“Life is so much about the narrative we tell ourselves. It’s so much about how we see our choices and our decisions, and about how we walk out into the world. The way I see myself might not be the way you see me, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the story I tell myself. What matters is the story I believe to be true. What matters is how I look at my decisions, my lessons and my experiences, and that I try and look at them in a way that empowers me forward — not in a way that casts me as a victim.” Maria Shriver
We are natural story tellers. Pay attention next time you are at a red light, or waiting in line. Chances are you will find yourself in the middle of a story. If you pay attention to your mental chatter, you will find the stories you tell yourself are endless. The story may be rehashing the past, planning the future or simply fantasizing. We are always telling ourselves stories. When I watch my younger grandchildren play, I hear them narrate their play with elaborate stories. This narration aloud seems to end at about 7 years old. We continually narrate as adults, but our stories are in our heads so we may not even be aware of them. Every story we tell ourselves influences our present moment and thus our future. They can profoundly shape who we are and the decisions we make.
Within our stories we hear the voices of our parents, teachers, friends, loved ones and not so loved ones. You may be listening to the monologue of the unloved child, the not good enough achiever, or the screw up. The more consistent the feedback was or the more we played it back in our minds, the more indelible the story. Because of our negativity bias, we are more likely to listen to those voices than we are to the wise, loving voices. We believe our stories, even when they are misleading.
If we are mindful, we can step back and listen to our stories so we can decide whether they are true or useful. Many of our stories no longer serve us. If we are unaware of them, they take control by playing over and over in our minds, making us believe something that is not necessarily true. When we are aware, we can choose to no longer listen to them and let them rule our lives. When we are aware, we get to decide the plot of the next chapter of our life.
We can’t go back and change the plot of the past. What happened, happened. But we don’t have to let it control our feelings, our decisions and our life going forward. We can get unstuck by pausing and seeing the bigger picture where opportunities abound.
“People sometimes misinterpret what it means to rewrite your story. It doesn’t mean to pretend that the plot that has happened didn’t happen. It means that the story is going in a different direction, so how do you pivot with the story? Sometimes the story that we tell ourselves keeps us stuck because the story is “this is never going to end” or “I’m not going to survive this” or “I’ll never recover financially” or “I’ll never get past my sadness” or “I’ll never smile again because I’m so sad.” It’s hard to see the larger story when you’re stuck in the pain. I really want to say to people that rewriting your story doesn’t mean you have to do it now, it means being open to the possibility that there’s more to the story, even if you haven’t gotten to the next chapter yet.” Lori Gottlieb
While we tend to take stock and think about the direction of our life with the new year, we can actually begin again every day, every hour or even every moment. We can decide what the next part of our story will be. Sometimes we think we cannot change until we have everything mapped out. But we can change our story without knowing the ending. We can try different narratives, keep the ones that work and let go of the ones that don’t work. This may not be the straightest path to the end we want. But we may find we did not want that ending anyway.
Your story does not have to echo everyone else. According to Rick Hanson, many of their stories are based on the lies built into the conventional strategies for happiness:
“Mother Nature whispers: You should feel threatened, frustrated, lonely.
Culture and commerce say: You need more clothes, thinner thighs, better beer; consume more and be like the pretty people on TV.
The residues of past experiences, especially young ones, mutter in the background: You’re not that smart, attractive, worthy; you need to do more and be more; if you just have X, you’ll get the life you want.
Like each of you, I have had incorrect stories playing out in my head for much of my life. I thought I had to know everything and do everything in order to be enough. I thought that having needs was bad, that I had to take care of myself without help from others. I thought I had to brush any unpleasant feeling under the carpet or it would overwhelm me. My story said don’t get to close to friends, if they see the true you, they will reject you. It was all untrue. And these stories definitely do not serve me. They made me rigid, inflexible and closed off. These stories limited who I was and what I experienced. I have been practicing to let go of these stories, but when I am feeling particularly stressed, they come popping back up.
“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.” B Grace Bullock, PhD
But I can begin again at any moment, pivoting my story to be more empowering, transforming one-sided thoughts of certainty into a world of liberating possibilities. My new story says that I am enough as a perfectly imperfect human being. My new plot says I don’t have to correct people or be a know it all, they will like me better if I prioritize my relationship with them over being right and doing things. In the next chapter, I don’t have to do everything for everyone, and I can actually ask for help; it won’t make me a bad person and it may make others feel needed. In the next chapter, I will be reaching out to friends, lowering my defenses and letting them see the true me.
It all starts with mindfulness, being aware of what is happening in your head at any given moment. The next step is to pause and evaluate the story that is playing. Is it true? Does it serve you? Or does it entangle you? What beliefs does this story encourage? How does this story make you feel?
Then you can decide whether you want to keep that story in your narrative, or if you want to pivot your story to a better narrative. As I see it there are X steps to creating a new narrative.
- Become aware of the mental chatter going on in your mind 24/7. Make a list of the top ten stories. Notice the body sensations that go along with each story. Which stories are yours, and which came from someone else?
- Decide if each story contributing to or undermining your happiness. Then you can choose to continue to live the story because it is empowering. Or to take it off your top ten list because it is limiting.
- Make a list of what energizes you and makes you happy. Then look below the surface to see what truly make you happy. Is the nice house a symbol of security? Do the accolades at work make you feel like you are enough? Does the recognition make you feel like you belong? Does your busyness cover up your pain?
- Make a list of what is entangling you. What is weighing you down and pulling you away from the present moment? Are you entangled by your projects, your work, your fast-paced way of living? Are the ropes of anger and fear holding you down? Or maybe you are weighted down by a grudge. Are you caught up in seeking money, status, sensual pleasures?
- Decide which stories you want to continue to live and which need to be rewritten.
- Pay attention to your body sensations so you can be aware when the stories that entangle you begin to come up in your mind. Take a few long, slow, deep breaths and then turn the page to one of the new stories.
Just because we are natural storytellers, doesn’t mean we can’t learn to get better at telling stories. Remember every story we tell ourselves influences our present moment and thus our future. Each time we tell the story, we strengthen that neuropathway. Thus profoundly shaping who we are and the decisions we make.
“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.” B Grace Bullock, PhD
That is why we practice mindfulness. So we can be the authors of our lives.