Well, I’ve got big news for you, kiddo…
It’s not your Life Story that’s holding you back – it’s what you make your Life Story mean.
No matter your background or how much Fortune has been on your side, we’ve all had some really awful things happen to us. These are the experiences that leave us hurt, heart-broken, and jaded. We’ve been cheated on, lied to, had loved one’s die, or maybe we’ve just got behaviors that could use some tweaking, like shyness or lack of confidence.
With all major experiences in our life, we have a tendency to make them mean something pretty major in the Grand Scheme of Things. It’s one of the cornerstones of being a Human being on this big blue marble: we’re meaning making machines. For better or for worse, we manage to attach a deeper message and intention to many of our life’s up’s and down’s. For example:
Your partner cheats on you? You’re unattractive, unworthy of love, and they’re all heartless assholes.
You were beaten up & bullied as a kid? You’re weak, undeserving of respect, and everyone is out to get you.
Your parents didn’t pay much attention to you? You’re unworthy of love, you have no value to others, and you’re all alone in this world.
Factual, verifiable (albeit unfortunate) things happen to us and we immediately create a story and make tons of negative judgments about ourselves because of it. It’s the enormous weight on our shoulders and what really holds us back from creating the vision of our life that we desire.
A Personal Story
I’d like to tell you a little story. It’s about my Dad.
My parents got a divorce when I was in 1st grade – so, I guess I was about 7 at the time. Even though my Dad and I lived in the same town after the divorce, I didn’t see him much – maybe twice a month. And, when I did see him, there wasn’t much of a connection. He was preoccupied with working, women, and he drank a lot.
That said, as I got older, it dawned on me that I needed my Dad to help grow me up, teach me his lessons, and show me how to be a real Man. It’s the unspoken need of every boy (and, an increasingly lost tradition). Even though he was definitely no saint, I needed his guidance.
The only problem was that by the time I realized I needed my dad and wanted to re-connect with him, he was gone. He died during Christmas of my senior year of college – I was 21, I think he was 52 or 53.
He had effectively drank himself to death one December morning – they found him with a full glass of vodka in his hand. It devastated me. I was so shocked, I couldn’t cry for the first couple hours.
I was getting ready to graduate college and start my career. As the consummate entrepreneur and a self-made success, I needed his wisdom now more than ever.
Even as I write this, I find myself placing the blame on my shoulders, reciting in my head that says “It’s all your fault!”. In reality, if you wanted to play the ‘Blame Game’, it was both of our faults. He had his substance abuse problems and was pretty emotionally ‘checked out’, I never made time for him or gave him the opportunity to be my Dad.
Until I really conquered the loss of my Dad, I made his death – and his overall absence when he was alive – mean some pretty nasty things about myself. Here’s the four big ones:
- You have no direction in life and never will.
- You’ll never become a Man.
- You’re a lost little boy.
- You’re going to die young like your Dad.
This nasty little quartet of beliefs really, truly screwed me for a good 7 years. I was making myself live under the thumb of these beliefs – and in the shadow of my Dad. It ruined my ability to commit to anything: a woman, a job, my goals. I became the most nihilistic, pessimistic little shit out there. The joy had largely been sapped out of my life.
So, how did I re-evaluate all the negative meaning and transform all this bad juju into gold so I could move forward with my life?
Write Your Way Out of A Shitty Life Story
We’re all caught in our own mental traps of anxiety, lack of confidence, career issues, past emotional issues, whatever. And, we keep playing these over and over, everyday, like we’re Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
Once I was done pissing, moaning, and feeling sorry for myself, I made the commitment to heal my wounds and move forth with ass-kicking fury. Sure, I did some therapy and had long navel-gazing sessions with friends. That really didn’t do much, to be honest.
You know what did, though? Writing about it.
So…How Did I Change My Life Just By Writing?
There was one thing that seemed to move my life forward and help me get over years old hang-up’s in no time.
I did what Victor Pride and Mike Cernovich called “bleeding on the page”.
I wrote a lot. I would get stacks of these promotional notebooks from my job, grab my favorite roller ball pen, and fill them front to back in just a few hours.
I would write – with little concern for spelling, grammar, or punctuation – for hours at a time about the things that were weighing heavy on my soul that day. I’d write and write – slipping into a fury of ink, paper, and inspiration – and would emerge on the other side feeling relieved, relaxed in the most uplifting, cathartic way possible.
It felt like a combination of having great sex, how you feel after a ridiculous workout, and how oddly good you feel from vomiting after drinking way too much bourbon.
And, a funny thing would happen: within a few days of having gone through these intense writing exercises, I found that these issues didn’t seem to be cropping up that much. These serious problems didn’t hurt anymore. They weren’t getting in the way of the rest of my life. Instead, I realized I’d grown from having the negative experience and was grateful for it.
In other words, writing was transforming my pain into happiness and the happiness turned into a better career, improved relationships, and more focus in my life. Intrigued yet?!
Why Psychologists Think Writing is So Damn Helpful
I’ve been writing this way since 2012 and always wondered why it helped me grow the way it did. Until just a few days ago, I chalked it up to coincidence, placebo effect, or ‘it’s just my style’. Then, I stumbled across a few studies by the British journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, as well as work by psychologists Carol Dweck & Timothy D. Wilson.
Turns out, I’d been doing what researchers call ‘expressive writing’. This is basically just writing about an emotionally heavy situation in your life for 15-20 minutes at a time, every day for a week or so. (People have been studying this since 1986, so there’s some pretty cool research available now.) The findings were so compelling that Advances in Psychiatric Treatment reported:
“… college students wrote for 15 minutes on 4 consecutive days about ‘the most traumatic or upsetting experiences’ of their entire lives, while controls wrote about superficial topics (such as their room or their shoes). Participants who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings reported significant benefits in both objectively assessed and self-reported physical health 4 months later.”
Pretty strong, huh?
But, there’s more, too. The same research also reported the following benefits of ‘expressive writing’:
- Improved social and language skills.
- Fewer depressive episodes.
- Improved mood/affect.
- Feeling of improved psychological well-being.
So, sitting down and writing about what hurts in a focused fashion on a regular basis will help transform some pretty heady wounds? Well…yes.
I’ve got years of personal experience, along with a slew of academic research to show that this will work wonders for you.
Having a More Powerful Writing Experience
Once you have perspective on your shitty situation, try re-approaching it from a new, positive angle. This will not only take the ‘sting’ off the situation but also help in transforming it into something beneficial for your own growth.
Carol Dweck and Timothy D. Wilson – psychologists from Stanford and University of Virginia, respectively – both conducted research on the difference that ‘mindsets’ have on the efficacy of expressive writing. They found that not only did expressive writing help the subjects extract new, insightful meaning from the difficult situation, but that approaching it with a positive mindset, they were able to help the students to perceive their difficult situations differently.
Once you’ve gone through your daily writing exercise, take some time off and come back to it with a new question: “How can I re-write this from a more productive angle?”.
Consider how you can inject more gratitude, self-confidence, or love into the writing process. Or, perhaps ask yourself how your future self – the You who already has this handled – would approach this? Here’s a few examples off the top of my head:
- Career: “How would a person who is excited and engaged in their career approach this?”.
- Loss of a Loved One: “How would a guy who is at peace with the death of his father approach this?”.
- Shyness: “How would a charismatic, socially confident person approach the feeling of being rejected?”.
You get the idea. Brainstorm a few of these, depending on your particular situation and re-write your story with that lens on.
The 7-Day Expressive Writing Challenge
I’m very passionate about the transforming power that expressive writing can have on your life. I have seen my life transformed permanently because of it and I want that for you. I want you to try this out for 7 days and tell me your experiences:
- Brainstorm a few issues, experiences, or problems that are weighing heavily on you. You can write about the same topic each day or switch it up, if you like. I usually wrote about the same issue until I felt good about it (this was usually only 2 or 3 times).
- Spend 15-30 minutes a day writing about in a free-form manner. Don’t sweat spelling, grammar, punctuation, or if it’s interesting. Just get your thoughts out onto paper.
- If you’re feeling good about a particular issue, go back to it with a new, positive perspective and re-write the story from scratch.
- Do this for 7 days and get back to me on your progress. I want to hear your stories!