This column is the first in a series about changing your life by looking at it as a story. Learn more about this technique in Kim Schneiderman’s new book, “Step Out of Your Story,” available now.
Does the same type of character keep showing up in your life and pushing your buttons? These people may look nothing alike, but they keep presenting you with more or less the same frustrations and issues. Or perhaps there’s a negative situation you keep finding yourself struggling with: picking up the slack and getting no credit, dating high-maintenance women or neglectful men. Why do the same things keep appearing in your storyline?
In my new book, “Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life,” out now, I recommend looking at life as a narrative and exploring it through writing. And every good story needs conflict to move it along, right? While we may not like or appreciate antagonists, they play an instrumental role in shaping our plotlines and our character. Think of them as personal trainers who push us beyond our perceived limitations to develop our flabby, underutilized emotional muscles.
Of course, no one ever consciously desires antagonists or conflict. Most of us will go out of our way to avoid them. However, in the world of novels and film, not only do we expect conflicts but also recognize that they are important to our development.
Learn to find the positive
Instead of thinking of antagonists as obstacles, learn to see the positive character traits they helped develop in you. For example, a successful executive with a history of being judgmental about the less fortunate may, upon losing his job, find himself developing a greater degree of compassion. Similarly, a newly divorced woman who took a passive role in her relationship with an alcoholic spouse may need to become assertive to move forward in life and secure the welfare of her children.
to change Every protagonist has a character arc, a particular way they mature and develop in response to the shifting tides of their story. At the outset, the protagonist possesses certain viewpoints and capabilities that have gotten them by. Inevitably, situations arise that challenge these perspectives or demand skills they don’t yet possess, thus creating the main conflict. Ultimately, the protagonist faces an opportunity to change in some way. The degree to which you embrace this challenge, or try to avoid it, determines who you become — for better or worse.
Give yourself credit
Recognize the subtle events that help shape your character, such as facing a fear, changing an attitude or kicking a bad habit. While this is not necessarily how society traditionally measures success — when was the last time you bumped into a friend who announced, “Great news! Yesterday, I conquered my need for my boss’s approval, and today I didn’t scream at my son when he accidentally spilled milk all over the floor!” — for psychotherapists (and writers), these kinds of changes mark meaningful progress in someone’s lifelong development, whether that person is a client or an imagined character.
Once we accept that our antagonists and problems have something valuable to teach us, we can begin to mine the gems of the situation — whether or not our story unfolds to our liking. Suddenly, responding to conflict with anger and resentment or, alternatively, with introspection and empowerment, becomes a conscious choice, transforming our personal narrative into a hero’s story.
Kim Schneiderman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and the author of “Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life.” Email Kim your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.