By Ellen M. Craine
Our past deeply impacts our present. Our childhood experiences have a huge impact on how we view the world today. We are deeply influenced, for better or worse, by the dynamics in our family, our religious upbringing, our cultural experiences, any bullying or trauma we endured, and the list goes on. All of these experiences are part of our autobiography and influence how we behave, think, and feel. In addition, how we experience life today, will impact how we experience life tomorrow.
An autobiography is comprised of two words: auto and biography. Auto means self. Biography means telling and/or writing of a story about someone and can be broken down even further to the two words “bio” and “graphy.” Bio means life or story according to Miriam Webster Dictionary. The word “graphy” refers to the telling of that life story in speaking or in writing. Thus, the word autobiography means the telling of one’s own life story verbally or in writing.
An autobiography focuses on the self-reflectiveness of the author (verbal or written). It is an exploration of one’s inner life and provides an evolution of one’s morality. Autobiographies reflect the author’s memories, feelings, and emotions. They can even reflect any public achievements. In Parallels Between Writing Biographies and Clinical Practice, author Urdang states, the bottom line is that “The autobiographical essay is a brief examination of subject matter important in the writer’s life, expressing the writer’s slant on the issues in question.”
The use of the biography and autobiography date back to 2000 B.C. and the story of Gilgamesh. Historically, biographies and autobiographies were to create contemporary understanding to gain insight into the figures of the past and to learn how the past influences the present problems. Autobiographies and biographies were treated differently for men than women. For men, the stories told were intended to create empathy or project onto, the life of the person portrayed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His philosophies were a big influence on the Age of Enlightenment throughout Europe. He believed that self-contemplation was an important step to personal development. He also believed in the importance of childhood experiences as important influences in adult life. This self-contemplation and review of childhood experience elevates the significance of one’s emotional life: our senses and our feelings. Through this exploration, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves the following questions: Do we see ourselves as others see us? How accurate are our perceptions of ourselves?
Autobiographies became extremely popular after the American and French Revolutions. In the 20th and 21st centuries, autobiographies and biographies have expanded into the sharing of intimate details of a person’s life. Urdang also explained, an autobiography allows tellers of their own stories the opportunity to reflect on their lives and potentially gain insight.
Self-exploration from telling one’s own story is possible if one is open to that. It requires the desire to seek a different understanding of past experiences by revisiting them. This is known as retrospective teleology. For example, I have co-authored five books. In the first book, Women Who Empower, I tell my version of my experience as the mom of a pediatric cancer thriver and losing my husband to an inoperable Stage IV glioblastoma (a brain tumor). In Women Who Dream, I share my journey of my diagnosis and successful treatment for breast cancer. In Leading with Legacy, I write about finding the light within the dark based on my life experiences and connect historical meaning from several holidays that reflect this concept. In Dear Younger Self, I write about and reflect on what I would want my younger self to know to help guide and support me in my life’s journey. In my most recent book, Shout it From the Rooftops Powerful Stories that Transform Lives, I write about the challenges of caring for an aging parent and the importance of asking for help. In telling my stories, some of which are still ongoing today, I reflect on the experiences from my perspective and what take aways I have in reflecting on these journeys. In addition, my goal in sharing these stories is to offer hope and possible ways to cope with similar life journeys for the reader.
One reflection from all of these events is the importance of having a community to lean on in good times as well as challenging times. With strong support systems in place, it is possible to have hope in the future. Most people need at least one other person in their lives to feel connected to and supported by. Another take away is that by writing about experiences and sharing them with others, there is an opportunity to process emotions and feelings related to them. Thinking about the audience that will read the stories impacts how those emotions and feelings are shared.
When we share an experience from childhood, or from any time in our past, and how it is impacting us today, we are telling part of our autobiography. In addition, we are processing how it has impacted us in the present. One healthful way to assist this processing is through journaling. Another healthful way is through processing the events through therapy or with a life/wellness coach. Most importantly, is the idea of self-reflection on the events and working to look at them as objectively as possible. Once we understand that what came before the events impacts how we cope with and see the present-day events.
One example of this is in the area of loss and grief. What a person’s earlier experiences are within the birth family, cultural, religious, and communal upbringing influence how a loss in the present is handled. In many experiences, grief from a loss is minimized or downplayed with attitudes that it is something to just get over. With this attitude about loss and grief, people feel in the present as if the emotions and feelings they have are something to be ashamed of or to be hidden. The ultimate result can be maladaptive coping and adaptation. When people are validated with their feelings and experiences, the view of the loss can become more realistic and can lead to more appropriate behaviors for the long haul. With success in this process in the present, it reinforces the desire and goal for success for oneself in the future. In the end, the more we understand our own autobiography, the more we can improve our own coping skills and positive adaptation—not only in the present, but well into the future.