We all have a life story. A life story is my personal account of all the important events and experiences that have contributed to my becoming who I am today. Because my life story explains how I became who I am it plays a significant role in shaping the way I define (and perceive) myself.
Throughout life, we accumulate an endless number of experiences, the majority of which we later have no memory or recollection. Our brains cannot possibly store a detailed account of every waking minute of every day we are alive. Thus, it must filter and prioritize in order to decide which experiences to preserve and which to discard. For this reason my personal life story - my self narrative - consists of events to which I ascribe a particular meaning (and that I deem important). The meaning I ascribe to a given event consists of the conclusions I have come to about why the event occurred and how it affected me. Meaning is therefore highly subjective. If someone else were asked to select the most significant events from my life, that person might create a narrative that differs significantly from the one I've adopted.
When a patient first comes to me for therapy he tells a story. His story explains, "What's wrong?" and sometimes "How things came to be this way." Often, his story continues to unfold over the course of several sessions until I ultimately get a pretty clear picture of how this person defines himself. For example, one patient recently summarized the theme of his life story as follows: "Everyone I have ever cared about has either died or betrayed me. Everything I have ever worked to achieve has been taken from me by some other person." This short summary speaks volumes. It tells me that this particular patient perceives himself as powerless over his environment; he thinks of himself as a victim of external circumstances and of the malevolent intentions of others. This worldview causes him to have no hope that he will be anything other than a victim for the rest of his life. Because "everyone" he has cared about either abandoned or betrayed him he does not trust anyone. This prevents him from even attempting to establish meaningful relationships with others.
We allude to the themes we've taken from our personal narratives when we say things like, "I've always fought for what I wanted. I'm not going to give up now" or "I've always been emotionally sensitive, even when I was a child," or "I've blown every opportunity life has ever given me. I'm a complete failure."
A life story is always a work in progress. We can always choose to add a previously forgotten anecdote that reveals our inner strength. We can always choose to highlight our successes and accomplishments. We can always convey our setbacks in terms of what we learned from them. There are many ways to tell a tale - even the same tale. When we compose our personal narratives we get to decide which events are important enough to include. We get to connect the dots and draw our own conclusions. In this way, we are empowered to determine how we want to define ourselves, which in turn shapes our hopes and expectations for the future.