The stories we tell ourselves: Why it may be helpful to question your personal narrative.
In this blog I discuss the way we perceive ourselves and events in our lives. This perception can influence our emotions and how we feel about ourselves. This is not a blog about positive thinking. This is not a blog about dealing with past or present trauma. If you have experienced trauma I advise working with a counsellor or psychologist.
- How we narrate our life
- Why what we focus on in our stories matters
- How your story can become a habit
- The story of who you are
- When your mind fills in the blanks
How we narrate our life
Each of us has our own personal narrative, our own story that we tell ourselves and to others to help us make sense of our lives and things that we have experienced. These stories have an impact on who we believe we are (Denborough, 2014). Humans are natural story tellers. We may talk to friends, family or a counsellor about challenges in our lives or things that have happened to us. To do this we begin to engage with our ability to tell our stories as we attempt to understand and make sense of things. As we reflect on our past we will create themes that we associate with our narratives. These themes may be of happiness, love, sadness, failures etc. (White,2007). Our stories may include heroes and villains. Through sharing our stories we can empower ourselves and others. We can also experience empowerment through hearing other peoples stories.
We all have our own life experiences, ideas, beliefs and thoughts. It is our individual way that we view the world that defines who we believe we are and it is part of what makes us unique. When something happens in our lives, we will experience these events through our personal filters. These filters have been created by our past experiences, our thoughts and opinions about situations, and the information our minds have gathered throughout our lives. When people experience the same event in their life it is possible that they all experience this event differently. This is as a result of each individuals filters and perspectives. For example, what some may experience as frustrating others may find motivating. What frightens you may be exciting to another. The information that our minds have gathered can also come from outside of ourselves too. It can come from our families, friends, our communities, the society we live in, and the culture in which we were raised.
Why what we focus on in our stories matters
Sometimes as we tell our stories we can discover the negative way we talk about who we are. Judgement of ourselves and others has become normalized (White, 2007). We have stories where we judge ourselves and stories where we judge others. We compare ourselves to others, and against what is viewed as normal within the culture and society that we live in (White, 2007). We may not be able to control the stories other people have about us but, we can control our perception about own story (Denborough, 2014).
Part of your minds job is to alert you to danger. So, a negative slant on a story is not surprising. If you have been hurt before, your mind will look for any sign that you could be hurt again. If you have been hurt in a relationship, your mind may search for evidence in new people that you meet that this could happen again. The mind is doing its job to protect you by using your past experiences as a warning to keep you safe. It is important to learn from our past experiences. However, it is also important to recognise when your story is holding you back.
When our stories are focused on the negative, we can neglect to acknowledge other parts of our story. The stories that focus on the times where we can see ourselves in a more positive light can easily become forgotten. I would like to emphasise I am not talking about positive thinking or ignoring the parts of your story that perhaps make you uncomfortable. However, it is important to acknowledge all of your story. When we look at our story from all angles, we have the opportunity to reauthor, reframe and edit our story which can help us to see things from a much broader perspective. We can learn to perceive ourselves and our experiences differently.
How your story can become a habit
The stories we constantly run in our minds can become a habit over time. Anything we do repeatedly will strengthen the pathways in our brains, for example, when you learned to ride a bike. Anything you repeatedly do will make your brain better at it. If we are experiencing negative stories regularly and they are creating stress, anxiety and depression, we are also experiencing the chemicals and hormones that are being released with these feelings and emotions. Repeating that part of the story that is harmful to your well-being will strengthen neural pathways in your brain. The more your mind replays a negative idea the stronger it becomes and the more automatically you will choose to view yourself in a negative or unhelpful way. The neural pathways become stronger, turning those small neural roads in your brain into superhighways. Your hormonal and chemical response then engages faster, as you are changing the way your brain functions.
Our imagination can help us to find solutions to challenges we are facing and feeds our creativity. However, our imagination can also create scenarios for us that lead to feelings such as stress, anxiety and depression. Real or imagined, your subconscious mind will believe your story and how you think about and describe yourself. Our personal narrative about the past can also impact how we imagine our future. We can create stories about what we think will happen. If we are constantly replaying negative stories about our past in our minds, this can shape how we imagine our future. This can create a negative bias of future events. However, you can learn new ways to do things and build more helpful pathways in your brain.
The story of who you are
The language we use when telling ourselves or others about something we are experiencing is important. It is common for us to say things such as “I am stressed”. Stress may be something you are experiencing but it isn’t who you are. You are not stress. You have fingernails, but you are not fingernails. Perhaps, a more helpful statement would be “I am experiencing stress”. Can you see the difference? Another example is “I am sad”, but sad is not who you are. Instead you can change that statement to “I am feeling sad”. It becomes a statement about something you are experiencing or feeling in this moment instead of a statement about who you are.
When your mind fills in the blanks
Our mind is good at filling in the blanks. If you only have partial information, your mind will fill in the rest of the story. This can lead to mixed results. You can begin to separate the facts from what your brain has created. Begin by checking if you have jumped to incorrect conclusions. Sometimes the stories that you tell yourself are like your own personal version of fake news. It can be helpful to question how true these stories are. Do you have all of the facts? Do you have enough information to make a judgement on the situation? How true is that story? Is your mind filling in the blanks? Practice questioning your perceptions about the situation or event (Westbrook, Kennerley & Kirk, 2011).
Below are some examples of how filling in the blanks can lead to a harmful story about yourself.
FACT: Friend uploads a post on social media that describes something you are going through now.
WHAT YOUR BRAIN CREATES: My friend is posting that about me.
CHECKING THE STORY: Perhaps your friend is going through something similar? Is it about something that many can relate to, but you are in this moment believing it is only about you? Perhaps it is a post about something that has been talked about a lot lately in the news.
FACT: You are walking down the street and see someone you know. You wave and smile, but they keep walking. They don’t wave back or acknowledge you in any way.
WHAT YOUR BRAIN CREATES: Have I offended them? They ignored me! They are avoiding me.
CHECKING THE STORY: Did this person see you? Consider that they may have been distracted looking at something else, or, they usually where glasses but left them at home. Perhaps, this person is going through some things that you don’t know about, something that has them so preoccupied with what is going on in their life right now?
These are just a couple of examples of how we can jump to conclusions without considering other possibilities. Often, we don’t have all the relevant information and our mind fills in the blanks. Take some time to question the story that is automatically playing through your mind.
A final word on working with your stories
In this blog I have asked if you can reframe, reauthor and or edit your story? Can you look at things from a different angle, finding a different way to tell this story? To do this may require you to practice some self-reflection. It is important to acknowledge when you need support to do this, especially if you have experienced trauma. I recommend seeking out a counsellor to assist you if you are experiencing anxiety, depression or if you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Furthermore, it is your story. You decide if and when you want to share it and who you want to share it with.
I am a Counsellor, Hypnotherapist, Life Coach and a yoga/meditation teacher. Please contact me for an obligation free, confidential discussion as to how I may be able to assist you. Skype, WhatsApp, Messenger sessions and personalised Hypnotherapy MP3’s available.
Ph 0403 357 656
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Denborough, D. (2014). Retelling the stories of our lives: Everyday narrative therapy to draw inspiration and transform experience. New York, NY, US
Westbrook, D., Kennerley, H. & Kirk, J. (2011). An introduction to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: Skills and applications (2nd Ed.) London, England: Sage Publications Ltd
White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. New York: W.W.