Imagine something unexpected and negative just happened. Perhaps you performed poorly in an interview, blew up in a big athletic competition, lost a job, or worse yet, lost a loved one or suffered some other tragedy. Why do some individuals bounce back from these events more easily than others?
According to the latest research, the answer may lie in the stories we tell ourselves. When things go south, most of us feel broken – it’s abnormal not to. The key to putting ourselves back together, it turns out, lies in constructively integrating whatever happened into our forever unfolding personal story, or the ongoing narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we can do that, we’ll feel better and move forward faster.
We emphasize the word constructively because it’s easy to tell ourselves very different stories about the same event. For example:
- “I didn’t get the job, I must not be fit for this kind of work,” versus;
- “I didn’t get the job, but I learned X/Y/Z specific things in the process, and I’ll be better off for it at my next interview.”
Make no mistake: we are not promoting delusional thinking nor lying to oneself. An overly rosy (or narcissistic) view of the world is neither conducive to long-term performance nor mental health. When life takes a turn for the worse, you should feel hurt and grief.
What we are promoting, however, is that you weave these events into your broader personal story and attempt to do so in a constructive manner. Consciously choosing to encode in memory the positive pieces of an otherwise negative incident has lasting benefits.
(A related and unfortunately timely aside: this has significant implications for a culture’s collective resilience based on how the media covers events. Research suggests that we’d be a lot better off if the media – while still reporting honestly and comprehensively – chose to focus more on the positive acts of heroism during tragedies.)
- When you experience a set-back or negative event, try not to harp on it in a singular, self-defining manner.
- Instead, do your best to integrate it into your broader life’s story.
- When you do so, draw out positives from the event and make those the most salient parts.
- Use this strategy for contexts both big and the small. You can have multiple personal stories: for example, one as a professional, a family member, an athlete, etc.