All of us hold stories about ourselves. Maybe you’re unwittingly telling yourself that in order to be lovable, you must always say yes to others and avoid upsetting them. At all cost. Maybe you’re telling yourself that you’re terrible at romantic relationships.
Maybe you’re telling yourself that you can’t switch careers, or succeed with having ADHD. Maybe you’re telling yourself that you don’t deserve kindness. Maybe you’re telling yourself that you can’t tolerate painful emotions. Maybe you’re telling yourself that you’re not creative or smart or qualified. Maybe you’re telling yourself that in order to be respected you must never show weakness or make mistakes.
These are all examples of self-narratives. According to coach and writer Helen McLaughlin, “a self-narrative is the story we tell about ourselves, whether we’re telling that story to ourselves or in an interpersonal context.”
We base these stories on myriad bits and pieces, she said, such as: our memories; anecdotes from our parents; traumatic events and our reactions; our biggest fears about ourselves; evidence of our lovability; our successes; sources of shame; praise from others; and perceptions made by others and whether we subscribe to these perceptions.
Self-narratives are powerful because we, along with other people, use them “to spell out who we are, what we deserve, whether or not we’re capable, and a whole host of other things,” 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.
Narratives permeate all parts of our lives and translate to action (or inaction). If your self-narrative is negative, it might lead you to surround yourself with people who don’t have your best interest at heart. It might affect whether you ask for a raise or stay in a job you hate. It might affect how you care for yourself (and lead to burnout or anxiety).
Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re repeating negative stories. They’ve been on autopilot for years. We unwittingly narrow—rather than nurture—ourselves and our lives.
The great news about self-narratives is that they’re malleable. Like any story, they can be revised, reshaped and readjusted. “Sometimes, we’re just one small reframing away from an entirely different, entirely expansive story,” McLaughlin said. Because our self-narratives are so powerful, it’s important that they serve us. It’s important these narratives support us in building healthy relationships and living fulfilling, nourishing lives—whatever this looks like for you.
The first step in creating supportive self-narratives is to explore the stories you’re currently telling yourself and others. For instance, McLaughlin suggested paying attention to how you introduce yourself to new acquaintances. “What are the words, phrases and anecdotes you reach for without a second thought? Is your impulse to be self-deprecating?”
It’s also important to explore why a specific story has stuck around for so long, McLaughlin said. How or why has it worked for you? Maybe you’ve used this story to protect yourself from potential criticism or rejection.
Next, McLaughlin suggested asking these powerful questions to help you “locate the specific places where your self-narrative is getting snagged”:
- How do I tell the story of myself? Who I am? Where I’ve been?
- How do I remember past events? Do I remember them in a way that allows me to grow? Or, do I remember them/frame them in a way that limits me? In a way that keeps me tied to an outdated definition of who I am?
- Does my self-narrative accurately reflect who I am at my best?
- Does my narrative leave room for me to become the person I want to be and am capable of becoming?
- What do I need to omit from my story in order to honor my humanity? What do I need to include? (For instance, you use getting fired as a measuring stick. Which only sinks your self-worth. You realize it’s more helpful to remember that time as “a period of learning to radically accept responsibility for bad behavior, as opposed to a period of bad behavior.”
- When I talk about myself, am I careful with my words—being aware that words become reality?
- How do I need to reframe my story to ensure I will live the life I most want?
- Are there alternate interpretations of my past? Narratives that would better serve me? Reframing that would allow me to be kinder to myself? Language that builds me up, instead of tears me down?
The self-narratives we create can empower or derail us. Maybe you realize that your story isn’t very helpful. But you believe you must berate and punish yourself. You believe you must maintain a negative view of your past actions. You must atone for your sins.
But if your stories aren’t serving you, it’s OK to let them go. So if you need it, here’s your permission to pen a new self-narrative. One that encourages you. One that helps you lead the life you really want to lead.
Stay tuned for part two, where McLaughlin shares three more tips on creating stories that actually support and inspire you.