Revising life stories & neural pathways

by Kristin on February 12, 2013

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Hey Paul Studio

First the dog didn’t do her business in her usual prompt morning fashion. That meant I was standing there in the morning cold with just a fleece, knowing that my soft boiled eggs on the stove were on their way to becoming hard boiled.

Back inside, I realized I couldn’t eat my egg, anyway—it was time to take our oldest daughter to school. By the time I had fought my way home again, through the crazy morning drop-off traffic in the heart of campus, I had a 10-minute window for eating my cold egg, drinking my reheated coffee, and helping our youngest daughter find something for her lunch. After tearing apart the Tupperware drawer looking for a suitably-sized container with a matching lid, I spent five minutes trying to fix the broken toaster that was cruelly keeping me from redeeming my sad breakfast.

Finally, after one last emphatic slam of the toaster on the counter, I just stood there and cried. Jason is out of town, and I had woken up so determined to be upbeat and organized—to start the day right.

I couldn’t go back in time and delete what had taken place, so I would have to do the next best thing: Revise the story of my morning.

* * * * *

Revising my life story has been a talent of mine since childhood. It isn’t a matter of altering facts or inserting untruths; the writing of any true story, after all, is as much a matter of what you choose to leave out as what you include. And I’ve always been good at leaving out the ugly.

The stories I regaled my mom with after days spent navigating my elementary school playground highlighted the funny and dramatic, leaving out the hurt feelings and anything dull and inconsequential. My memories of family vacations and holidays are rich and bright, as if they’ve been run through a filter designed to catch all the mishaps and disappointments. And when a mishap can’t be ignored—when it’s at the heart of the story—my revisions have always relied heavily on humor and self deprecation. They are true tellings, but with the advantage of some time passing, which allows the tears to be transformed into laughter.

After my divorce a decade ago, my stories shifted darkly toward realism. Life was hard. My story was an unhappy one with an unhappy ending, in spite of all the revising I had frantically done throughout my marriage, desperate to convince myself and my community otherwise. Not only was I determined to tell the hard, cold truths of my own story, I began to look down my nose at any stories that smacked of bright optimism or Disney endings.

* * * * *

Today, I’m a third of the way through writing my memoir, and thankfully my storytelling techniques seem to fall somewhere between the two extremes. I still question, in a healthy way, how I’m revising my story: Am I being real? Am I being as true as possible to what really happened? Do my “revisions” move me closer to the core truths or further  from them?

But I’m no longer hostile and suspicious toward this wonderful ability we have to revise our true stories. In fact, according to this fascinating post at one of my favorite sites, it is a gift with an official-sounding name: “the adaptive optimism bias of the human brain.” In essence, our brains adapt to receive more good news—or not, depending on how we shape our stories. The article, How to Stay Sane: The Art of Revising Your Inner Storytelling (I love the title!), explains that “learning to reframe our interpretations of reality is key to our experience of life.” (The Brain Pickings post is based on the book How to Stay Sane by Phillipa Perry.)

Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life. They bring together the past and the future into the present to provide us with structures for working towards our goals. They give us a sense of identity and, most importantly, serve to integrate the feelings of our right brain with the language of our left. …

The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved. … If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up.

Wow. That kind of blows me away. And it takes me back to this morning, with its broken toaster and cold egg, and how I was able to move from tears toward a sense of humor. The errors were revised into a comedy of errors. I can’t completely rewrite my morning, but how I frame my morning—the meaning I choose to draw from it—is completely up to me. And it matters. Choosing to spin the truth of my life with optimism will help keep me sane—and I need all the help I can get.

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  • HopefulLeigh

    We call this “positive reframing” in social work land. Love seeing it through this lens, Kristin.

    • kt_writes

      See? There are so many official names for all these things I so casually ponder!

  • Dorie

    Perfect use of brain embroidery, but dang, what a morning. I find it comforting to know that applying optimism to our stories is good for the brain and not just rosy lenses.

    • kt_writes

      A day later, my morning yesterday seems silly, and I feel silly for letting it get to me. But hey, it was what it was, and it got me thinking about some interesting things. :)

  • Sarah Askins

    I have always loved the image of a frame for our stories. We may not be able to control all of the details inside the picture, but we pick out the structure that the picture/story will be housed in. Too often, we focus on one aspect over another–either the picture or the frame when they are a whole part of ourselves. The frame should never overshadow the ugly, the bad, the good, the beautiful, nor should the picture overtake our ability to process the story/event.

    • kt_writes

      I like that expansion of this idea! It makes me wonder about when we choose a frame that’s smaller than the picture, which we ultimately have to crop. In other words, is it OK to crop out the parts we don’t like, or is it only OK to detract from them by highlighting the good parts?

  • Katie Noah Gibson

    Love that brain embroidery photo. And what a fascinating idea – that positive reframing can actually help us rewire our brains. (I hope you get a new toaster soon, though.) ;)

    • kt_writes

      I can tell you’re married to a counselor—I know you didn’t pick up that phrase just from Leigh. :) (And yep—I got a new toaster that same day. I knew not having would would be an inconvenience and annoyance all week! Not worth it.)

  • Jennifer Luitwieler

    Now, see, this is the kind of thing we should be discussing over an afternoon cup of coffee and a slice of that Japonaise cake. (No, I haven’t forgotten.) I was hoping you would end up where you did, because who says that the good stuff isn’t real, and the yucky stuff is somehow more realistic? Real seems to encompass all of it. And, you also reminded me of my mother, who would say, during an early morning melt down: “You don’t have to let this ruin your day.” She wasn’t asking me to forget, or edit it out. She was just saying, Ok. so this thing happened, and it sucked. What now? Fall to the floor in a heap or move along? Is it spin to focus on what we choose? I don’t know. But I liked we have to know how to reframe if we want to keep doing it. We need practice.

    • kt_writes

      Yes, we should be discussing these things over cake (of course you haven’t forgotten)! And a big yes to this: “…who says that the good stuff isn’t real, and the yucky stuff is somehow more realistic?” Unfortunately, though, I think the culture made up of all hipster, artistic, “deep” people *do* sort of communicate that message. It’s there, in the back of my mind, informing me, even if intellectually I know it is not Truth. (Btw, I got to use your mom’s great line with one of my daughters this morning!)

  • EstherEmery

    Congratulations for being 1/3 of the way through your memoir! Can’t wait to read it, adaptive optimism and all.

  • Lisa Colón DeLay

    Carol Cool wrote a great article on shift for seeing things chores to seeing them as privileges…reframing is really what it is and it is very effective.

    Also I read that apparently, if you write down 3 things you are grateful for each day for 3 weeks you become a happier person even if your situation worsens. that’s cool. Perspective can be such a big deal in the healing process.

    You two are jiving and I’m feeling the groove. :)

  • Crush

    well done. I am writing a book for business leaders on mindfulness, and just searched for stories on neural pathways, and found this lovely one. Is your book out?