I’ve always been interested in finding simple solutions to complex problems. I’ll use an example from politics to illustrate my point, and then I’ll come back and show you how you can apply this idea in your own life—making one change that can vastly improve your emotional wellbeing.
An Example of a Complex Problem
Most of us have never lived through a time of so much political dysfunction and disharmony as we see now. The political partisanship in Washington has overridden patriotism. Politicians seem more concerned with their political futures than the future of our country. And the damage they are doing is severe, turning Americans against Americans.
I used to think that if we took the money out of politics—campaign finance reform—that would solve most of the problems. But now I think that’s unrealistic. There are too many ways for money to find its way into politics. Yet, I believe there is a straightforward answer that would solve most of the political problems—term limits.
If we limited politicians to one term in office—four years in the house of representatives, eight years in the senate and white house—we would eliminate the focus on reelection. This would change the entire character of politics. People who run for office will be doing so to be of service. We can rotate the congressional and senate seats so that half of the people in Washington will have experience while the other half—the incoming class—comes up to speed. I imagine term limits will reduce most of the extreme partisanship and misplaced priorities, and the wheels of government will turn toward progress.
Now, what’s this have to do with you?
Well, let’s apply the same idea. Let’s imagine that in your life there is a point of leverage and that one small change can have a disproportionately positive influence. What would that change be in your life?
I’ve thought about this question while looking at the ten stages of development we go through from birth to death. (Stages of Development Chart 2021).
Ideally, I would like to see a change that occurs in the earliest stages of life, during infancy, because those changes would ripple forward and affect everything that follows. But, that would require educating parents before having their children—involving courses in high school focused on personal development, communication, relationship skills, and theories of child development. Such courses would improve the students’ lives, make for healthier relationships, and prepare individuals to be good parents.
But, most of us reading this are well beyond infancy—so what’s the single most valuable thing we can do at this stage in our lives?
The One Thing To Focus On
The one thing that I believe will make the greatest impact on our overall mental and emotional health is creating a healthy personal narrative. We all have narratives, ways of talking about ourselves that tell our story. Some of our stories are self-victimizing. These are the stories we tell in which we use past difficulties to justify current-day struggles. Unfortunately, some forms of psychotherapy encourage this kind of narrative, but I don’t think it’s helpful. I mean, a little bit of it is okay—yes, you were bullied in school, and that may contribute to your social anxiety today. In other words, it’s not your fault. But now, as an adult, you can help yourself by shifting your narrative to focus on how you want to live in the present. Creating a different narrative—a different way of talking about yourself—leads to different behaviors and attracts different people into your life.
On the opposite end of the narrative spectrum, we may use positive affirmations and phrases that come from the law of attraction. These are full of optimism and possibility, but they may be inconsistent with your current reality. Creating a narrative that is disconnected from your day-to-day reality isn’t helpful. On the contrary, it often creates more anxiety because we sense the incongruity between how we talk about our life and how it actually feels. For a narrative to be helpful, it must be coherent. In other words, it needs to make sense and be believable.
We all tell ourselves stories about our lives to make sense of where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. Does your narrative answer these questions in a way that makes sense to you? Does your narrative empower you and create hope for your future? If not, try creating a new narrative.
By the way, although we all have narratives, we aren’t necessarily conscious of them. When people say things like, “I could never do that, I’m not that kind of person…” or “I have a hard time sticking with my commitments…” or “I’ve always been a very disciplined person…” they are revealing aspects of their narratives.
Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow
Many of us think the answer to our problems will be found tomorrow, “When I get x, I’ll feel better, everything will be okay.” But that tomorrow may never come. Alternatively, you can create a coherent narrative for yourself and change the character of your life today.
A coherent personal narrative will answer these questions:
1) How do I characterize my upbringing? And this isn’t so much about what happened to you, but how you have shaped yourself as a result of what happened to you. It’s not ‘what others did to you,’ but ‘what have you done or learned with what happened.’
2) What are the significant life experiences I’ve had, and how have I used those to define myself?
3) What are the common characteristics of my relationships? For example, what kind of friend, parent, lover, employee, or employer am I? Do I feel good about this characterization, or would I like to change it, and if so, in what ways?
4) What are my current priorities?
5) Where am I headed in life? I may not know precisely what my purpose is, but what do I want my trajectory in life to be? Is this a time to focus on creating security, or is it a time to focus on pursuing my dreams? Can I do both?
When we live with an incoherent or haphazard personal narrative, we are easily buffeted about by circumstances. We confuse ourselves. Conversely, when we create a healthy, generative, and coherent narrative, we comfort ourselves because we have made sense of our past, understand our current choices, and look forward to our future.
Our narratives will change with time. They may be stable for certain periods, but they can also change quickly. Inevitably, our narratives will evolve as life circumstances change and as we age. When we consciously craft our narrative, we feel calmer and clearer, more deliberate, and we make the most of the one-term life we were elected to live.