• As humans, the way we tell stories typically follow a small number of distinctive plot-lines

  • Writer David Brooks explores how these can shape how we see ourselves, and the role of therapy in helping us edit our unhelpful narratives

By adulthood most of us have settled on the overarching plot-lines of our lives, and we have often selected those plot-lines from stories that are common in our culture. In The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker describes the relatively few plot-lines that show up in our culture again and again, and how we apply them to tell our own life stories. Some people, for example, see their lives as “Overcoming the Monster,” in which the hero defeats some central threat, like alcoholism, through friendship and courage. 

Other people view their lives as 'Rags to Riches,' in which the hero starts out impoverished and obscure and rises to prominence. Or they see their lives as a 'Quest,' a story in which the hero undertakes a voyage in pursuit of some goal and is transformed by the journey. There must be more than seven plots, but it’s probably true that every mentally healthy person has one overriding self-defining myth, even if they are only semi-aware of it.

Many Americans, McAdams has found, tell redemption stories.That is to say, they see their lives within a plot-line in which bad things happened, but they emerged from them stronger and wiser. For example: I had some early blessing. I saw the suffering of others. I realised my moral purpose. I endured periods of suffering. I grew from my pain. I’m looking toward a beautiful future. If you’re talking with an American and you want to get a sense of who they are, find out if their life story falls into this pattern, and if not, why not.

In Composing a Life, the cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson argued that we often shoehorn our lives into neat, linear stories of decision and then commitment: I decided to become a doctor and pursued my dream. She argues that many lives are not like that. They are nonlinear. They have breaks, discontinuities, and false starts. Young people, she wrote, need to hear that the first job they take at 22 is not necessarily going to lead in a linear way to what they are going to be doing at forty. I’m always intrigued by people who see their lives as a surfing story: I caught a wave and rode it, then I caught another wave. Then another. That’s a relaxed acceptance of life few of us can muster.

The next question I ask myself when hearing stories is: How reliable is this narrator? I guess all of our stories are false and self-flattering to some degree. The seventeenth-century French moralist François de La Rochefoucauld issued the crucial warning here: “We are so used to disguising ourselves from others that we often end up by disguising ourselves from ourselves.” 

Some people, however, take fabulation to the extreme. They are beset by such deep insecurities and self-doubts that when you ask them to tell their story, what you end up getting is not an account but a performance. The novelist William Faulkner returned home from World War I in a pilot’s uniform, overflowing with tales of his heroic exploits gunning down German planes. In reality, he never saw combat. 

The great conductor Leonard Bernstein once told an interviewer, “My childhood was one of complete poverty.” He said his high school offered “absolutely no music at all.” In fact, Bernstein grew up wealthy, with maids, at times a chauffeur and a second home. He was the piano soloist in his school’s orchestra and sang in the glee club.

Some people tell evasive stories. Stephen Cope writes that his mother often told stories of her life but “here was the rub: she left out almost all the hard parts. So actually her narrative was woven from pieces of the truth, but when it was all put together, it turned  out to be a kind of elaborate cover story. It was a wish. The shadow side was left out.” Because she felt that it’s shameful to admit you’re in pain, she left the moments of pain out of her story. Since confronting pain wasn’t in her story, she wasn’t able to confront it in real life. One day Cope called her, sobbing, after his best friend had died suddenly. “She barely knew what to say or how to comfort me,” he recalls. “After all, who had comforted her? She couldn’t wait to get off the phone.”

Some people tell you life stories that are just too perfect. There are never any random events; each episode of their life was, supposedly, masterfully planned in advance. Such people describe one triumph after another, one achievement after another in a way that’s just not real. “The only way you can describe a human being is by describing his imperfections,” the mythologist Joseph Camp-bell wrote. That goes for self-description, too. 

Finally, when I’m hearing life stories, I’m looking for narrative flexibility. Life is a constant struggle to refine and update our stories. Most of us endure narrative crises from time to time—periods in which something happened so that your old life story no longer makes sense. Perhaps you dreamed all your life of becoming an architect. When people asked you about your childhood, you would talk about how even as a kid you were fascinated by buildings and homes. But let’s say you didn’t get into architecture school or got there and found it boring. You ended up doing something else. You have to go back and rewrite the history of your childhood so that it coherently leads to the life you are now living.

Therapists are essentially story editors. People come to therapy because their stories are not working, often because they get causation wrong. They blame themselves for things that are not their fault, or they blame others for things that are. By going over life stories again and again, therapists can help people climb out of the deceptive rumination spirals they have been using to narrate themselves. They can help patients begin the imaginative reconstruction of their lives. Frequently the goal of therapy is to help the patient tell a more accurate story, a story in which the patient is seen to have power over their own life. They craft a new story in which they can see themselves exercising control.

I find that most of us construct more accurate and compelling stories as we age. We learn to spot our strengths and weaknesses, the recurring patterns of our behaviour, the core desire line that will always propel our life forward. We go back and reinterpret the past, becoming more forgiving and more appreciative. “Calm is a function of retrospective clarification,” the Swarthmore literature professor Philip Weinstein writes, “a selective ordering after the fact.”

David Brooks is the author of How to Know a Person, our November Book of the Month 2023

Further reading

How to change the way you see yourself

How can we embrace our insecurities?

What does our position in the family mean?

My therapist told me I didn't know myself – they were right

Why my experience of therapy led me to train as a therapist