So I’m thinking about things like, “What material is extraneous?”
“Is the protagonist moving forward or going in circles, are the supporting characters important or are they a distraction?”
“Do the plot points reveal a theme?”
And what I’ve noticed is that most people’s stories tend to circle around two key themes. The first is freedom, and the second is change.
And when I edit, those are the themes that I start with. So, let’s take a look at freedom for a second. Our stories about freedom go like this: we believe, in general, that we have an enormous amount of freedom. Except when it comes to the problem at hand, in which case, suddenly, we feel like we have none.
Many of our stories are about feeling trapped, right? We feel imprisoned by our families, our jobs, our relationships, our pasts. Sometimes, we even imprison ourselves with a narrative of self-flagellation — I know you guys all know these stories.
The “everyone’s life is better than mine” story, courtesy of social media. The “I’m an impostor” story, the “I’m unlovable” story, the “nothing will ever work out for me” story. The “when I say, ‘Hey, Siri, ‘ and she doesn’t answer, that means she hates me” story.
I see you, see, I’m not the only one. The woman who wrote me that letter, she also feels trapped. If she stays with her husband, she’ll never trust him again, but if she leaves, her children will suffer.
Now, there’s a cartoon that I think is a perfect example of what’s really going on in these stories. The cartoon shows a prisoner shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out. But on the right and the left, it’s open. No bars. The prisoner isn’t in jail. That’s most of us.
We feel completely trapped, stuck in our emotional jail cells. But we don’t walk around the bars to freedom because we know there’s a catch.
Freedom comes with responsibility. And if we take responsibility for our role in the story, we might just have to change. And that’s the other common theme that I see in our stories: change.
Those stories sound like this: a person says, “I want to change.” But what they really mean is, “I want another character in the story to change.”
Therapists describe this dilemma as: “If the queen had balls, she’d be the king.” I mean — it makes no sense, right?
Why wouldn’t we want the protagonist, who’s the hero of the story, to change? Well, it might be because change, even really positive change, involves a surprising amount of loss. Loss of the familiar.
Even if the familiar is unpleasant or utterly miserable, at least we know the characters and setting and plot, right down to the recurring dialogue in this story.
“You never do the laundry!”
“I did it last time!”
“Oh, yeah? When?”
There’s something oddly comforting about knowing exactly how the story is going to go every single time. To write a new chapter is to venture into the unknown. It’s to stare at a blank page. And as any writer will tell you, there’s nothing more terrifying than a blank page.
But here’s the thing. Once we edit our story, the next chapter becomes much easier to write. We talk so much in our culture about getting to know ourselves.
But part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself. To let go of the one version of the story you’ve been telling yourself so that you can live your life, and not the story that you’ve been telling yourself about your life. And that’s how we walk around those bars.
So I want to go back to the letter from the woman, about the affair. She asked me what she should do.
Now, I have this word taped up in my office: ultracrepidarianism. The habit of giving advice or opinions outside of one’s knowledge or competence. It’s a great word, right?
You can use it in all different contexts, I’m sure you will be using it after this TED Talk. I use it because it reminds me that as a therapist, I can help people to sort out what they want to do, but I can’t make their life choices for them.
Only you can write your story, and all you need are some tools.
So what I want to do is I want to edit this woman’s letter together, right here, as a way to show how we can all revise our stories. And I want to start by asking you to think of a story that you’re telling yourself right now that might not be serving you well.
It might be about a circumstance you’re experiencing, it might be about a person in your life, it might even be about yourself. And I want you to look at the supporting characters. Who are the people who are helping you to uphold the wrong version of this story?
For instance, if the woman who wrote me that letter told her friends what happened, they would probably offer her what’s called “idiot compassion.”
Now, in idiot compassion, we go along with the story, we say, “You’re right, that’s so unfair,” when a friend tells us that he didn’t get the promotion he wanted, even though we know this has happened several times before because he doesn’t really put in the effort, and he probably also steals office supplies.