How to Gain Clarity in Life: Know your life story

“You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.”
– Maya Angelou

Everyone wants to feel like they are maximizing their God-given potential. Everyone wants to know that the life they’re living is meaningful and fulfilling, to feel clear in our direction. But it seems that so many of us struggle to do that. We’re just not sure how to gain clarity in life. 

The key to moving forward is in gaining clarity on the past; you must know your life story.

Unless you’re living in a cave—or doing a remarkable job of avoiding the internet—you are undoubtedly aware of the large scale demonstrations that have been going on all around our country.

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen thousands of people take to the streets to make their voices heard. We’ve also seen millions more take to social media trying to do the same thing: make their voice heard. There is a lot of talking back and forth between people.

Who I Am

I’ve noticed something within all of these protests, conversations, and arguments. What I’m seeing is an underlying attempt by whoever is speaking to make others understand them as a person. 

The protesters, both in the streets & online, want people to understand who they are and what they’ve experienced. And those that are frustrated by the protests and are verbally (or literally) pushing back are wanting the same thing; for the demonstrators to know who they are and what they’ve experienced.

Everyone is trying to convey to the other WHO THEY ARE.

But I wonder if the difficulty is that so many of us don’t know who we are.

Or said a different way; we haven’t told our story to ourselves, so how can we expect to share it with someone else?

If what I want as an individual is for another person to understand who I am, I have to be the first to understand. If I want someone to listen to my story, I have to know what my story is.

The Ancient Tradition of Testimony

For thousands of years, there has been a tradition of giving testimony.

Quite simply, a testimony is an account of the events of the past. In a courtroom, a person gives testimony of events that are relevant to the case at hand. Throughout Church history, a testimony bears witness to how the Divine has worked in and through a person’s life.

The first time I ever sat down and genuinely examined the events of my life to gain more clarity on my own story, I was a 20-something youth minister trying to teach teenagers how to share their faith with others. I figured that it would be helpful if everyone was able to articulate their life story, and how God fit into it. 

As the intrepid leader that I was, I figured I should try out this process of self-examination before I inflicted it upon this gaggle of unsuspecting middle and high school students.

I thought that there wouldn’t be anything enlightening for me to see, after all, it was my life…I was there when it all happened. I was wrong.

I was surprised to notice that I had various patterns of behavior, mixed motivations, and a number of fears that propelled me in multiple directions. All of these were blind to me until I slowed down and looked at everything as a whole.

It was enlightening to gain this insight, however, I didn’t really do much with it at the time.

The second time I went through this process of articulating my own story was after I had burned out of ministry in a blaze of self-destructive glory. I crash-landed in a wonderful 12-step fellowship and learned that the key to my spiritual healing lay in the process of learning to vulnerably tell my story, first to myself and then to others.

What I discovered was that I was living my life as if I was on autopilot, just reacting. 

I would receive wonderful praise for a successful event at work, and I would feel on top of the world. But then not 30 minutes later, I would receive that one criticism for the event not being absolutely perfect and would feel like a total failure (I’m assuming I’m alone in this experience…surely you can’t relate to it).

Reacting to Responding

Through the process of really learning my story, I was able to begin the shift from reacting to responding. The high of good news deepened into gratitude, and the sting of “failure” was seen as an opportunity to connect with other human beings who it turned out weren’t perfect either. And that is actually the coolest part of this process.

Beyond the benefit I receive, learning my own story is the first step in sharing it with another person. And ultimately, sharing our stories—person to person—is how human beings connect. 

When I tell you my story, and you tell me yours, we are doing what we have been created to do.

In essence, stories make us more human.

So, how can you learn your own story in order to better connect with yourself and with others?

That’s what I’m going to show you. It’s a simple process I use when helping someone who wants to know how to gain clarity in life.

Going Deeper

After hitting a wall in my spiritual and professional life, I took a look at what had brought me to that point so I could discover where I wanted to go next. I had wise people help me understand that my burnout and unhealthy coping behaviors didn’t come out of nowhere. 

The best way to start thriving was to honestly look at all the ways that I wasn’t.

By taking the time to learn my own story, I found not only greater clarity for myself but greater connection with others.

I want to show you HOW to do this work, but first let’s explore things a bit further by looking at two things…

  1. Why learning and sharing our story is so powerful
  1. What keeps many people from doing this work

Why Stories Are So Powerful

Humans are born storytellers (and story-listeners). Neuroscientists tell us that our brain reacts in powerful ways whenever we hear a compelling story. 

If I want to know how to gain clarity in life, it isn’t quite enough to just think about the string of events in my past. Articulating my life as the story that it is helps me connect to myself in a powerful way. When I learn my story, and subsequently share it with someone else, I’m using a language that is deeper and more profound than the mere transfer of information.

We know this on an intuitive level.

Think about a time when you were struggling. Your life just wasn’t making sense. You couldn’t get circumstances to work the way you needed them to. 

You were feeling disconnected, isolated, afraid, angry, lonely, tired.

Maybe you had well meaning people try to give you advice, or instructions on what to do. Maybe these words were intended to be encouraging, but they didn’t really feel like it. It’s as if this advice didn’t actually have much to do with the reality you were experiencing on a visceral level. You know…a chocolate covered turd.

But then you talked with a person who, instead of offering advice, shared a story of how they had experienced something similar to your situation. He or she told you their own story, but you could have sworn what was really happening was they were telling you YOUR story.

That’s what happens when we hear a compelling story. We are given space to hear in the story of another person our own story, and that makes all the difference.

Stories are the language of the soul.

I once heard a pastor say that the greatest sermon anyone could ever preach were the words, “Me too.”

What Keeps People From Learning Their Story

So, if understanding our own story and sharing it with others is so powerful, what keeps us from doing it?

I think there are two main obstacles people face.

Fear & Shame

The first obstacle that people face that keeps them from gaining clarity on their sotyr is fear and shame. Often, I think, the thought of looking backwards at our past is a scary prospect for many of us. 

Fear and shame are powerful emotions, and rather uncomfortable; and we as a society work really hard to avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable (shout out to air-conditioning and tempurpedic pillows).

No doubt, there is plenty of good to reminisce about in our past, but there may also be a fair bit about our lives that we would rather not look at. It is much easier to simply move on, ignore all of the decisions and events that brought us to where we are today. 

Quite simply, many people are afraid to articulate their life story, even if just for themselves.

It’s Too Big

The second obstacle is a bit more logistical. Learning my life story is no small feat. In fact, it can be a daunting task that seems so big it’s hard to figure out how to even start.

Even for myself, I could spend hours and days and weeks and months thinking about and listing and examining all of the events and decisions that I’ve made in my life. And I’m not that old!

The older someone gets, the bigger the prospect of articulating their life story becomes. Many of us simply don’t even know where to begin.

Which brings us to this…

5 Steps to Learning Your Story

This work of learning on our own story (and it is work) may be daunting, it may be scary, but it also is the key to a life that is, dare I say, transformative.

Here is how it’s done.

Step 1: Create a Major Event History

The first thing to do is begin creating a Major Events Timeline. This is a way to document the events in your life that had a formative effect on you. Whether it was emotionally, physically, spiritually, or mentally, list the moments throughout your life that made you who you are today.

A few tips:

  • Create columns — 0-10 years old (childhood), 11-18 years old (early-mid adolescence), 19-25 years old (late adolescence), 26-35 years old (early adulthood), etc. 
Age 0-10Age 11-18Age 19-25Age 26-35Age 36 45
  • List any and all events that you think were formative to who you are today. Deaths of family members, losing your dog, going to a new school, moving to a new city, parents get divorced.
  • Be sure to include positive moments throughout your life. These are just as major & influential. Moments like the birth of a sibling, or getting a new pet, a memorable vacation. Include decisions you made or actions you took that proved to be pivotal in your life…either positively or negatively
  • Include any firsts that seem important. Your first kiss, your first time having sex, your engagement & wedding, your first concert, your first speeding ticket, etc.

Step 2: Identify Your Motives

You have mapped out your past. You have a grasp on what events, actions, and choices had a formative effect on who you are as a person today. Now what?

Pause, and consider why you are doing this work right now?

  • Is it to impress others? Is it to bolster your reputation as a good person? Is it in the hopes of finding an effective leadership strategy?
  • Do you genuinely want to develop as a person? Do you want to radiate grace and peace in all things, not for any sort of recognition, but for the sheer joy and freedom that kind of life promises?
  • Is it a mixture of the two…are your motivations both pure and self-serving at the same time?

Before you go any further, honestly consider your motivations for doing this work.

Perhaps journal about what you discover.

Step 3: Recognize Patterns

Now that you can take a 30,000 ft. view of your life, what do you notice? Are there any patterns of behavior? Are there clear roadblocks that are hindering you from moving forward towards your goals?

Some possible things to notice:

  • A pattern of anxiety & stress around work, or perfectionism and procrastination.
  • A codependent relationship to other people and their opinion of you.
  • A penchant for a bit too much drinking after work
  • A habit of pornography or promiscuity that you’re constantly trying to hide or explain away
  • An ongoing challenge with food, either eating too much or not enough.
  • A history of having a short temper and a tendency to rage that is a growing concern to others and yourself.
  • Perhaps you just read all of the above short-comings and immediately recognized them as problems within other people you know, yet your own shame & fear of failure keeps you from recognizing any deficiency within yourself.

Step 4: Frame Your Narrative

The goal and purpose of examining your life history, considering your motivations, and recognizing patterns is not simply to produce a sequential list of life events, but to gain clarity on your life story.

Pick the highlights from the various columns from your Major Event History and start crafting your narrative. You don’t have to write a memoir here, just see the general arc of your story from beginning to end.

A few helpful tips for you:

  • Look at your Major Events History. Choose 1-3 significant moments from each age bracket (column). There should be no more 10-15 selections. These events will function as the framework for your narrative; the plot points of your life story.
  • Remember, this is not a piece of journalism, but a narrative. While recounting the formative events that you chose from your Major Event History, it may be helpful to allude to the internal motivations that you have examined and how they’re related to the string of events in your story.

Step 5: Share It

You no doubt gained a lot of clarity about yourself, but the real magic happens when you share your story with someone else.

The point is not to impress others with your writing and storytelling ability. It is not to shock people by regaling them with stories from your past. The point of crafting your narrative testimony well is so that others may hear their own stories within yours, and as a result find wisdom, healing, and growth for themselves.

This Is No Life Hack 

I’ve compiled these 5 steps into a PDF that you are welcome to download and use as a resource.

Though, let’s be honest, this isn’t your typical quick & easy life hack.
This is the kind of work someone does because they want to live a powerfully meaningful life.
This is the kind of work someone does because they want to maximize their God-given potential.

And the impact is exponentially increased when this work is done with someone who has been there before. Someone who has done the work and knows how to gain clarity in life. 

After all, a knowledgeable guide is always going to be more helpful than a map alone.

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