Rewrite Your Movie: How to Use Symbolism as a Tool for Healing
Ever had your heart broken? Been fired? Watched someone else get the promotion you’ve been working years for? Had your life turned upside down by a global pandemic? Yeah, it’s awful. Disappointment rattles us at best. At worst, it robs us of ourselves.
Personally, I've always found my reaction to disappointment infuriating. The only constant in life is change, right? So, in theory, I shouldn't have an identity crisis every time things don't go my way. Still, despite my greatest attempts to remain stoic and maintain perspective, I feel physically ill when life lets me down.
Why is it so hard to handle a twist in the story?
Some of us believe there is a predetermined order to things. Others embrace the idea that all occurrences are random and change is entirely unpredictable. Regardless, in order to keep our heads above water and avoid a depressive spiral, we are each tasked with making meaning from a string of seemingly unrelated events.
Humans are naturals at this. We absorb stories - fiction and nonfiction - like little sponges. This is so addicting because storytelling is integral to the navigation and experience of our lives.
Narrative structure is not just for movies and books. We rely on storytelling to identify cause and effect, make sense of the chronology of life events, and establish our identities.
You can’t have a story without symbolism. We make symbols out of everything. Events, places, obligations, and other people serve our life narrative through what they represent. There is a dark side to this practice.
When a symbol is lost or doesn’t hold up to the meaning we initially projected onto it, the effect is more far-reaching than we may consciously realize.
Next time you’re struck by grief or hung up on unfulfilled expectations, ask yourself: what does the loss symbolize, and how does that symbol fit into the story of your life?
Answers may look something like this:
My child’s happiness is symbolic of my competence.
My partner’s love is symbolic of my value and desirability.
My performance at work is symbolic of my worth.
Or, to take it a step further:
Having my own child symbolizes personal salvation. It is an opportunity for me to create an ideal family dynamic and regain control over my home life after growing up in an unsafe or unstable household.
My romantic relationship symbolizes a second chance for love and fulfillment after my relationship with a family member fell apart or let me down.
Getting a promotion at work is proof that all my decisions and hard work leading up to this point were correct and not a waste of time.
The loss of a symbol can take many forms. Here is one possible scenario: you just broke up with your significant other, a relationship that lasted several years. Before you met this person, you were utterly lost: low self-esteem, a dead-end job, and absolutely no direction or excitement for the future. But when they entered your life, everything turned around. The relationship brought out the best in you. You did things together that you never thought you would be adventurous enough to try. This person inspired you to take risks in your career, be more compassionate, and behave responsibly. Navigating life with them made personal growth exciting and meaningful. Naturally, your confidence snowballed from there.
Over the course of several years, this person has become more than a person.
Meeting them was a pivotal event - a chance for salvation. Naturally, this person has taken on the role of a savior in your narrative: your muse, the catalyst of your joy, your destiny, your soulmate, and everything that comes with it.
Maybe you weren’t even in love by the end. You could’ve been the one who ended it. Regardless, the loss will cut deep because you’re not just losing another human being. You’re losing an elaborate construct that's deeply rooted in your psyche and the fabric of your life.
No wonder it hurts.
We live in tiny movies of our own creation.
Sure, you can’t control what happens to you or how other people behave. But you can manage the story as it unfolds: compartmentalizing, emphasizing, projecting, and taking actions to propel the plot. It is inevitable that you will make symbols out of the roles you play, life events, and relationships. But here is the good news:
You can utilize these symbols as tools for healing, especially when encountering change and disappointment.
One of my more recent disappointments left me in a negative mental state. It was a small heartbreak. I had strong feelings for someone in my life and discovered those feelings were unreciprocated. Objectively, nothing to lose my wits over. But for months, I was unable to focus on anything other than the loss. I hadn’t realized how much this other person meant to me until the possibility of them was taken away. It was jarring, and the negative effects lasted for months. I was sick to my stomach. Anxious. Lonely. I harbored resentment towards the situation and ultimately the world. Why did I care so much? Why couldn’t I just get over it?
Here is how I utilized symbolism to heal. These steps can be applied to processing other types of loss, disappointment, or sudden change.
Step one: remember that you have power.
I’m sick of this. That was the thought that dawned on me as I lay in bed, cheeks crusty from tears. All of a sudden, it was as if I floated out my body and saw myself lying there. I was shocked to see just how bad things had gotten. Over the past few months, I had become pathetic. Finally, it just wasn’t worth it anymore.
Suddenly, my happiness mattered more than the problem.
Reality hit me like a brick to the face: I had surrendered power to this person. I had poured my hope into this situation with them.
I was not a victim. I was the storyteller.
Step two: identify and release the symbols that no longer serve you.
Self-reflection is scary, but it is the first step to freedom. I knew it was time to get real about what this person symbolized, and therefore, what losing them symbolized.
Around this time, I was going through a dry spell in every other area of my life. I hated my job, a lot of my friends had moved away, and I’d lost pleasure in my hobbies. I had no direction or excitement for any long-term pursuits. In short, everything felt meaningless.
This other person was the only thing that could increase my heart rate, the only thing that held real stakes in my mind. Nothing else could phase me. I was more or less numb to the world. But I cared about them. Being around them made me feel hopeful. Their presence gave the world a little more magic at a time when life itself felt arbitrary.
That's why it was nearly impossible for me to let go and move on. Why would I? I had nothing else to turn to. Moving on would mean embracing the hollow, empty feeling I'd been trying so hard to suppress. If I let go of the only light in my heart, I was sure I would lose myself. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place: crying over this person or falling into despair.
This person symbolized a light at the end of the tunnel. Losing them symbolized that all hope was now lost.
At least, that was the story I had written, before it dawned on me that I could write a new one.
Step three: recreate your movie.
Remember, you write, direct, and cut together the footage of your life to create a narrative that suits you. So what’s the main idea? How are you going to support it?
Return to the raw footage. You might feel like you’re losing progress. I promise you are not. A dead-end story is worse than starting from scratch.
You can pick and choose any symbols you want. Take a step back and ask yourself:
What kind of protagonist are you? What is the destiny you are propelled to fulfill?
Who is the antagonist? The world? Another Character? Or are you your own worst enemy?
Who are the supporting characters in your film? Who do you cast as the romantic interest? Who are the extras?
How did you decide which scenes were too unimportant or boring to keep? Which pivotal moments led to the climax? If the climax of the film were to change, would you choose different scenes to lead up to it?
Here are the edits I made.
First things first. My film is not a romantic comedy, and this person is no longer a romantic interest. Therefore, my feelings for them no longer drive the plot. Being close to them is no longer the end goal for the protagonist (me). Their emotions and behavior no longer determine the ending of my movie, and most importantly, unrequited love is no longer my main obstacle.
In my new story, unrequited love is a key event that led to discovering something more wonderful.
That person was not my destiny. They were proof that I could feel something at a time when I felt nothing. By deciding this person is no longer the main objective, I have opened up the end of the story. Now, there is space to discover a new objective and destiny. That potential in itself is a reason to get out of bed every day.
The feelings of hope this person gave me were ultimately created within myself. I merely projected that feeling onto them and made them a symbol, a physical manifestation of hope. But the feeling was already inside me. Once I took ownership of that, I had the power to project it onto other areas of my life.
I promoted some cameos to supporting characters by reconnecting with people I loved but have been neglecting. Furthermore, I redefined what kind of protagonist I am. I am no longer a victim of isolation and loneliness. I am someone who has a lot of love to offer, someone who is not afraid to give that love honestly at the risk of being hurt.
I was surprised to find that, even though my life didn’t get better overnight, this reallocation of emotion improved things at my job and in my social life. Nothing had objectively changed, but I had changed. I was content. I was hopeful.
Unrequited love is not a tragedy in this new story, it is a blessing. It gave color back to my life.
I don't need to remind you that 2020 sent us all through the wringer. It's a new year, but we're not out of the woods. Even in 2021, it still seems like a bad idea to have hope, plans, expectations, or the right to any sort of normalcy. Across the board, the world has experienced immeasurable loss and disappointment. Weddings and graduations were canceled, jobs and financial security were lost, and at worst, loved ones passed away.
Reflect on what you've lost recently - whether it was big or small, related to the pandemic or not. Grief takes time, and there is no single cure to process a loss. But I encourage you to be honest with yourself.
Are you trapped in a place of grief because of the story you've told?
If the answer is yes, you may find solace by taking the time to rewrite your story. This is where hope comes in.