We’re All Living Stories... and We Get to Choose Our Narrative
The narratives we build for ourselves aren’t always based on truth. You might find yourself taking action based on your story alone and causing conflict for yourself and others. You can, however, reshape your narrative. Read on to learn how.
Written by:Tara A. Collison, Ph.D.
Our brains — the sophisticated, pattern-detecting, meaning-making machines that they are — love a good story. As a matter of fact, we are wired to interpret our very existence as such — to construct a familiar narrative for ourselves based on external and internal stimuli. It’s an effort to organize the events we’ve experienced and attach them to our behavior. They give us a “why” for what we do and form our understanding of cause and effect. This happened, which caused that. Most of the time, this works in our favor, allowing us to manage complex situations and relationships.
The trouble is, the stories we have about past experiences create connections that are activated by current events, and then those internal signals influence what we perceive. Essentially, our brains can make us see things that aren’t there! Or they make us blind to the things that are. As humans, most of us tend to recall trauma and failure more easily than success. Insults stick in our heads long after praise fades away, and we replay negative thoughts more readily than positive ones. This unfortunate phenomenon is referred to as negativity bias. Our brains are more apt to notice and remember negative details and recognize them as valid. This can help us navigate a sometimes scary or threatening world. At the same time, it’s training our brains to focus on the bad.
Confirmation bias is another issue that contributes to the growing “snowball” that is false narratives. We gravitate toward details that confirm what we already think instead of the ones that cause us to reconsider. Because of this, the narratives we build for ourselves aren’t always based in truth — or, more accurately, the whole truth — and we become trapped, reliving the same old story. You might find yourself taking action based on your story alone and inadvertently causing all sorts of conflict (professional and otherwise) for yourself and others.
A Friendly Reminder — Your Story is Yours
There are three things to remember — first, everything you feel and think is yours. You own every single memory, and your story belongs to you. Second, the rest of the world is walking around with their own narratives too. Two people might view the same exchange from a completely different angle. Both of them are right and wrong. Third, narratives aren’t inherently bad. The key is to recognize when they have become the very thing that stands in your way.
When you boil it down, your narrative is just a pattern of thoughts and emotions resulting from an event or series of events. You have all the power in the world to pin down your thoughts and reshape your narrative. Let’s get into how:
Three Strategies for Busting Your Narratives
- Identify and re-frame your narrative
Identify the narrative you’ve built for yourself. It’s not always obvious without some introspection or metacognition — in other words, think about your thoughts. Consider a recent situation that didn’t play out the way you wanted. What happened? What is the story you’re telling yourself about the situation? Let’s say you believe you were manipulated and now you’re telling yourself, “I’m too trusting.”
Start to reframe. Widen your aperture by asking yourself things like “What other stories could be true here?” Or “What would other people say about this situation?” Arguably, the most difficult part of reframing is challenging your narrative. Author Byron Katie recommends asking yourself four questions that help you take a deep dive into your own mindset.
When you encounter a narrative that isn’t serving you, ask yourself the following:
“Is it true?” This should be a one-word answer. Yes or no?
“Can you absolutely know that it’s true?” This requires more thought but is still a straight-forward answer. If you can’t conclusively say yes, then the answer is no.
“How do you feel or behave when you believe it’s true?” For example, do you lash out at others, fixate on perfection, or put up walls?
“Who would you be without the narrative?” Ask yourself if your behavior or mindset would be different if the narrative never existed. How would you be different?
Lastly, Katie suggests you turn things around. So, take “I’m too trusting” and consider the opposite: “I’m overly cynical.” Ask the same four questions and unpack what’s true and false about the alternate statement. This gives you the space and ability to analyze the power of your own thoughts.
- Share your narrative and get curious about other “truths”
You’ve just identified an unhelpful narrative that may be having undue influence on your life. Brene Brown recommends pausing and sharing your narrative with a colleague as a way to open the door to deeper insight and collaboration. Specifically, she recommends you start the conversation with: “The story I’m telling myself is…” By starting with your story, you show you are willing to be vulnerable and open the door for others to share their stories as well. It’s a powerful way to unpack the “truth” and unlock progress.
- Expand your horizons
Our narratives are highly personal; however, they are also impacted by our environment, people we interact with, and situations we get into. If you want to challenge your narratives and expand your thinking, consider where you can step out of your comfort zone to understand perspectives that differ from your own. If you do this with a truly open mind, your narrative will expand, grow, and evolve over time.
You Own Your Story — Is it Time to Change it?
When I left a string of corporate jobs to do my own thing and pursue leadership coaching, I didn’t stop to examine the narrative I was telling myself at the time — “As the sole breadwinner in my family, success is defined by income.” This led to some crazy behavior, like saying “yes” to pretty much every single opportunity that came my way. The narrative played in my head so loudly that eventually, I found myself exhausted, overwhelmed, and scattered.
Over the holidays that year, I took some time to reflect on Byron Katie’s four questions. I came away with two major insights. First, by believing my business would fail if I turned down work, I was eliminating my own choices. When I took on new projects, I wasn’t fully embracing them the way I should have been. Second, I discovered that without my original narrative, I would be more open and empowered. That sounded pretty darn good! It led me to come up with my new mantra — “The right work at the right time.” — and it has served me well ever since.
David Drake, the pioneer of an approach to changing your story called narrative coaching, says the goal of his research is to help people “shift their stories about themselves, others, and life itself to create new possibilities and new results.” It’s an effort to remove us from distorted reality and take back power.
If you feel stuck in the same pattern of thoughts or behaviors, pause and think about the narrative you created. Now, identify and reframe your narrative, share your narrative and get curious about the “truth,” and expand your horizons. You can’t change the past and you can’t predict the future, but you can change what you think and how you feel about it. When we create a narrative anchored in what is going right, we’re much more likely to realize our potential and think positively about whatever this epic journey brings.