Somewhere in between my baby vomiting, toddler screeching, overflowing email inbox pinging (again?!) and realizing that although it was 2 pm, I had not yet brushed my teeth, I took a breath.
This whole working mother thing didn’t feel like it was going particularly well. My kids were sick and melting down. We were short on childcare and long on to-do lists. I was behind on lots of projects at work including, well, writing this article. I was starting to drown in feelings of self-pity and defeat. I’m failing. I can’t. I suck. This will never work.
But because I am reading ‘Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,’ written by University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson, last week I stopped, and told myself a different story.
I imagined myself as a working mother Superhero. Armed with a laptop, a career, and yes, a couple of screaming kids, I reminded myself that I’m genuinely in the middle of some of the most intense years of motherhood, and perhaps my life. I told myself that all of these challenges are helping me to grow into the person I want to be
. Also, that I can do all things through coffee which strengthens me.
Then something surprising happened. The less I told myself that I was a mess, the less I felt so. And, Wilson and other researchers suggest, the more I continue to see and define myself as a capable person, the more capable I may become. In the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, “small edits can lead to lasting change,” Wilson writes in ‘Redirect,’ citing a large body of research demonstrating the impact such narrative changes can have on outcomes in life.
These stories aren’t just the ones we tell ourselves in our heads, but we can also perform
deliberate exercises that can help change our thoughts and actions. ” We’re all constantly making assumptions about who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Wilson explains.
And particularly in the creative process of putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard), we’re able to sort through complex sets of emotions and experiences.
Wilson recommends the writing exercises developed by University of Texas at Austin psychology professor James W. Pennebaker, which walk you through examining life issues you face.
“Over the last 30 years, it has become clear that writing works for several reasons,” Pennebaker explains in an email. “For example, merely labeling an experience and your reaction can make a difference. Part of this is acknowledging to yourself what may have happened. Writing helps to put an experience into perspective. It can help people find meaning. Finally, once an emotional upheaval is put into words, it is easier for people to get past it. They sleep better, pay attention to other things in their worlds, and can become better friends to others.”
Wilson also shared several non-writing techniques that can help you to craft (and change) the arc of your life.
Ready to start a new story? Here are some tips.
- Write only when necessary: “My personal recommendation is to only write when you need to,” says Pennebaker. “If you find yourself thinking or worrying about something too much, set aside 3-4 days where you write for 15-20 minutes a day. If your life is going well, you are not burdened by major life events and your are sleeping well, then enjoy it. Writing isn’t needed.”
- Try a four-day expressive writing exercise focusing on one of the following topics: Something that you are thinking or worrying about too much, something that you are dreaming about, something that you feel is affecting your life in an unhealthy way, or something that you have been avoiding. “The events that tend to stay with us and bother us and pop up in our minds are the ones where we can’t find some meaning in it or understand why it happened,” Wilson says.
- Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts as deeply as you can. You might ask yourself how the experience relates to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, other important people in your life or your work. Ask yourself how it relates to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now. You can edit your writing each day, or not. You may decide to throw it away when you finish the exercise or save it to reflect on later to see how you have changed. “What the writing exercises can do is speed up the meaning-making process,” Wilson says.
- Try the ‘best possible selves’ exercise: If you’d rather focus on the positive, try several consecutive days of writing that imagines what your future could be like.”Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of you life goals. Think of this as the realization of all your life dreams. Now write about what you imagined.” By focusing your narrative on how you’re getting there, Wilson suggests that “you might become more optimistic about your future and cope better” with obstacles.
- Get some distance from particularly difficult experiences before making sense of them. Wilson’s research suggests that in the aftermath of a highly stressful event, it might be best to give yourself some time to heal.
Ruminating about events too soon after they occur “impedes the natural healing process and might even ‘freeze’ memories of the event.”
- Try to take a step back and look at events from a more objective point of view. The “step back and ask why” technique asks you to close your eyes and imagine observing yourself. As you replay the event, Wilson says you should “try to understand your distant self’s feelings,” ask why you had those feelings and ponder, “what were the underlying causes and reasons?”
- Get inspired by stories of other people who faced similar situations and overcame adversity. Wilson’s study of UVA undergrads exposed academically-struggling freshmen to true stories from upperclassmen who were able to improve their own grades after poor early college performances. This story-prompting method helped the freshmen to “entertain the idea that effort might pay off, causing them to study harder for their next test.” The students who were introduced to this new outlook demonstrated significantly better academic performance than those without it. A more positive thought-behavior cycle thus began.
- Try the ‘do good, be good’ approach, AKA, “Fake it til you make it.” A similar technique to expressive writing inverts the cause-effect relationship in story editing: Change your behavior first. “The first thing is to act how you want to be,” Wilson explains. It’s easier to craft a narrative about what a neat a person
you are after you’ve made your bed every day for a week. It’s these types of little steps that can have outsized effects over time.
- Think that writing a gratitude journal will make you happier. Wilson writes that sometimes, the opposite is true. Perhaps, he suggests, by putting joy at the front and center of reflection, it becomes too commonplace to enjoy. Instead, Wilson recommends the ‘George Bailey’ (of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’) method, which actually focuses attention on all the ways that positive outcomes in your life might not have been achieved. “Imagining how… the most important things in their lives might not have happened made it seem surprising and special again,” Wilson found.
- Think that “just writing about what you feel will resolve your problems.” Story editing needs to examine the purpose behind events in order to help you to make meaning in your life. Wading through negative emotions and experiences without finding purpose in them can be counter-productive.
- Wait too long to get started. A new narrative is there for the making. Who will you be?
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