The stories we hold about ourselves can expand or narrow our lives. One example of limiting narratives revolves around what we believe we’re good at and what we believe we’re bad at. Helen McLaughlin’s clients often create these kinds of stories, letting them dictate their decisions and days. For instance, one client might hold the story that she can’t ask her boss for a raise because she’s bad at anything resembling a confrontation. And she’s really bad at advocating for herself.
The problem? This narrative “locks her into a future in which she has little control over what she can and can’t achieve at work and in life,” said McLaughlin, a transformation coach who helps smart, motivated life-explorers to leverage their curiosity, discover what exists for them beyond their default future, and achieve their Big Thing. Plus, the client might’ve created this story based on inaccurate or outdated information—a moment from many, many years ago.
McLaughlin helps her clients create narratives that are supportive and expansive. Because that’s the thing about stories: They aren’t set in stone. We can revise and shape them.
McLaughlin starts by helping her clients identify a working definition of “revision” and how a good revision should feel for them. They explore alternate narratives, making sure to carefully select their words. “Revisions are reframed as eternal works-in-progress; a client hones her narrative continuously into the thing that best serves her and her highest vision for her life.”
This is something each of us can do, too. Because, again, our self-narratives are influential, all-encompassing. They influence everything from the jobs we apply for to the romantic partners we pick. They influence everything from the dreams we pursue to how we treat ourselves (which also, of course, affects the trajectory of our lives).
Below, McLaughlin shared three tips for revising unhelpful self-narratives into encouraging, inspiring stories.
Reframe your past.
“You can’t change the past, but you can change the story you tell yourself about it, the way you talk about it to others, and how it serves you,” McLaughlin said. We can change our perception, our understanding and our translation of what happened, she said.
To start, she suggested writing about what you know now that you didn’t before. “How did everything—the good and the not-so-good—occur exactly as it needed to, in the grand scheme of things?”
Explore a least flattering, complicated time of your life. Consider how you did your best with the data and skillset you had then. “What information did 18-year-old you have at her disposal? How can you praise her for using that information, as limited as it might seem now, to make the best possible decision at the time?”
Start at the end.
Begin rewriting your narrative by envisioning the best possible outcome for your life, McLaughlin said. Then work backwards.
She shared this example: You create the novel you’ve always dreamed about. You give it your all (and it doesn’t matter how others receive it). Next you consider all the steps that led you here (including your childhood).
Maybe for years you viewed yourself as a super sensitive cry baby. Even your parents thought something was wrong because you felt what others felt. Today, however, you realize you were “a vessel for the collective human experience”; “you were always that writer, even before you understood why your heart felt like a sponge.”
Share your shame with someone you trust.
What have you kept secret because you’re too afraid or ashamed to discuss it? Share this story with someone you deeply trust (a therapist or coach counts, too). Doing so might help to change your perspective on what happened and why, McLaughlin said. It might help you change your views on how it contributed to who you are today, she said.
“Slowly, you might find that you’re able to take ownership of this piece of history… Revision of a self-narrative need not happen in a vacuum; safe conversation is transformative.”
For McLaughlin revising her own narrative has been transformative. For a long time, she believed that she’d squandered a prestigious education and professional relationships. She felt shame that she was struggling with finding her purpose and wasn’t writing after receiving her MFA in creative writing.
After digging deeper, she realized that this narrative wasn’t even true anymore.
“It was a relic…. It didn’t honor the fact that I was still seeking—that I was searching for work that felt more meaningful to me than fiction and that had immediate impact.” Consequently, she penned a more accurate, supportive narrative: “My background in creative writing is a huge asset in quickly identifying the limiting stories that clients hold about themselves, and helping them to revise all the parts that stand between them and living well.”
What inaccurate, unsupportive narratives are you carrying around? How can you revise them? Because, again, remember that you can.