How to change a negative maladaptive life story to a positive adaptive one

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Before I went to sleep last night, I was reading Christine Baldwin’s “Storycatcher” in which she proposes that we create the “story” of our life by selecting certain memories and then linking them together to form a coherent narrative. The latter is what I will call the “life story”. A life story plays a fundamental role in our lives because as Baldwin states (p. 124) “We all need a story to stand on: a core belief that affirms who we are, which we won’t relinquish no matter what.” A life story that is affirming and supportive is a positive and adaptive one; one that is undermining and critical of the self is negative and maladaptive. According to the cognitive therapy approach, life stories of the latter kind could contribute to clinical depression.

Although we cannot change one iota of what happened to us throughout our lives, we can change our story by the kinds of memories we choose to link into our self- narrative. Baldwin writes “When we link evidence of inadequacy, our lives take on psychological pallor; when we link evidence of worth, our lives take on psychological vitality.” .... “We create these links, and we can unlink them: we call this changing our mind.”

Fortunately it is possible to change our mind and rewrite out life story at any time in our lives. I will give a personal example of how I was lead to a radical re-write today of my life story after reading the passages quoted above in Baldwin’s book. In our elder years of life we tend to reflect on our life story and to use it to evaluate our lives and start the job of putting psychological closure on it (if that indeed ever comes completely). In my semi-retirement, I have been reflecting on my own career as a scientist and have felt some feelings of disappointment.

My desire to be a scientist arose when I was very young. Soon after I started to read, I became interested in reading books on science and science fiction. I identified with the scientists described in these books and I secretly hoped that when I grew up I too would become a famous scientist. Baldwin’s explanation of how we create our life story suggested to me that I had incorporated many links to evidence of inadequacy in my life story as a scientist. For example, I had not won any prizes as a scientist, let alone a Nobel Prize. At first I could not think of any evidence of worth. Then I realized I had been using what psychologists call “upward comparison”. When I stopped making such comparisons, and instead evaluated my achievements and progress taking into account my own unique limitations and circumstances, a completely new picture of my life was revealed.

Although I did not win a Noble Prize, I did manage to overcome these limitations to become a reasonably successful neurobiologist. Also in my midlife I managed to make a complete career change and became trained as a clinical psychologist. Thus even in my senior years, I am revising my life story by linking “evidence of worth” into my life narrative and changing it into a positive, supportive, and adaptive life story. All this came from my reading my reading last night Christina Baldwin’s newest book “Storycatcher”. I am so grateful. Thanks Christina.

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