Who Tells Your Story?

Dec 21, 2018

By Ben Herzig, PsyD

“You have no control/ who lives/ who dies/ who tells your story.” That’s an oft-cited lyric from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which chronicles the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton and tells his story – beyond the basic facts that most Americans know. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, stated that prior to reading a biography, “I knew about as much as anyone did about Alexander Hamilton…I knew that he was on our ten-dollar bill in the States and that he died in a duel. You know, you learn that in high school, and that’s about it.”

A different narrative emerges in the show’s portrayal of Hamilton. He is seen as unyielding, a hard-charging immigrant who overcomes childhood tragedy and ascends to the highest levels of government through sheer tenacity and his way with words. From an early age, he sees his relentless nature as a saving grace, and his decisions are driven by that self-image, sometimes to his own detriment. Hamilton, like all of us, has beliefs about himself and the world around him, and throughout the show these beliefs and his subsequent choices come to define his story.

The pride – and prejudice – of authorship

Ideally, the beliefs we have about ourselves share some positive themes. We’d like a set of self-perceptions that affirm our dignity, provide us with hope that we can meaningfully improve our futures, and help us see the good in the world around us. Aaron Beck, whose theories of cognitive therapy led to the development of several evidence-based treatments, believes that depression was essentially composed of the inverse of these perceptions, in that we have pessimistic views of ourselves, the world, and the future.

When our self-image is healthy, it can be a source of pride and satisfaction. We notice the moments in our lives that confirm this line of thinking, and we come to see it as the general rule, while our setbacks are seen as exceptions to that rule. We become secure in our willingness to improve without being too self-critical. The positive traits that we see in ourselves are often reinforced, because we notice when those qualities benefit us, which makes us likelier to see even more opportunities to benefit from them as we go through life.

But what about when this thought process works against us? Picture a young man who has received messages from others, from an early age, that his emotions aren’t important, or that his needs don’t matter. He comes to believe that he has little self-worth and that other people aren’t trustworthy. When something unexpectedly positive happens in his life, such as being asked out on a date by someone he’s interested in, his excitement is tainted by pessimism. When the relationship doesn’t work out, he thinks to himself, “Well, that’s the story of my life.”

Our co-authors

These stories, both positive and negative, aren’t created in a vacuum. They consist of plenty of input from other people, not all of whom are exactly invited into our lives. When we have supportive family and friends, who affirm what we like about ourselves, they are welcome contributors. If, on the other hand, our most important relationships have involved dishonesty, manipulation, or even trauma, we may have trouble understanding how to function within positive relationships or perhaps question our worthiness to have them in the first place.

Culture and society help craft these stories as well. We’re sent messages about what families are supposed to look like, which types of bodies are beautiful, and which religious beliefs and practices are tolerable. When our stories take into account the world around us, do we see a society in which people who look like us, love like us, and worship like us are valued? The answers to these questions affect not just how we see ourselves, but also the access that society allows us to meaningful life opportunities that might help improve our self-perception.

Getting stuck

The main obstacle is that these stories don’t shift easily. They often have strong foundations that have been built up over time. It requires energy and patience to chip away at these negative core beliefs. The rapid paradigm shifts, or “a-ha moments,” that swing hundreds of years of scientific thinking don’t tend to occur as easily when it comes to how we think about ourselves.

John Adams, one of Hamilton’s revolutionary contemporaries, once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Our stories can be stubborn too. When the “facts” we use to compose them are in fact not fully supported by the “evidence,” we risk getting stuck in problem-saturated stories.

Re-writing the story

If our personal narratives are composed of negative thinking, then the process of re-writing the story might involve us actively challenging those thought patterns. This can be aided by working with a psychotherapist who can point out the ways in which our stories have gone off script and are bringing us down. Hamilton, for example, might see himself as unfortunate given the circumstances of his early life, and continue telling himself that misfortune will always find him. He chooses instead to see his story as one of resilience.

And what about the young man portrayed earlier, who sees the dissolution of a potentially promising relationship as “the story of my life.” How could we help him put together the pieces of his life differently and more adaptively? In all likelihood, for all the setbacks he has noticed in his life, there have also been a number of victories that have gone under his radar, while he’s been focusing on disappointment. Helping him to recognize his thinking traps is a way to start.

So, who controls who tells your story? You do, but in doing so you’re affected by your relationships, the norms of your culture and society, and your personal history. When these stories become problematic, therapy can be helpful in bringing truer and more helpful alternatives to life that are empowering and self-affirming. That’s the story.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Herzig, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in independent practice in Weston, MA, and Cambridge, MA. He is an expert at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a past reviewer for the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development and the Journal of Muslim Mental Health.