03/10/2014 03:30 pm ET Updated May 10, 2014

What's Your Story? Making Use of Your Past

Everyone has a past.

We use it to construct a story in order to answer the question, "Who am I?" The narration starts very early with the help of parents and continues throughout our lives. This self-story provides meaning and coherence to the chaotic flood of experience. In this way it is a tool for both chronicling one's history and constructing it. The narrative arc can serve to preserve or change conceptions of who we are.

The self-story is shaped by the individual, the audience and the culture. When the audience and the culture overshadow the authorship of the individual there is trouble. Living someone else's story is common and costly. The expected gratification of accomplishment never arrives because the goals were not meaningful. Such alienation fuels the economy of false expectations. When I earn this much, when I drive that car, when I live in that house, then I will feel whole and happy. We become impostors in our own lives. Like the depression of amnesia, disconnection from the past results in a loss of identity and despair.

Not surprisingly, our nature colors our self-story. The temperamentally anxious construct more negatively-toned stories about a dangerous world filled with troubles around every corner. On the other hand more optimistic types pen not only more positive self-stories but more personal and complex narratives.

Boys and girls receive different cues about their stories. Generally, parents minimize emotional narratives with boys and accentuate the pragmatics of managing feelings. However, elaboration of emotion is encouraged with daughters.

A child's family may value different types of story and therefore unwittingly foster particular styles. For instance, a depressed mother might be more responsive to entertainment and inadvertently encourage humor and distraction over historical truth telling.

Culture provides dominant forms of story. These mythic structures mold our self-stories. In the United States, tales of redemption enjoy enormous popularity and provide a template for self-narratives.

The trouble is life reliably serves up experiences that do not fit neatly into our self-story; an unexpected illness in a clean-living citizen, a professional reversal of fortune in a hard-working fair player, the loss of a child... Such disruptions cause emotional turmoil not only because of the stress of the event itself but because it strains our capacity to make sense of it, to incorporate it into our self-story. It demands an editing of our narratives. One way of understanding psychotherapy is such editorial work.

Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the line: "Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

This is his way of stating the well-accepted notion that what makes a good story is disruption. This applies not only to literature but to self-stories. Our need to preserve self-esteem and hold onto a notion of who we are is never greater than when something happens that derails our self-story.

The repeated telling of self-stories to a variety of audiences in a myriad of contexts fuels our sense of who we are. The pediatrician and child analyst D.W. Winnicott once said: "There is no such thing as an infant, meaning of course, that whenever one finds an infant one finds maternal care, and without maternal care there would be no infant."

Similarly, there is no such thing as a story without a listener. This uniquely human act of telling our story both creates us and connects us. The character we narrate gives birth to the character we are in the context of a relationship.

Where are you in your story?