Think about a story you frequently share or mull over in your head. Chances are your telling of the story has changed over time. We rewrite our histories to fit the stories of our lives. We do what social scientists call "autobiographical reasoning" to tell our stories. We identify the lessons learned, we decide which pieces of the story are important to keep in and which we leave out. This is important stuff, it helps shape our identity. Here's an example from me.
I studied obsessively in high school. My dad got his PhD from Yale and he had high expectations for me. He'd check out my report card and highlight the one B+ in a sea of A's. I put the pressure on myself too, studying constantly and in the most unlikely of places: in the foam pit at the end of gymnastics practice, sitting in the bleachers "watching" my boyfriend's hockey game, even in the bathtub (I don't recommend that option - I dropped my AP American History book in and had to pay for it). My reward for studying this intensively would be to go to an Ivy League school and compete on their gymnastics team. I would make this happen out of sheer will and effort.
Senior year rolled around and I set my sights on Brown University. I was asked to attend a recruiting trip with the gymnastics team and I felt right at home on the campus. My grand plan was coming together beautifully.
Except that it didn't. The letter came in the mail telling me I was waitlisted at Brown. I crept into the basement of my parent's house and cried for hours. I was a failure. I couldn't hack it. Of course I wasn't Ivy League material, who did I think I was? And the worst: I was a disappointment to my dad.
For months that was the story I told myself. But gradually things shifted, I landed at James Madison University (JMU) and fell in love with everything about it. Here's how I tell the end of the story now:
Except that it didn't. I was waitlisted at Brown and didn't get in. While devastating, I shifted and set my sights on JMU where I knew I would have the opportunity to compete and be challenged academically. My college experience exceeded my every expectation, landed me a terrific job when I graduated, and eventually led me to my husband. We met downtown in Washington DC, a place I can't imagine I would've been living in had I attended college in New England.
This is a simplified version, but you get the idea. I bet you have stories like this in your life too. It's helpful for us to reexamine them, turn the pieces around and figure out what you learned about yourself in the process. Stories of contamination (my first version where I tell myself I'm a failure) have been shown to negatively affect mental health whereas stories of redemption (second version where I pick up my bootstraps) may be linked to greater well-being.