Learning Yourself, Part 2: How to Find Meaning in Your Past

Learning Yourself is a series of posts about understanding who you are, building healthy relationships, connecting with God, and navigating conflict. Subscribe for free downloads from my new book, The Variable Life, to learn more about finding clarity and confidence in a world of choices.

What do you remember about your past?

Where do you look to find meaning for your life?

Those aren’t two random questions. They’re related.

solitude man How to Find Meaning in Your Past

If we went out to grab a drink and talk about the events we’ve experienced and people we’ve known, what stories would you tell? One full of remorse, frustration, and perpetual dejection? Or one about how you grew through challenges and became stronger because of them?

You may remember something one way, but a friend or family member who was there tells you that’s not how it really happened. Or you have a mental picture in your mind about the colors, weather, or people of a specific night 10 years ago, but you see a photograph from the event and your memory didn’t match the details accurately.

What’s up with that?

Something fascinating happens with the way we think about and understand things in our past.

For a Satisfied Life Now, Look to Your Past—but Don’t Stay There

Susan Cain wrote, in her book Quiet, about what psychologist Dan McAdams calls a “redemptive life story,” and a sign of mental health and wellbeing. At the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University, McAdams studies the stories that people tell about themselves:

“We all write our life stories as if we were novelists, McAdams believes, with beginnings, conflicts, turning points, and endings. And the way we characterize our past setbacks profoundly influences how satisfied we are with our current lives. Unhappy people tend to see setbacks as contaminants that ruined an otherwise good thing (“I was never the same again after my wife left me”), while generative adults see them as blessings in disguise (“The divorce was the most painful thing that ever happened to me, but I’m so much happier with my new wife”).

Those who live the most fully realized lives—giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves—tend to find meaning in their obstacles. In a sense, McAdams has breathed new life into one of the great insights of Western mythology: that where we stumble is where our treasure lies.”

Your ability to think about and find meaning in a challenging transition, bad relationship, or terrible situation in your past can teach you about yourself in the present.

The 3 Components You Need to Live a Life of Meaning

I once read about Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. He wrote about his experiences in concentration camps and developed logotherapy, which was his attempt to help people cultivate a sense of meaning as a viable means of self-awareness and healing. In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he explained three things a person needs to have a meaningful life:

  1. Have a project you’re working on that requires your unique skills and abilities—preferably a project that helps others.
  2. Share your experiences within the context of safe, loving relationships.
  3. Find a redemptive perspective on your suffering and challenges.

(Donald Miller digs into more about finding meaning.)

One of the most important parts of living a meaningful life is to reconcile the events of your past.

You can’t ignore what happened, but you don’t have to let the pain, anger, bitterness, or confusion keep you locked in the past. If you develop a way to see what you did and what happened to you as part of your ongoing story, you can use that knowledge and wisdom to make better choices in the future, build healthier relationships, and do better work.

It’s no wonder God invites us to forgive ourselves and others like he forgives us. That’s the path to living free of resentment. Without dealing with the challenges or pains of your past, your vision will be clouded and you’ll fall short of healthy work, relationships, and wholeheartedness.

What story are you telling yourself?

What will you change in your story, starting today?

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
― Viktor E. Frankl

As long as you’re alive, you can change, grow, and adapt.

Thanks for reading!

In the next post, we’ll look at how to be vulnerable and what we need from external sources to be able to get emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthy.

Learn more about understanding yourself, building healthy relationships, connecting with God, and handling conflict. Sign up to read a chapter in The Variable Life and download the free 19-song soundtrack.

2 responses to “Learning Yourself, Part 2: How to Find Meaning in Your Past

  1. John – this is a great piece. I definitely spend too much time dwelling on my setbacks and not always looking at them for the blessings they lead to. I absolutely need to get that Viktor Frankl book! Thank you for sharing!

    • Glad you liked it, Bridget. Frankl’s insights are powerful and convicting. Would love to hear your thoughts as you think through those setbacks and blessings.

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