Did you know that you are a storyteller? Or that you are just one story away from what you really want?
Most of us don’t realize that we have a few central narratives running through our lives because the stories we tell ourselves are so familiar that we don’t even realize they are stories. The easiest way to see this is to notice other people’s stories. It’s ironic that even when you can’t see your own story clearly, you can easily see the story a friend, employee, or student is telling herself.
While the story details often differ, there are common threads that run through them. Here are some story threads I’ve heard from clients recently:
“I can’t trust others,”
“I’m not smart,”
“I have to take control or things won’t work out for me,”
“I have to grind away at work in order to be a decent person,”
“I’m not lovable,”
“People don’t perform the way I want them to,”
“I tend to get depressed,”
“Popular people don’t usually like me,”
“I have to worry about and try to control someone else’s behavior or things won’t get better.”
“I get left out,”
“If I were a good __________ [husband, wife, daughter, son, friend], I would do what s/he wants me to do.”
“I can’t have what I want,”
“I’m not appreciated,”
“I’m not good enough.”
Why does your story matter?
It could be a matter of life and death. In a study of nuns chosen because they had to write a short autobiography as they entered the convent at age 18, Deborah Danner and her colleagues discovered that the teens who told their life stories most positively were 2.5 times more likely to be alive six decades later than those who told their life stories in the most negative light.Your story also matters because the stories you tell yourself can elate and inspire, or they can bury passions, frustrate, keep you plodding along, and leave you feeling stuck. For example, Steve oversees the division of a company and is frustrated by his boss’ risk-averse nature, which leaves Steve feeling he’s running hard on a treadmill. Steve has found an exciting new product line he believes will breathe new life into the division and the company, and while it uses some of the company’s current capabilities, it is an entirely new industry for them. When he has brought the idea to his boss and his peers, most have not been receptive and his boss, while not ruling it out altogether, has not been willing to entertain a proposal and make a decision.
As we looked at elements of Steve’s story, he realized that he has several stories he’s telling himself for which the themes are: “I work for a boss who’s not good at making decisions…. I’m working away, but not making much progress…. I’m competing with my peers for scarce investment resources… and several of my peers are pretty stodgy– they don’t like big changes.” As we looked at these themes, Steve realized that these are stories he has told himself in other ways, with other people, for years. And he came to realize that this combination of stories left him feeling stuck.
So here was Steve, feeling stuck as an individual and as a leader. How do you imagine his employees felt, even though Steve didn’t explicitly tell them what was going on? Not only do you affect yourself with your stories, you affect the people around you, whether you tell them the stories or not.One of the most powerful ways to get unstuck, to unleash passion, and to create the positive changes you want in your life, your family or your organization is to change your story. Often we have repeated our old story line so many times that, like Steve, we forget that it is just a story we’re telling, not reality.
Create a New Story in 3 Steps
I’ve discovered that it’s not the events of my life that allow or prevent my success in love, work and happiness, it’s the story I’m telling myself– and I can change my story. Here’s how you can tell a story that boosts success and passion:
- Start by naming your old story. Ask yourself, how would I summarize the story of my life, my work, or my family in one sentence?
- Ask yourself, how can I tell a different story about where I want to be in the future? Write a few paragraphs with your new story, as you’d like your future to be and (this is the most important part): feel how good it feels to be in that new story.
- Pick out one phrase you can say to yourself that reminds you of your new story and start saying it. Hint: make sure it’s something that actually feels good when you say it.
First we identified some of Steve’s story themes (Step 1).
Then he thought about how he could change one of his stories so that he could feel relieved and start to build new optimism (Step 2). He changed his story about working away without much progress into one that felt better: “I like throwing myself into my work, and what I’m doing now is sowing seeds, some of which will take root and grow into exciting new growth.”
Steve chose, “Sowing seeds of growth” as the phrase he would repeat to remind himself of his new story (Step 3). “Once I got out of my own head and could change what I was telling myself, I felt like I had new energy,” Steve said.
Editor’s note: Christine’s article draws on practices of Narrative Therapy, as described on the Dulwich Centre web site:
Narrative approaches to counselling and community work centre people as the experts in their own lives and views problems as separate from people. Narrative approaches assume that people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments, and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives. The word ‘narrative’ refers to the emphasis that is placed upon the stories of people’s lives and the differences that can be made through particular tellings and retellings of these stories.
Danner, D., Snowdon, D., & Friesen, W. (2001). Positive Emotions in Early Life and Longevity: Findings from the Nun Study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(5), 804-813.
Duvivier, C. (2007). Appreciating Beauty in the Bottom 80™. Philadelphia: Capstone Study. University of Pennsylvania.
Duvivier, C. (2010). No Worries, Andy! Immunize Yourself Against Job Anxiety
Hicks, J. & Hicks, E. (2007). The Astonishing Power of Emotions: Let Your Feelings Be Your Guide. New York: Hay House.
Kotter, J. (2006, April 12). The Power Of Stories. Forbes.com.
Kotter, J. & Cohen, D. (2002). The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. Harvard Business Review Press.
Morgan, A. (2000). What Is Narrative Therapy? (Gecko 2000). Gecko Press.
Storyteller courtesy of Marga Mulder
Harlan Ellis telling stories 1982 courtesy of Pip R. Lagenta
Story hour courtesy of New Jersey Library Association
Spring planting lessons courtesy of BEV Norton