When Big Things Go Wrong in Your Life Story

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You construct your narrative identity (how you conceptualize yourself through your life story) in much the same way as you consume a movie. Think about the experience of being riveted by one.

Starting with the first scene, you collect information about where the story is set, who the players are and what makes them tick, and what's going on.

You’re immersed in the atmosphere the filmmaker has created to match the predominant emotional experience he or she hopes the viewer will have. Bright colors and peppy music for a romantic comedy, say, or a thunderstorm beating against the windows for a creepy thriller.

With each frame you integrate new information with your existing understanding. But you probably aren’t doing it consciously; you're more or less passively assimilating the information in the background as you watch.

How you write your life story on autopilot

In the same way, most of the time you are engrossed in your life, not consciously integrating the new input you receive every day. Over time, you observe how others perceive, treat, and react to you, and vice versa, and these observations gradually coalesce into a unique narrative universe in which your life is played out.

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Your expected range of experience is accompanied by a certain type of soundtrack. Your interactions with the world knit together your feelings of worth as a person, your sense of your ability to control your destiny, and any number of other components of your identity.

Naturally, the richer and more developed your story becomes, the more apt you are to interpret new information in a way consistent with what has happened before.

A bad turn of events pulls its meaning from the established context of your story: maybe another random misfortune has befallen you, like they always seem to do, or you deserve it because you are bad.

When something good happens you may tend to chalk it up to good luck, good genes, or good parenting, or as a reward for good behavior. While the experience itself may be very much in the forefront of your mind, it slots into your narrative subtext unobtrusively—for better or worse—and then you carry on to the next scene.

Fiction writers are generally careful to keep plot twists within the bounds of the world they have created. They are surprising but plausible so that you stay engaged in the story. You may be temporarily destabilized by them, but as you continue watching, your understanding shifts to accommodate the new information. That's like how we process the day-to-day slings and arrows of life. 

Why big setbacks are a big opportunity

On the other hand, if something completely out of the blue occurs in a film, you might be stymied. Let's say you are two-thirds of the way through a romantic comedy and, while embracing his beloved, the leading man turns into a werewolf, sprouts wings, and flaps away with her to his den.

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You'd be taken aback, mentally scrambling to make sense of the development. You'd have been jolted from your reverie and thrust into active involvement in story interpretation.

  • You may tell yourself that you inadvertently walked into an obscure art film, and continue watching, albeit unamused, because you already paid for the ticket.
  • You could find your curiosity tickled and suddenly become much more interested in what will happen next.
  • You might walk out of the theatre, irritated at the film’s misleading preview.

Three different ways of interpreting the same event, three different responses, and three different contributions to your lasting opinion (and enjoyment) of the film.

The difference between this situation and less shocking ones is that now, because what you thought was a reliable storyline has fallen to pieces, you get to be much more actively involved in choosing what you do with the new information. Being knocked completely off your feet, rather than just off balance, has forced you to consider fresh interpretations.

This is what happens when major life events come from out of left field. While you can choose to take a critical eye to your life narrative at any time, these head-scratchers beg for your involvement. How you respond to them can dramatically alter the trajectory, and even the genre, of your life story. They provide an opportunity to create big chunks of meaning in your life.

Finding your redemption

Here, you can take another cue from Hollywood: some of the most popular stories ever are those of redemption. These are ones that involve the overcoming of odds, obstacles, or downfalls, and achieving some kind of grand reward.

These stories resonate deeply with us because we’re wired to survive by overcoming obstacles—it's good for survival. The research also reveals that people who view their own story as one of redemption also tend to have a greater sense of well-being, meaning, and purpose in their lives.


I discussed in another article how to begin to find redemptive narratives in your life story if they aren’t obvious. Basically, you need to look for the signs of resilience that follow the major impacts; the ways that the hard times have positioned you to be the underdog.

Look for the things you’ve learned about yourself, someone else, or the world that you didn’t know before. Perhaps pushing through the difficulty revealed a hidden strength of yours that can take you to new places.

What can you do to integrate the downfall into your hero’s story, and what will the comeback scene entail?

Have you ever looked back and developed a new understanding of a past loss or setback? Please let me know about it in the comments section!