Humans are natural storytellers. We can’t live without them. But sometimes these stories work against us and undermine our happiness. Here's what to do to change your story and your life.
“A man is always a teller of stories. He sees
everything that happens to him through them.”
~ Jean Paul Sartre
Even though we are perennial story tellers, we don't have to fall prey to our imaginations, or allow anxious or negative rumination, fearful imaginings, or projections about future catastrophes interfere with our happiness. We can become aware of our stories, question their veracity, and choose whether or not to continue to feed them. Here's how.
Your Mindset Matters: 3 Steps to Rewriting Your Story
Notice the next time you find yourself sitting in traffic, riding a subway or bus, or waiting in line. 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 is likely that one is running somewhere through your mind even as you read this.
We begin to create stories very early in life. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, most well known for his 4 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 virtually continuous stream of pretend play, during which they try on roles in attempt to see what fits. If you observe them closely, you will notice that children often narrate their play with elaborate stories.
Most of the stories that children create about their identities are 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 become interwoven into the fabric of who we are and how we inhabit the world. They also feed forward into the types of experiences that we seek, and feed back, either confirming or disconfirming our beliefs and expectations. More often than not, we select environments and situations that reinforce our personal narrative – a phenomenon referred to as a confirmation bias. These biases are incredibly powerful.
Stress triggers these stories even when we believe that we’ve rewritten them. Even after we erase and replace them, they still arise to the surface, particularly when we are feeling fearful, overwhelmed or anxious.
These self-narratives (“I am smart”, “I am pretty”, “I am unlovable”, “I fail at relationships”) are the central plots to our story lines. We often find ourselves living them out over and over again. We choose experiences that confirm our beliefs, selecting relationships, careers and situations that affirm these expectations.
These stories can also determine how we relate to others, not to mention influence new stories about the people in our lives and how they interact with us. One of my favorite expressions is, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If, for example, you believe that no one likes you, it can be very difficult to interpret even kind and loving behavior as welcoming.
“The world, the human world, is bound together not by protons and electrons, but by stories. Nothing has meaning in itself: all the objects in the world would be shards of bare mute blankness, spinning wildly out of orbit, if we didn't bind them together with stories.”
― Brian Morton
3 Steps to Changing Your Story
1. First and foremost it is important to identify your story. Start noticing the messages that you tell yourself over and over again throughout the day. You may even want to write them down and keep track of them. When it comes to stories, knowledge is power.
2. Once you begin to recognize your stories challenge them. Ask yourself, "Where did this story come from?" "Is this my story or someone else's story about me?" "Is this really true for me now?" Chances are, when you examine your story you will find that you are hearing someone else's interpretation of who you are and not your own.
3. Rewrite your story. When you recognize those familiar words, phrases and interpretations of yourself coming to mind acknowledge that they are there and rewrite them. Get in the habit of telling yourself your new story over and over again. Instead of, "I'm not a good person, I don't deserve to be happy", try "I am wonderful. I deserve all of the happiness in the world".
The only person that can convince you that your story is no longer true and rewrite a new one is you. Be aware, challenge your assumptions and create new a new story. Make that new story the affirmation that changes your life.