The Power of Your Backstory in Knowing Who You Are and Who You’re About to Become

creativity productivity self-improvement wisdom writing Mar 13, 2019

Don’t Get Stuck in Your Past, Use it as “Information Only” and Watch What Happens

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
- Maya Angelou

No one arrives at this very moment in time without a past.

In story development, we call it a backstory.

I took acting classes for years in Los Angeles with two notable teachers, Stella Adler, and Jeff Corey. Both were great actors, and both had a remarkable gift to teach other actors how to develop characters that come alive on stage and in film.

Jeff Corey was the first to introduce me to the idea of the backstory. He said you couldn’t develop a full character until you know who they are. If the script doesn’t tell you what happened from birth to how they became the character on the page, then you make it up. He also added this tidbit… every character needs to have a secret.

The audience may never know the secret exists, but the actor does. It’s the key to giving that character a full and real life. We all have things in our lives that remain a secret for as long as we can bear to hold it silent. But it’s there. It affects your life, even though you’ve buried it beneath layers of life experiences.

I introduced the concept of the secret and the backstory to my late husband, David Peckinpah, who was a professional screenwriter for movies and TV. After the children went to bed, we’d sit up late creating stories and “build” new characters from our collective imagination.

As an actor, the backstory becomes the framework for what drives the character, how they react, relate to others, and make decisions.

Your Backstory “Characterizes” You
This story technique has relevance in real life, too. It’s our backstory that “characterizes” us. It’s loaded with information about how you’ve become who you are. It’s a tool of observation that provides perspective to make sense of a life you thought was random, reactive, and chaotic.

Looking at my life decades ago, I began to see the subtle, hidden memories of my backstory. For example, during my life, I’ve always been a people pleaser. I loved giving help, but it was hard for me to accept help because I didn’t want to believe I needed anyone.

In looking at my timeline, I know why. My father was in the Navy and we moved 12 times before I reached the age of 12. People don’t realize that moving is a huge trigger and can set up lifelong patterns of separation, and feeling like you always have to start over.

I developed feelings of not belonging, loneliness and being an outsider. I believed I had to be “strong” on my own because I didn’t feel connected. Even today when I experience new situations, my mind immediately jumps back to that frightened little girl on the first day of a new school.

Moving had its benefits, too. I got used to being uprooted and traveling. I had no qualms about leaving home at 16 to tour with a musical cast performing around the world. It gave me a sense of adventure, and I still love traveling!

Are you beginning to see the tapestry of life? When you have the gift of seeing your past from a new perspective, it changes you.

A Secret Tool of Discovery
We have a tool we can implement as a way to go back, review, resurrect resolution and inspire action for the years ahead. It’s our timeline.

A timeline will take 10–15 minutes to do, and give you the gift of insight. It is simply sitting down and writing out the memorable moments, like snapshots of your life in just a few words (more on doing a timeline in this article: Someday is Not a Plan)

Doing this not only documents the high and low points of your life but is also a tool that can uncover things we have buried. We all have incidents in our lives that are like tiny thorns under the skin. We can’t see them, but they irritate us and make their presence known when something causes them to fester.

It’s important to shine the light on the secrets that hold us hostage. Without it, we can’t heal. The incident may cause your feelings of shame, or maybe just a sense of uneasiness triggered by certain situations.

Brené Brown is a Research Professor at the University of Houston where she studied the effects of shame and vulnerability. She says, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” (I urge you to view Brené’s TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability”)

“Stories are data with a soul.” — Brené Brown

Break the shame open by speaking to someone about your secret. At that point, you begin to safely extract what you’ve learned from it, and use it to strengthen you. Whether it’s something you did, something that was done to you, or something you experienced, it may be time to safely release the hold it has on your life.

Acknowledging Painful Secrets and What to Do With Them
I recognize there is no easy way to approach the painful secrets we have so carefully guarded. I enlisted the aid of a licensed therapist, and it was in her office that I felt safe to reveal my secrets, my grief, and my pain. I wanted a partner in healing that I could trust and someone who wouldn’t judge me, but give me a safe place to find my voice.

I also found a support system within my intimate tribe of friends and family. I discovered by opening up to them, that they had secrets and backstories too. By using your support system, you can be a witness for each other and burn your shame in the ceremony, opening up to the next chapter of your life.

"The practice of healing long-held suffering begins the moment you acknowledge the suffering is there." -Gabrielle Bernstein, author, The Universe Has Your Back

When I did my work on my backstory, using my Timeline tool, I realized it was as much about the sorrows as the joys. Even the most tragic times, brought an amazing awakening and expansion of the “story of me.”

Jeff Goins made this powerful statement:

"Your past doesn’t determine your future, but it does inform it." -Jeff Goins, author, of The Art of Work

Consider Labeling Your Past as “Information Only
Clearly, your past is undermining your future if it holds you, hostage, to your feelings of worthiness. Imagine how differently you might feel about the difficulties in your history if you labeled them “information only.” With that transformation, you see how far you’ve come, and the backbone it gave you.

With my history, I look at the whole story… the wonderful times, the losses, the heartbreaks, the financial difficulties, and disappointments. It’s a moniker that tells me how strong I really am.

My writing students often say the most helpful thing I do is push them to “expand” their story. Not only does it make their story better, but it also expands their understanding of the meaning of life… theirs.

Your backstory and secrets can be filled with achievements and fun too! Did you win the local talent show? Did you act on television as a young girl? Do you know how to solve complicated math equations? Do you have a gift for writing poetry? These are all things to share with others to fully “characterize” yourself, just as an actor does.

Life is full of moments you’ve forgotten that shaped you! Those are your medals of honor. Cherish them for the role they played in your life script.

Sometimes when I’m with clients, I share my story about having been an actress with small roles in television series and movies. I reveal how at one time, I wanted to be a major star!

Instead, writing grabbed my creative heart. However, my acting classes and experiences helped shape my ability to be a better writer and speaker. I met people on set who were still my close friends. We share a creative bond that I cherish.

Our stories connect us personally and professionally.

Take the Next Step
Expanding our life story is the only destiny we have. Just as the universe developed from the moment of the Big Bang, we, as human beings, are meant to expand our lives until the day we die. We grow in knowledge, capabilities, experiences, talents, generosity, hopes, dreams, connections with others, and most of all, our ability to love.

Recognize the Role of Your Backstory
All of our experiences help us grow and change. Recognizing the role of our backstory is the next step.

Even though I developed the timeline as a tool for my writing clients, I wondered what it would be like if I could help others define their lives through their backstories, whether they were writers or not.

It helps us discover how remarkable we truly are. It reveals clues and revelations in the “story of us.”

  1. What are 2 or 3 significant events in your backstory?
  2. How did it shape you?
  3. Do you have a secret and does it help you or hurt you?
  4. What did you learn?
  5. Do you understand how to shift this experience to benefit you? What’s your very next step?
  6. Whom do you trust to share it with? Ask them to be compassionate listeners. They don’t have to resolve it, fix it, or change it.
  7. What actions do you need to take to make peace with the things that hold you back?
  8. How will you create your future story to find the happiness and success you’ve been searching for?

Sometimes we can’t do this alone. If you’re struggling with some issues from your past that causes you depression or anxiety, it’s important to seek professional help.

Every Day is a Decision
Your past and even this very moment in time is your backstory.

Let this hindsight become wisdom, reborn. With that knowledge and your capabilities, your future is stronger than you ever imagined.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got creativity on your mind… I have a complimentary sample for you. A short ebook on how to establish some simple habits to set your creativity on fire: How to Develop the Creative Mindset.

**Previously published on Medium**