Story Time: What Story Are You Telling Yourself?
One of the things I am most grateful for as a therapist is to be trusted with peoples’ stories. Stories are how we begin to understand ourselves and each other, and how we make sense of the complicated, messy, imperfect experiences of our lives. The stories we tell ourselves give us meaning, purpose and order.
Our stories intimately reveal what defines us, and hold who we are or who we are becoming. We have stories about redemption and recovery, abundance and optimism, and we have stories about suffering and hardship. We have stories of strengths and competencies and stories of our unworthiness and not being enough. The narratives we tell ourselves have the power to elevate and the power to harm, whether the story is rooted in the individual, family or our culture.
Many of the stories we tell ourselves are so automatic, so old and familiar, we may not even recognize the telling of them. Yet the hum of our narrative is so important to attend to because it impacts how we show up in the world. Therapists ask questions like “what is the story you are telling yourself about this? What is the meaning you give to this story? How is this story helping or hurting you? How we curate our story, what we orient ourselves to or what we edit, influences how we navigate our lives. It’s important to pay close attention to these stories and know that we have the capacity to reinterpret or retell our stories.
Lori Gottlieb, Psychotherapist and author of Maybe You Should Talk to Somebody, explores how often we carry around stories we don’t even realize we are carrying. She discusses the importance of examining those stories and assessing whether they are serving us or holding us back. She encourages us to notice the stories we’ve been telling ourselves that are not accurate and don’t reflect reality at all. These are stories we need to “unknow.”
The act of unknowing your story, or telling yourself a different story, is a cognitive reappraisal. This is an opportunity to reexamine what has happened from a different perspective. Beth Kurland, a Clinical Psychologist and motivational author, developed a strategy for unhooking from narratives based on faulty assumptions of ourselves. Using the acronym UNHOOK, it offers a way to “unknow” stories that undermine us.
Understand your stories came from a limited world view in an effort to make sense of an experience or memory.
Nurture the part of you that still experiences pain about the story. Attend to the thoughts intentionally and practice self-compassion.
Hold your story lightly. These are not absolute truths.
Observe your story from a distance. What happens when you buy into this narrative? Who would you be without this story?
Open Yourself up to the possibility of a new narrative. Give wisdom or resilience the opportunity to reveal itself.
Know that you have the power to change your narrative. Recognize it is not fixed and we can edit narratives that work against us.
The thoughts and stories we tell ourselves are harmless unless we aren’t paying attention or we believe them absolutely. It serves us to make intentional narrative choices that help us to create a positive identity, where we feel reasonably in control of our life, loved and worthy, and hopeful for good outcomes. Dan McAdams, a psychologist on Narrative Identity and Professor at Northwest University, notes that “people who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion and agency.” This can guide our efforts.
There are stories everywhere. Our day to day life is filled with moments that shape and define us based on the lens we view things through. They are how we develop our personal myth and profoundly influence our place in the world. Some we need to embrace and others we need to unknow.
Storyteller and teacher, Matthew Dicks, in a recent TED talk shares his insights on collecting our stories, by assigning what he calls homework for life. Years ago, he started the practice of spending a short time each night reflecting on his day and spending just 5 minutes writing about one moment that was important to him. It doesn’t matter how benign or simple it was. The benefits have transformed him and his process is simple:
• Practice a daily reflection to develop a sharper, clearer lens for life and its beauty.
• Curate a collection of stories that can be kept in your heart. Write just 3 or 4 sentences about a moment that moved you.
• Be fully present in the here and now and open yourself to the meaning of a moment. Life changing moments happen all of the time. Be still and attend to them.
• Identify how our stories connect us to others, enhance our self-worth and reinforce the importance of our place in the world.
• Bookmark these stories to slow life down, allowing us to go back to touch and explore specific moments.
Carl Jung said, "until you allow the unconscious to become conscious, it will rise up to you as your life and you will call it your fate.” Let us try to cultivate stories that inspire purposefulness, character and capacity and help us know ourselves in a compassionate, generous and meaningful way.