“Stories are medicine. They can cure us or they can kill us.”
Recently during a coaching session, a client confessed that although she had been consistently practicing new habits, she was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. “I know myself”, she said, “I start something off with a lot of energy, and then I just stop. It’s just how I am.”
Even though I acknowledged her accomplishments and dedication to the new lifestyle she was developing, in that moment, she couldn’t escape sinking into the quicksand that was her old self-image.
When I pointed that out by saying “It’s time for you to peel off the old layer of you and it’s limitations”, she responded in agreement. She said, “Yes, I know, but I have no idea how to do that. How?” My answer was quick and decisive – Write a new story.
Author, speaker, and spiritual teacher Lisa Nichols often talks about her grandmother who taught her the significance of stories. Her grandmother often said –
When you’re my age you’re supposed to sit in your favorite rocking chair and tell the stories of your life to anyone willing to listen. But when you’re your age, you’re supposed to go out and make sure the story is really good to tell.
The first time I heard that anecdote, it resonated so deeply. It reminded me that we all have a critical role in deciding what our story is and how it plays out. There was something so satisfying and empowering about knowing that.
What is a Story?
The dictionary definition of a story is an account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something. In other words it’s a version of an experience from one’s point of view.
The words “version” and “account” are most compelling to me. They suggest that stories are subjective, not fixed. They are able to be shaped and molded according to our will and perspectives. Stories are narratives of our creation.
Some people have a strong reaction to “reframing” or creating a new perspective on which to base a story. It may seem unrealistic or too imaginary. However, I would argue that the vast majority of the stories we currently tell ourselves are also made up, so why not create a story that enhances, rather than impedes, your life?
Stories are Alive
This is exciting because this means that our stories are dynamic, pliable, and ever-changing. They are alive and unfolding in this present moment.
Right now, with one decision, we can take action to alter our story forever. There’s power in that. We can choose to embrace and step into that power or we can relinquish the power to others or to life’s circumstances, as a bystander in our own lives, watching our story unfold by the sidelines.
Stories are Powerful
Stories help us construct meaning. They are the associations we use to make sense of the world. We communicate and relate to each other through stories. We pass culture down from one generation to the next through stories. Stories tell us who we are. They are the fabric that connects us. They have life.
There are generally two types of stories you can tell yourself: empowering and disempowering. An empowering story is one where you are capable, have options, and the outcomes you want are possible. In disempowering stories your fate has already been decided for you, you have very little or no agency; you are a victim of others or your circumstances.
In the various situations that you find yourself in every day, notice the types of stories you lean into more often. Do this as an objective observer without judgement. In the narratives in your head are you incapable or powerful? Do you have choices or are you stuck? Are you a leader or victim?
Let me be clear, oppression is real and there are systems and institutions that were designed to have winners and losers. I don’t want to minimize or gloss over that critical reality.
However, it’s important to note what kinds of stories you tell yourself within the various contexts of your life – At home, with your circle of friends, in your neighborhood. Are they consistently the same types of stories? If so, what role do you play?
Stories are Addictive
I know very little about neuroscience. However, I do know that I find comfort in telling the same stories over and over again; it soothes the brain. Research (NarrativeIQ http://www.narrativeiq.com/why-tell-stories/) has shown that when we listen to a story the same parts of our brain are activated as if the events were actually occurring. The same neural pathways are engaged whether we are listening to the occurrences or actually living them. This brain activity increases our retention of information exponentially.
We tend to repeat things that reward us, and replaying a narrative over and over again is no exception.
As humans, we are uncomfortable with ambiguity. We prefer clean explanations and clear justifications, and when there isn’t one, we sometimes create them for our own comfort. After a while the story may not even be as rewarding as it once was, but the neural pathways in our brain have been formed and the habit continues. At this point, we are telling the story on autopilot, it happens automatically, without much effort at all. Telling the same story repeatedly becomes a habit.
Stories Can Influence the Future
This is why the stories we tell matter. Our narratives reinforce our values, connect us to purpose, shape our identities and influence the people in our lives.This is possible because, as explained above, stories have a significant impact on our brains.
Dr. Joe Dispenza (https://drjoedispenza.com/) argues that narratives create emotions and these feelings, sustained over time, can impact our genes. He says that our bodies can’t easily distinguish between emotions derived from an actual experience and those that are a result of our thoughts. Feelings, positive or negative, can trigger genes. Whether we turn on the genes for disease or the genes for good health depend on the stories we tell ourselves and the emotions they evoke.
Another way stories impact the future is that they can alter your beliefs about what’s possible for you.
Your narrative can impair or bolster your sense of personal agency and potential. The things you tell yourself can result in a wide expanse of possibilities or a narrow pathway of uninspiring options. Your perceived outlook for the future has implications for how you live – your happiness, level of optimism, the strength and depth of your relationships, and your overall mood.
So What? Write a New Story!
Just as I reminded my client at the beginning of this article, the antidote to a destructive story is an encouraging one.
Marisa Peer is an Internationally acclaimed therapist, coach, author, and the creator of the Rapid Transformational Therapy Method. On the School of Greatness podcast with Lewis Holmes she stated that “every word you say is a blueprint that your mind, body, and psyche are working to make a reality.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3V1ObCvVgU
If you’re struggling with how to start the process of writing a new story, start with these questions:
- In the book of my life, what’s the title of the chapter I’m in right now?
- What’s the name of my next chapter?
- I’m the protagonist, but who are the other characters that I desire to be in this book of my life?
- What’s my relationship to these characters?
- How do I want someone who picked up the book of my life to feel?
- In order to make this book a reality what mantras / affirmations do I want to tell myself each day? For example: “My body creates wellness everyday,” “My marriage is so much fun!,” “My life feels creative and purposeful everyday.”
Working with a coach can help you clarify the story you want, develop clear and direct actions to take in order to start living your story, and create some accountability so that you are consistently honoring what’s important to you.
Stories become more powerful when they are elaborated on. In coaching sessions one of the things I do is help my clients elaborate more empowering stories so they become more familiar. As a result, the events in their lives between coaching sessions are framed in a more powerful story.