How to challenge your stories, reduce your stress, rewire your brain, and reinvent your relationships.
Originally published at Mindful.org
“Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.” — Mahatma Gandhi
The stories we tell, particularly the ones we’re not aware of, can profoundly shape who we are, and the decisions that we make. Recognizing our stories and how they influence how we relate to others is a hallmark of becoming self-aware, and a cornerstone of mindfulness. But it can be difficult to discriminate ourselves from our stories unless we are conscious of them and understand their origins.
Humans are natural storytellers. We organize our internal worlds using language, spending a great proportion of our time encoding information into matrices of meaning that we use to interpret and predict social events, relationship experiences, and outcomes. Even now you are probably mentally describing your reaction to the last sentence.
Stories have been used for millennia by indigenous peoples to convey everything from hunting wisdom to navigation, to passing on values and traditions. They are as central to our identities as the names that we have been given.
Next time you find yourself sitting in traffic, riding a subway or bus, or waiting in line stop for a moment and notice what is happening in your mind. Chances are you’ll find yourself knee deep in a story. It may be recounting a newspaper article you read over morning coffee, making plans for the weekend, or re-hashing a disagreement. Either way, it’s a story, and it’s likely that there is another one running through your mind even as you read this. That’s some pretty advanced multitasking!
How We Develop Our Stories
We begin to create stories very early in life. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, most well-known for his four stages of child cognitive development, proposed that children are like “little scientists” who conduct an ongoing and endless series of tests to try to make sense of the world.
Between roughly the ages of 2 and 7, children are in what Piaget called the “preoperational stage”. During this stage, children engage in a continuous stream of pretend play where they try on roles in attempt to see what fits. If you observe them closely, you will notice that they often narrate their play with elaborate stories. Adults do the same thing. The only difference is that our stories often occur in our heads, and influence our behavior in more subtle ways.
Most of the fundamental stories that we create about our identities were shaped by the perceptions of parents, teachers and significant others; the more consistent the feedback, the more indelible the story. As we move through adolescence and into adulthood, these personal narratives are interwoven into the fabric of who we are and how we inhabit the world. They also feed forward into the types of experiences and relationships that we seek, and either confirming or refute our beliefs and expectations.
More often than not, we seek out information, and gravitate to environments and situations that reinforce our personal narratives – a phenomenon referred to as a confirmation bias. These biases can have a tremendous influence on how we view ourselves and who we become.
When I was in grade school, my older brother was dubbed the family math genius. He was the student who got all A’s in math without opening a book, and received a great deal of recognition. I realized very early on that despite my interest in math, he was the designated genius, which, by default, made me the “not-genius”. Over time that identity became part of my personal story. It not only shaped my behavior, but it also had significant bearing on the academic and career choices that I made early in my adult life.
"Research shows us that we not only have the capacity to pay attention to and stop the chatter of our stories, but we can also reduce our stress, rewire our brains, and reinvent our relationships by responding to them differently."
By the time I reached high school I didn’t like math or take advanced level courses because I was “bad” at it. Over time, this “bad at math” story became a limiting belief that steered me away from pursuing a career in science. It was only through my overwhelming desire to pursue a major in psychology, and the support of a wonderful math teacher that I eventually discovered that I was quite adept at math.
Through practice and perseverance, I debunked the myth and rewrote the story. Even so, the original “bad at math” myth still takes hold when I feel challenged by a difficult mathematical dilemma. In other words, stress triggers these stories even when we believe that we’ve rewritten them. It can almost feel as though they are etched in stone. Even after we erase and replace them, they can still arise to the surface, particularly when we are feeling fearful, overwhelmed or anxious.
Not all narratives are negative or harmful, and they are certainly not intractable. We live out stories one way or another, some limiting and some empowering.
Psychologists Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman speak of a mindset in which individuals view themselves as strong, capable, resilient and able to overcome challenge – what they call a narrative of personal adequacy. In a review of the impact of self-affirmation on behavior they find that positive self-affirmations can and do positively impact health and relationship outcomes, sometimes for months and even years.
Conversely, negative narratives can lead to devastating long-term consequences and self-fulfilling prophecies. In the words of psychologist Abraham Maslow, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The more you hold to a particular belief, the greater power it has over you.
Why Stories Matter
Our stories do not develop in isolation. They are shaped by years of social interaction – some positive, some negative. Humans tend to remember painful events more than pleasant ones. For example, we are often more likely to recall a critical comment than a positive one – a phenomenon referred to as negativity bias.
Research confirms that negative events are usually more salient, and remembered and recalled more accurately and in greater detail than positive ones. Human language provides an excellent reflection of this. Studies of Western adults find that we have more complex and elaborate language to describe negative emotions and experiences than positive ones.
These negative experiences need not be traumatic to be impactful, but we tend to remember them in remarkable detail, and recall them more readily than positive events. This is particularly true when those emotionally charged incidents occur in the context of a relationship.
"Why are these stories and personal narratives so important? By the time we reach adulthood these stories and identities are literally wired into our brains after years of rehearsal."
Why are these stories and personal narratives so important? By the time we reach adulthood these stories and identities are literally wired into our brains after years of rehearsal. This means that they are likely to be inflexible and habitual features of our mental and emotional landscape. We’ve also inadvertently or consciously become attached to their content, and are often no longer able to discriminate that they are, in fact, only stories.
Because of their strength, habitual nature, and the fact that they are strongly linked to our identity, we are particularly susceptible to living them out when we are our brains are taxed, or we feel stressed, tired, anxious, overwhelmed or fearful.
Becoming Aware of Your Stories
Even though our stories influence our perceptions and reactions, we are not destined to live them out. We are, however, much more likely to rely on them as lenses of perception when chronically stressed, emotionally reactive or acting on autopilot. So learning to manage stress is the first order of business.
When you begin to pay attention to your mental chatter you will likely discover that the stories you tell seem endless. It is how the mind works – one incessant stream of commentary. Michael Singer, author, essayist and renowned contemplative educator suggests that paying attention to this voice is an essential step in liberating ourselves from it.
“The best way to free yourself from this incessant chatter is to step back and view it objectively. Just appear like someone there is talking to you. Don’t think about it; just notice it”, he suggests.
But this is easier said than done, particularly when we’re stressed, tired and overtaxed. That’s because this voice is very responsive to stress. The more anxious, fearful and pressured we feel, the louder and more persistent the voice becomes. It’s the equivalent of having a hungry toddler in the candy aisle in the grocery store rattling around in your brain. The more you deny it, the more it protests until it gets your attention one way or the other.
“The best way to free yourself from this incessant chatter is to step back and view it objectively. Just appear like someone there is talking to you. Don’t think about it; just notice it”
Research shows us that we not only have the capacity to pay attention to and stop the chatter of our stories, but we can also reduce our stress, rewire our brains and reinvent our relationships by responding to them differently. This is one of the hallmarks of mindfulness – gently learning to observe and attend to our bodies, minds and experiences non-judgmentally. But to make that happen you first we need to learn more about the stories you tell.
Exercise: Identifying Your Personal Story
Take a few moments to write down your personal identity story. You may use simple descriptive phrases like, “I am tough”, “I take care of others before myself”, “I am good at math”. You may also choose to write down experiences, family beliefs or other influences that helped to shape how you view yourself now. Once you have listed your beliefs about yourself, and identified a few of your stories, look at each one and ask yourself the following questions:
Where did this story come from?
Is this my story or someone else’s?
Is this story true of me now?
Is this story contributing to or undermining my happiness?
Do I choose to continue to live this story or is it time to write a new one?
The most effective strategy for working with your personal stories or readjusting your mindset is to observe your thoughts objectively, and to refrain from getting too attached to them. Most importantly it is essential to remember that you are not your story and that it does not define you.
These narratives are one of myriad thoughts that go streaming through your mental database nonstop. It is part of being human. It is up to you to be aware of these stories, and to decide whether to live by them – or not.
(Handspring Publishing, 2016).