The stories we tell ourselves

When my daughter was a toddler, our favourite pastime was stories. Generally at bedtime. I’d be delirious, but she’d be ready for a long chat (1). So, we’d tell stories about the crickets outside, about dragon families and the animals on our imaginary farm. Because these were sagas that went on for weeks, she’d embellish storylines that were getting boring and correct me when I accidentally brought back a long-lost family member who we’d killed off weeks ago. Basically, these stories were just more of the imaginary play that children use to understand their world. Even little humans are meaning-making machines. But there are stories we know are fiction, and stories we believe.

We are often told to make the 'story' in our CVs, talks, grants etc… more compelling. We are advised to focus on the why not the how. There is even research (eg by Paul J. Zak) about how stories increase oxytocin levels and build trust –another reason to consider using them in grants, I guess. But what about those stories we tell ourselves? What about those well-rehearsed stories of not being smart enough, brave enough, disciplined enough... Not having enough time, money or respect. We each have our own version of a not-enough-ness story that, unchecked, loops in our brain. These stories may have held a kernel of truth at one time. Perhaps they served by shielding us from being seen as 'too big for our boots'. But by adulthood, there is simply no point.

Worse, if the coaching premise is true (that thoughts generate the emotions that drive actions that lead to our results), then those thoughts will show up in our results. The last thing we want is to spend too much time thinking we're an imposter/fraud/fluke etc... because, by doing so, that’s what we’ll end up creating for ourselves via the feelings and actions those thoughts generate. Confirmation bias is a shitty thing. If our brain thinks it often enough, it becomes our truth.

The negative story-loops (and yes, a negativity bias means its almost always negative narrative) can kick-in when they're least helpful. And they feel true (-maybe we’ve bonded to them with oxytocin?). Something gets said and before we know it, it's connected to our story and we’re down the rabbit hole. Irrespective of what the intention behind the words might have been, we interpret it as more evidence for our story. For example, if someone says to me ‘you have the shortest legs I’ve ever seen’. I don’t make that mean anything. I know I have short legs. There’s even a German word ‘sitzriese’ that describes someone who appears taller when seated than when they stand. Because I’m not hooked by that, I’m free to be curious why anyone would even say such a thing. But heaven help anyone who mentions the intelligence needed for the job. It takes all my strength not to make that mean something specific about me. Not to go down the well-trodden path of being too dumb... That story is as old and familiar as the children’s books and stories, retold so often, they’re embedded word for word. Writing this blog is a trigger for my 'I can't write' story. Re-writing that is my impossible goal for 2021.

Anyone with a human brain (who isn’t a psychopath) will have some unhelpful go-to story they loop on. A deep belief system through which they interpret their world. But just because you think it often, doesn’t mean it’s true. Step one is knowing what is fact and what is a story. Step two is learning not to give the story so much attention. Think of it like that Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’ but just stop there. Don't go to the next line ‘I've come to talk with you again’. Don’t give it oxygen. Just acknowledge that being human, you have a brain that offers unhelpful thoughts sometimes and know that other, more useful, thoughts are an option.

Unfortunately, we often turn what other people do and say into evidence to support our story. Layering meaning, just so that our brain gets a little dopamine hit from being right... Even though being right in this instance makes us feel terrible. Like, when I make a reviewer's comment mean he/she thinks I’m dumb, it leads to a familiar feeling of defeat and inaction. Hardly the result I’m looking for when what's really required is a clearheaded rebuttal. So, the trick is to try on some alternative thoughts for practice. Nothing outlandish, just something that feels equally believable. Going for ‘I’m exceptionally intelligent; this reviewer must be an idiot' doesn't stick for me and doesn’t shift me back into productive action. But I can defuse the too-dumb story with ‘I may feel dumb sometimes, but that doesn’t seem to matter all that much’. If I can catch myself early, and switch thoughts, I spend less time looping and more time on the job at hand.

The good news is that these stories will come up with the most urgency when we’re being challenged, growing or stretching to something new. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. So next time you notice yourself loop on your story, say hello to it like the old friend it is, splice in a more useful thought pattern, and celebrate being right on track. Recognising an old friend, doesn't mean you have to spend any time together. Chances are you have nothing in common anymore.

The internal chatter from these stories will never completely stop, and the inner critic is generally much louder than the inner mentor (2), but we can get better at shifting which one we listen to. In my own coaching, I actively practice alternative thoughts in the areas of my life I'm looking to change.


1) Each woman makes her own choices about how to manage work and family. My solution was to go to bed at the same time as my child and to have any adult-time early in the mornings. For a very long time, this involved us all sleeping in the same bed. I did worry that she’d never sleep in her own bed, but of course she did, and now she’s 14, we’re banned from her room.

2) The idea of a loud inner critic versus the quiet voice of the inner mentor comes from Tara Mohr’s excellent book Playing Big.

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