Human beings learn through stories. Stories are how we understand and how we remember. Because a plot consists of our core beliefs and assumptions, we notice and remember what fits into established storylines—whether good or bad, fact or fantasy. We then create conversational narratives as well as life narratives according to that plot.

The dramas of everyday life do not simply affect us, they are created by us. As adults, we are the sole authors of our own life stories. Whether we prove to be the heroes of our own life stories, as Dickens’s David Copperfield put it, is up to us. Every day begins a fresh page.

Yet so often the story closest to us, our own, is the most difficult to read.

How can we tell our own life stories to ourselves in order to know which aspects of the narrative work and which need to change? How can we identify what is missing, change an attitude, or generate happiness? How can we shift our understanding to see life not as a multiple-choice test with certain predetermined answers, but as an open-ended essay question?


What Are Your Story’s Themes?

A story is a system for holding together facts. A story makes things make sense. Defense lawyers know this and little kids standing next to broken vases know this. In each and every moment, we actively construct what we think, feel, and experience according to the beliefs and assumptions we’ve chosen for ourselves. Those basic beliefs and assumptions tell us what to look for, how to perceive and process experiences. They form the theme of our life story.

A person will always find or create that which validates the themes he or she has created. Muhammad Ali believed in his success, even predicting the exact round, and then lived that story. He lived it so powerfully, in fact, that his opponents did, too! Parents who trust and believe in their children teach those children to believe in themselves. Likewise, someone who assumes the theme of being a victim will generate a perpetual series of occasions for suffering.

To assess our life stories, we must learn to recognize hidden themes and decode the elusive language of mind and emotion that may be “ghostwriting” our stories.


Stepping into the New

Why do we repeat behavior that doesn’t work—especially those actions that lead to stifling debt, disappointing careers, or stuck relationships —and even do it harder, yet expect a different result? Why is it not obvious that trying to exit an old story by simply writing a “better ending” only recreates the same story, and ensures that we remain in it?

That a thousand better
endings to an old story don’t create a new story?

That the past cannot be changed and is a settled

That too often we are seeing ourselves as victims within stories we are powerless to control—not realizing that we ourselves are their author?

Change is not simple. Coming to “the end of the past” isn’t enough: you have to create a new story to step into before you can step out of the old one. How surprised we are to learn that our fears hide not in the shadows of the past, but in the hopeful light of this moment’s change.

Change and success are not always rational, logical, and conscious. Some of the most important aspects of life are emotional, beyond words and outside logic. Some basic assumptions and beliefs that hover below conscious radar actually drive the behaviors and write the storylines of your life. For example, someone abandoned early in life will expect more of the same in subsequent relationships, even though circumstances change. That person might even engineer subsequent rejections.

Writing a new life story is not about assigning blame. It’s about realizing that we are not at the mercy of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Storylines created to understand and successfully adapt to earlier situations can be changed rather than repeated; new ones can be written for present and future. You do not need to dwell on the life story you should have written five years ago. Just the one you need to write today.

It is never too late to become what you might have been. Or too soon to become who you want to be.


The Path of “Progress” Is Not Always Obvious

We assume that change is necessary and beneficial, with its absence inferring resistance or stuckness. However, not changing at times of pressure, impulse, or various seductions may be a valid, informed decision. C.S. Lewis addressed another aspect of this issue:

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

William James wrote over a century ago that the greatest discovery of his generation was that human beings could alter their lives by altering their attitudes. Neuroscience validated his assertion, and further teaches that creating new experiences changes pathways in the brain pathways that future successes or failures will travel on. Changing your mind changes your brain and your life, as beliefs, goals, and visions drive action. Positively addressing elements of transformation can result in all of yourself going in the same direction, with fullest capacity and passion.

As a wise, elderly drug counselor told his patients, “Sometimes you just gotta change the way you act before you can change the way you think and feel.”

The only thing more difficult than changing and growing is not changing and growing.


DAVID KRUEGER, M.D. is an author and Certified Professional Coach. He formerly practiced Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, was Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and was listed in The Best Doctors In America (Woodward/White, Inc.) annually, 1996-2002. This article is excerpted from Dr. Krueger’s forthcoming book, Live a New Life Story: The Essentials of Change, Reinvention, and
Personal Success.