putting us in a role of powerlessness or sticking us in a cycle of self-destructive thoughts?
For many, many years I had a story about how I was the tag-along sister. My sister’s friends were my friends, and my friends were her friends. I thought it explained why I always felt more comfortable around people a few years older than me than around my same-age peers. More recently I realized there was a subtler, more malicious storyline lying underneath that one that was killing my self-confidence and causing me all sorts of anxiety in social situations, and that was that people were not really interested in me — unless I was with somebody else: my sister, my husband, a more popular friend — anybody more interesting than I was (which, I was sure, was anybody).
The story had burrowed deep into my psyche, and for a while my tactic in dealing with it was simply to accept it and try to “own” it. Like maybe even if I wasn’t the star of the show, then I could certainly go hard for best supporting actress, right?
But there is another way out of those story lines in which we always end up defeated, failing, or falling short: re-write the script. Tim Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, says re-thinking your life story and re-examining your memories through a different lens can help strengthen your emotional health.
Wilson claims that the technique he stumbled upon nearly 30 years ago can be done in 45 minutes, compared to what a therapist does over the course of years. According to NPR, back in the early 1980s Wilson was attempting to help some of his struggling students do better in school. For 40 minutes, he had them read accounts of other students who had struggled at first but then eventually improved. This, he found, nudged them to try harder and to change their story from “I’m bad at school” to “Everyone fails at first.” Other struggling students the control group were not given any nudge. Three years later, Wilson found that those who had read the stories of improvement were not only more likely to have improved themselves but were also more likely than the control group to still be in school.
Since then, evidence has mounted that writing out your story and the parts of your life that trouble and confuse you can help you make sense of them and, eventually, put them to rest. Wilson says that writing about something for just 15 minutes a day, 4 days in a row, is enough to improve mental and emotional health so you can be more productive, more creative, and happier.
This isn’t about actually changing your memories, or “mis-remembering,” it’s simply about looking at things from a different point of view, changing your perspective on why things happened the way they did or why you feel the way you do about them. I realized that for a long time I basically looked for evidence that supported the story that people weren’t interested in me, and I hid behind it, using it as an excuse not to talk to others or to stay in the corners in social situations. Now I am trying to edit my story so that I feel free to step into the spotlight a little bit more and don’t feel like I’m tied to someone else for support or acceptance. So far, I feel like it is working. I like this new story a lot better.
Do you have “story lines” in your life that you’d like to re-write and see from a different perspective? Do you think writing would help you get past your hang-ups?