Every one of us has a life narrative: the story that we tell about our life so far and how we came to be who we are today. This life narrative is valuable when others want to get to know us better, but it turns out that it also has value for us in that it provides us with a unique way to gain insight into ourselves.
How do you go about constructing the story of your life? Here are some simple and straightforward questions that Dan Siegel, M.D. has compiled to help in creating a life narrative:
What was your childhood like?
What was your relationship like with each parent?
Were there other people you were close to as a child?
Whom were you closest to and why?
Give several words that describe your early relationship with each parent or caregiver.
Give a few memories that illustrate how each of those worked.
What was it like when you were separated, upset, threatened, or fearful?
Did you experience loss as a child and if so, what was that like for you and for your family?
How did your relationships change over time?
Why do you think your caregivers behaved as they did?
When you think back on all these questions, how do you think your earliest experiences have impacted your development as an adult?
If you have children, how do you think these experiences have affected your parenting?
What do you wish for your child in the future?
When your child is 25, what do you hope he or she will say are the most important things she or she learned from you?
What can you learn about yourself from telling your story? You may have remembered incidents that you had forgotten. You may have had new insights. These are certainly important. But you can learn something when, instead of focusing on the actual story you have told, you turn your attention to how you have told it. This will allow you to gain insight into the type of attachment that you formed as a child and the style of attachment you now have as an adult. You will better understand how you relate in your intimate relationships and you will be able to predict the type of attachment you will form with you own children. In his book, Mindsight, Dr. Siegel states,
The key to making sense is what the researchers came to call a “life narrative”—the way we put our story into words to convey it to another person. How an adult told his or her story turned out to be highly revealing. For example, people who were securely attached tended to acknowledge both positive and negative aspects of their family experiences, and they were able to show how these experiences related to their later development. They could give a coherent account of their past and how they came to be who they are as adults. In contrast, people who had challenging childhood experiences often had a life narrative that was incoherent.”
What does the way that you told your life narrative reveal about you and your style of attachment? Dr. Siegel points out that even people “who are highly articulate in their daily lives can become incoherent when they start to tell their story.”
Did you seem to be objective in the way you told your story? Did you describe a balance of positive and negative influences from the different people in your childhood? Did you move easily from the memories of the past to reflections on them as an adult today? Did you provide enough details to accurately describe an experience or were there gaps in your story? If your answers to many of these questions were “yes” then you most likely enjoyed a secure attachment with the important caregivers in your childhood.
When you told your narrative, did you have few actual memories from your childhood? Did most of your stories involve being alone? Were people incidental in the experiences that you related? Did you depict yourself as being independent, like a little adult? Were you mostly just with other children? Were parents or caregivers missing from your stories? Were your answers to the prompt questions brief and lacking in detail? Do you believe that your childhood had little impact on your development as a person. Is the tone of your narrative unemotional and factual? As you told your story, did you feel at all detached and disinterested? If your answers to many of these questions were “yes” then you most likely formed an avoidant attachment with the significant adults in your childhood. Dr. Siegel writes, “The narrative of dismissing adults has a central theme: I am alone and on my own. Autonomy is at the core of their identity. Relationships don’t matter, the past doesn’t influence the present, they don’t need others for anything.”
In your life narrative, when you told a story from the past did you lack the ability to reflect back on it as an adult today? Did you tell the story from the point of view of a child? Did your overall narrative relay conflicting themes? Did some of the incidents relate memories of thoughtfulness and attunement, while others were just the opposite: of incidents of intrusiveness and insensitivity? Is the tone of your narrative at all apologetic or self-effacing? As you told your story, did you feel insecure or self-critical? If your answers to many of these questions were “yes” then you most likely formed an ambivalent/anxious attachment with your parents or caregivers. Dr. Siegel writes, “A central theme of the preoccupied narrative is: I need others but I can’t depend on them.”
Did you have difficulty telling your story? Did you have trouble remembering incidents from your childhood, especially from the early years? And when you did have a memory, did you have difficulty relating the story? Did it come out disjointed and confusing? As you told it, did it feel like you were back in your past experiencing it again? Were you overly emotional? Did you feel strangely disoriented and not yourself? Was the overall tone of your narrative agitated and disturbing? As you told your story, did you feel more and more tense and uncomfortable? If your answers to many of these questions were “yes” then you most likely formed a disorganized attachment with the significant adults in your childhood. Dr. Siegel writes of this attachment, “Its theme is something like ‘At times I fall apart, so I can’t depend on myself.’”
Dr. Siegel makes the point that “it is possible to “change our lives by developing a ‘coherent’ narrative even if we did not start out with one.” To do this, a person has to construct the honest, objective story about what he or she experienced as a child. The story of the person with an avoidant attachment will tell about how he or she was neglected and had no one to rely on. The story of the person with an avoidant attachment will reveal episodes of emotional inconsistency that left him or her feeling distrustful and insecure. The story of the person with a disorganized attachment will most likely uncover incidents of abuse by an adult that he or she was dependent on. As these different people look back at their childhoods and reflect on their lives, they will be able to make sense of their journey and, as Dr. Siegel says, “build an inner experience of wholeness.”