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Rewrite Your Story & Enhance Your Wellbeing

Kathleen Ruby, PhD, Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine

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Rewrite Your Story & Enhance Your Wellbeing

We are born to tell stories. Long before we could read or write, humans communicated through stories. One of the earliest ways we connect with our children is to read or tell them stories. When we first meet, our early conversation involves sharing personal stories.

What does a veterinarian or veterinary nurse do when first encountering a client in the examination room? They solicit a story in the form of a history. As the client shares, they begin to get a picture of the client and the pet together, the pet’s personality, and their daily routine. The bond the client and pet do, or do not, share quickly becomes obvious. Understanding this story is integral to successful client compliance and patient treatment.  

Just as they are in veterinary medicine, stories are integral to how we live our personal lives. The stories we tell, the details we share, provide the backdrop to our world perspective, with us in it. Journalist and author Joan Didion stated, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”1 We grow into the narratives we share with ourselves and the world. Let us explore how our stories impact our wellbeing.

Narrative Identity

Researcher Dan McAdams from Northwestern University studies the psychology of life stories.2 His premise is that our identity is formed by our life story and the way we recall and share it. What he calls our narrative identity determines how we experience our lives and form our self-concept.

An individual’s life story is not a blow-by-blow recitation of everything that has happened. McAdams notes we tend to focus on major life events that had great impact and imbue them with meaning.

Redemptive Life Stories

When my daughter was 2 years old, we were visiting friends in California. Ever a dog lover, she immediately attached herself to our friend’s golden retriever, Charger, following him from room to room. He appeared to adore her, and they established a great friendship. One morning, I was making coffee in the kitchen and my daughter and Charger were in the bedroom watching TV. Suddenly, I heard an angry yelp and a scream. I rushed to the bedroom, where Charger had my daughter pinned to floor with her head in his jaws.

I pushed the dog off, locked him in the bathroom, and rushed back to my child, who was covered in blood. Charger had punctured her face in several places and torn a large, deep gash across her forehead. We rushed to the nearest hospital, where she was taken immediately to surgery to clean and stitch her wounds. It was traumatic and frightening for both of us, although the doctors did an amazing job of putting her back together. To this day, we do not know what provoked Charger to bite her, as he had always been a gentle dog.

This incident, which is filled with fear, pain, and betrayal, has all of the elements of a life-altering story that could have evolved into a lifetime trauma and resulted in my daughter totally rejecting animals.  My daughter, however, took a different path. The meaning she gave her story was what McAdams deems redemptive rather than negative.2

To hear my daughter tell the story, she assumes she inadvertently provoked Charger by accidentally hurting him. His veterinarian found he had an ear infection, and we assume she set off the attack by touching the painful ear. So, rather than blame the dog or herself for the accident, she saw it as pivotal. Because she had always loved dogs, and this particular dog hurt her, her narrative of the incident blamed the ear infection for the tragic occurrence. 

From this tragedy, she developed an even greater empathy for animals and the underlying pathology that causes them to strike out or misbehave, which set her on the path to become a veterinarian. In her story, Charger became the stimulus for her to better understand animals’ pain response and to gain knowledge to help suffering pets.

Life Stories that Contaminate

At the other end of the spectrum is what McAdams calls a contamination story, in which an occurrence is explained as a precursor to a negative outcome.

A client of mine once described a painful event when, as a young child, she was exiting a speed boat at night with her parents. As they struggled in the dark to carry coolers, life jackets, picnic baskets, and bags of clothing, my client accidentally stepped off the dock into water well over her head. She was not wearing a life jacket, nor could she swim. She described her fear as she sank toward the lake bottom, unable to make a sound, and with no way of knowing if her parents had noticed her fall.

Her mother immediately jumped into the lake to save her. Although the rescue probably took only a couple of minutes, my client recalls it as an eternity, in which she was sure she would never be found. Although her mother got her back on the dock before any real damage was done, to her, this incident was vastly negative, and to this day she avoids boats and water and has a recurring, paralyzing fear of drowning.

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Rewriting Your Stories

What do these 2 stories illustrate? It is the meaning we give life incidents, not the incidents themselves, that impacts perceptions. If we focus on the negative or frightening aspects, we will suffer, but by focusing on what we learned from an incident, we can use it to grow and gain confidence.  

We do this with everyday events. Consider how you retell the story of an angry client or a difficult conversation with a teammate. Which details do you share or repeat in your own mind? Do you focus on what you did wrong or your hurt and anger, or on what may have triggered the client’s anger or your colleague’s negative response? The latter allows you to create a redemptive narrative and move beyond the negative moment to find a positive solution.

Conclusion

Our stories shape our world, our self-concept, and our future. Our stories are merely the lens we use to explain our perceptions and reactions to what happens each day. (See Resources.)

Big stories shape the arc of our lives and small stories shape how we feel and respond in the moment. Becoming aware of our stories gives us power over them. What we write, we can unwrite. We can change our perceptions by changing our stories. Which story do you need to rewrite to make it redemptive?

1 Reflect on a past fear- or anxiety-provoking incident. Write a story about your feelings associated with this incident. Is it redemptive or contaminated with self-doubt and self-denigration? How could you rewrite the story to allow for personal evolution?

2 Listen for 1 day to stories from clients regarding their pets. Do their stories portray themselves or their pets in a negative or helpless manner, or as positive and proactive? Practice helping them to shift their stories from negative to positive.

3 Listen to yourself as you retell the story of a personal event to a friend or coworker. How did you portray yourself? Are you satisfied with the portrayal or would you prefer to alter it?

4 Is the story that defines your perception of your career redemptive or negative? Rewrite the story to focus on your strengths or daily contributions.

5 What does your work mean to you? Write a positive story that illustrates how you practice that meaning every day.

6 Provide time during team meetings to share positive stories of the good work you all accomplish.

References

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