“Let’s go, let’s do this. Yes! I can get this done.”
“Who are you kidding? You can’t do that. You are just no good at it. Yeah, that’s true.”
I don’t know about you but this kind of conversation has happened in my mind more than I care to admit. This incessant internal monologue can be both encouraging and, let’s face it, not so encouraging. It is full of ideas that seem to be true. When you declare these statements to yourself, they feel like they are really describing an element of your personality that is immovable and set in stone. The great thing is they are actually just stories that you are telling yourself and you can rewrite your story. You can change the more unhelpful stories you tell yourself to something that is more supportive and open.
Throughout our lifetime we experience thousands upon thousands upon thousands of interactions, conversations and events. Unless you have some kind of super capacity, photographic memory most of these experiences will be lost to the sands of time. However, in order to hold onto the ones we want we organise them into stories. Giving them structure like this allows us to file them away in neat little narratives for us to recall at a later date.
We all have these stories that are knocking around our consciousness. They are often constructed from a combination of experiences, other people’s opinions and/or other environmental factors, such as the area you grew up in. These can take the form of extremely negative ideas such as “I am useless. I am completely socially awkward. I am so bad with money”. Many of these stories you tell yourself can feel like they are just simply “who you are”. Well, I am going to suggest to you that they are not necessarily a fixed idea or even true, they can have hugely negative consequences and you have the power to change them.
A real life example
Right, let’s start by moving from this abstract gobbledygook to a more concrete example. When I was younger I had a story that I told myself that went something like this “I am no good at socialising, I am bad in groups of people and as far as conversation goes I have none.” This was something that I regularly told myself. It was born out of experiences in school, coming from a large family and people sometimes commenting on it.
Now this story I was telling myself was a really strong influence on my social behaviour. Whenever I went out I expected to be shy in social situations and be really anxious when I was there. By telling myself this I felt I had experiences that reinforced what I was saying. This is because the narrative became who I was, and therefore I subconsciously looked for experiences that reinforced my sense of self; as most people do (this is known as confirmation bias). However, this “story” was not based on reality.
Searching for the truth
Whilst working with a coach I wanted to address this issue head on. I asked what could I do to be more comfortable and effective in social situations? The first thing we did was look at what is stopping me. Initially, my only answer was my story; I am no good in social environments, I get anxious and my mind goes completely blank. I am just bad at it. I listed off numerous examples of situations in which this was true.
Following that we started to explore my life to understand and identify other situations where this may not have been the case. It turned out there were loads. Like the time I moved into a house with 7 strangers and I would happily chat away in the group, to the point where they would tell me how sociable I am. At the time I thought they had lost their minds. Or the time when I would visit my sister at university and her friends would comment how I must be the chatty one in the family. Again, I could not understand this comment and dismissed it. These are just two examples of many where I wasn’t awkward or quiet in a social situation.
This exploration of my history demonstrated to me that stories that we tell ourselves are hugely powerful. They can alter our behaviour and choices to fit what we tell ourselves. If you think you are not good at writing, then you will be no good at writing. If you are bad with money, you will be bad with money. They become self-perpetuating narratives and the crazy thing is most of them are not even true.
Shifting your perspective
The main obstacle to most stories we tell ourselves, especially negative ones, is that we are defined as the problem; “I am no good at writing. I am a bad parent. I am useless”. This is hugely problematic when trying to make positive changes. If you believe there is something inherently wrong with you and this is your personality, it becomes very difficult to change anything. However, if you take a broader perspective it can allow you to take action.
The most effective way to do this is through opening things up through questions. You can change “I am an anxious person” to “How long have I felt anxious for?” or “What is this anxiety telling me about myself or my situation?”. You can then look towards other influences “When do I feel anxious most?”. Also, “Can I remember a time when I haven’t felt anxious? What was different then?”.
It really is the last of these questions that can open you up to a different perspective on your life and experiences. You will realise that you have had so many experiences in your life that simply do not fit this mould. This can be extremely challenging at first because stories do become part of who we are and you are questioning whether you really are that person. However, it can produce massive benefits in terms of adjusting your stories to more helpful narratives that will enrich your life.
Have you discovered any stories that you tell yourself? Have you managed to change any to be more helpful?