04/16/2012 02:23 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

Rewriting the Story of Your Life

Like a worn-out sweater or a tattered blanket full of moth holes, it no longer serves any useful purpose other than being familiar. It isn't even that comforting. But for years, without knowing any better, we have wrapped ourselves up in it. I'm talking about our stories.

These are the stories we think define our lives, why we are the way we are. For some people, these could be triumphant tales of overcoming odds and reaching a pinnacle of joy and success; if so, please, do not change a word! But if you are like the rest of us, yours is more likely to be an endless loop of some high hopes and glimmers of happiness, ending with disappointments and a chiding moral of "that's the way life is."

No matter how true the details, these stories drag us down, making us believe that past performances are indicative of future returns where our lives are concerned. Repeating these sad, self-limiting stories is like walking around with a permanent bad haircut, all the while pointing to your head and crying, "Look at what happened to me." Let it grow out! Or, in the case of your story, rewrite it. As a writer, I take this quite literally.

I have a whole repertoire of cry-in-my-teacup stories, from being bullied as a kid to relationships that tore out my heart and then backed a pickup truck over it. So do most people. With discernment, maturity and continuing self-knowledge, I came to realize that I could reframe my stories, and where I couldn't find a happy ending, I could at least capture the lesson learned.

Consider the Perils of Patricia at age seven. Jumping off the diving board into the community pool seemed like such fun, except no one explained to me just how deep the water was -- and I couldn't swim. Up the ladder I went, off the board I jumped, down into the water I sank. Popping up in a panic, I gulped and splashed, but nobody noticed. The lifeguard was asleep in the chair. My little friends tried to rescue me, but I dragged one girl under and she had to save herself.

Just as I was about to give up, sure that I would drown, my arms started moving as if on their own accord. I finally made it to the edge of the pool and pulled myself out. When my mother picked me up that afternoon, I wanted to tell her what happened, but she seemed too distracted to listen. I had to be content with telling myself the story instead -- and I did. For years, it was the story of how I almost drowned as a kid and nobody was there to help me.

At midlife, it's time to sort through the life stories we tell, pitching out the ones that no longer fit. What purpose does it serve if the same ol' tale you tell yourself makes you feel unlovable, unworthy, uncreative, unsuccessful and un-everything else? Now we have the opportunity to rewrite those stories!That's not to say we ignore the painful episodes or pretend that things were different. The facts remain the same, but we can re-examine them to reach a new conclusion about ourselves -- our resilience, endurance, intelligence, creativity or stoicism.

For me, the rewriting process began by putting myself back into the scene I had envisioned so many times: the diving board, the pool, the plunge, the fear... Rather than skipping ahead to my mother and her reaction (in her defense, I'm sure I appeared perfectly fine and not at all a near-drowning victim), I concentrated on the little girl in the white bathing suit with the blue and red trim. How did I feel when I pulled myself out of that pool, having been convinced just moments before that this was the end of my short life?

As I focused on that younger version of myself, I could literally feel how miraculous it had seemed. I took a risk, I nearly failed, but everything turned out okay in the end. How much better a tale is that to tell, particularly to myself, than the one I have been dragging around like a ratty old beach towel?

The new ending, just as true as the one I told before, draws from what I learned that day and what I came to believe: No matter how deep the water, I will save myself.

Now that's a story worth telling.