Everyone has a backstory. It’s the personal mythology that we weave around our lives, from the beginning to the present. You see, a backstory is more than just a personal history. These origin stories often form the narrative that we use to explain who we are, where we came from, and how we got here. Problems arise when these stories become devices that we use to justify our behavior or to prevent ourselves from changing or growing.
You could say that a backstory might become a “holding you back story.”
Most of our backstories begin before birth– with the tale of how our parents met. For those with family trauma, these stories may extend to include the trauma our parents and even grandparents suffered. Whether our parents were soldiers or immigrants, farmers or refugees– these stories get woven into our own. Knowing and understanding our history is powerful, but recognizing the gift of that knowledge requires using it to create a future that diverges from our past.
How many times have you heard someone’s backstory and recognized that they are repeating a narrative that they’ve internalized? The woman who grew up in an abusive household and now has an abusive partner, or the unfaithful husband whose father cheated on his mom– these are typical narratives that we see repeated. But what about the subtler ones, the ones that lie hidden deep?
A friend –who was sexually abused as a child– once revealed that she believed that only someone with a similar trauma could truly understand her. While she told herself and others this story, over the years I saw her stumble from one unhealthy relationship to the next. Eventually, she married and had a family with a wonderful, wholesome partner. And after a decade she left him for a man with a dark past who ended up sending her life spiraling. All this because she believed that this man’s backstory matched hers better– was what she actually deserved. We can pay dearly for the stories we attach to ourselves.
Common themes in backstories include ideas about money, class, education, and individual worth. If your backstory involves growing up poor and you feel shame about it, it’s unlikely that you will apply to a top-tier university, even if you have the grades to get a full scholarship. That’s because your story doesn’t make room for a different life. Your story tells you that affluent people will reject you. But the truth is that people are all cut from the same cloth: we are all people, each with our own backstory.
Each time you tell a story about yourself, you reinforce it a little more and ensure that it continues to be true. While there’s no need to lie about a backstory, there are kernels of truth, power, and inspiration to be gleaned from stories of how we’ve overcome loss, hardship, and unfavorable odds. Re-framing your backstory can change your future by removing self-limiting beliefs about yourself. A wise person once said, “What you focus on is what you create,” and I think nowhere is this more true than in the stories we tell about ourselves. Take your backstory to the therapist’s office and heal the parts that aren’t serving you on the floor. See where your improved backstory takes you, and don’t look back.
Francesca Singer is a former farmer, landscape architect, and massage therapist who splits her time between Texas and rural France. When not writing or wrangling a toddler, she can be found hiking or working in the garden.