The stories we spin about ourselves shape our lives. These stories shape how we interact with others, and even how they interact with us. They shape how we feel about ourselves and what we think we’re capable of.
These stories shape the decisions we make, everything from the partners we pick to the activities we participate in.
If we spin a story that we’re not good enough, we just might pick a partner who doesn’t treat us very well. If we spin a story that we’re stupid, we might not submit our resume for the job we’ve always wanted because well, we won’t get it, anyway.
As David Denborough, Ph.D, writes in his book Retelling The Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience, “Who we are and what we do are influenced by the stories that we tell ourselves…There are many different events in our lives, but only some of them get formed into the storylines of our identities. Whatever storyline we have about our lives makes a difference in who we are and how we act.”
Revising Our Stories
Take the example of Vanessa, whose story Denborough shares in the book. Whenever Vanessa had a hard time paying the rent, she’d hear the words of her ex-husband: “You’re good for nothing!” Then, she’d think of all the mistakes she’s made in her life and the people she’s disappointed.
However, as Denborough writes, this isn’t the truth of Vanessa’s life. It’s just one story. “It’s one story told by an abusive ex-husband and supported by hard economic times. There are many other storylines of Vanessa’s life.”
For instance, her sister calls Vanessa the kindest person she knows. In high school Vanessa would always check in with her sister, introduce her to others and protect her from students who teased her about how she walked and talked.
Whenever Vanessa feels like the “good for nothing” story is overshadowing her life, she calls her sister. “In their laughter together, they have been writing a different headline.”
In Retelling The Stories of Our Lives, Denborough includes valuable exercises for exploring and revising our stories – because that’s the great thing about stories. We can tell a different one.
Like Vanessa’s example, all of us have many stories. And, as article 1 of Denborough’s “Charter of Storytelling Rights” says, “Everyone has the right to define their experiences and problems in their own words and terms.”
In other words, we can tell stories that serve and empower us.
Revising Our Perceptions of Problems
This is especially important when we think and talk about our problems. Many of us think and talk about a problem as if we are the problem. Denborough shares these examples: “I’m a bad mom. I’m useless. I have an addictive personality.”
However, according to Denborough, “If we come to believe that we are the problem and that there is something wrong with us, then it becomes very difficult to take action. All we can do is take action against ourselves.”
Consider the differences between these examples:
- “Lucy’s a depressed person” vs. “Lucy says she’s been in a fog of depression since her mother died.”
- “I’m useless” vs. “The feeling of uselessness is strongest when I’m in the classroom.”
Denborough suggests the below process to help us externalize our problems. This doesn’t mean we relinquish responsibility for them. Quite the opposite, it means we become more able to respond to them.
Name the problem.
Turn the adjectives you’re using to describe yourself into nouns. According to Denborough, you can change “I am an anxious person” to “How long has The Anxiety been influencing you? Or “What does The Anxiety try to tell you about yourself?”
Another option is to personify the problem. With a child, you might use “Mr. Mischief,” as in “How can we out-trick Mr. Mischief?” If you can’t come up with a name, use “The Problem.”
Investigate the influence.
Pretend you’re an investigative journalist, and examine how long the problem has been a resident in your life; when it first appeared; when it’s most likely to visit; the times and places it’s most powerful; and the “friends” of the problem.
Explore the effects.
Explore the effects of the problem at home, school, work and other areas; on your relationships with yourself and your loved ones; on your identity, including your hopes, dreams and values (e.g., “What is the problem talking you into about yourself?”); and on your future possibilities.
Evaluate the effects.
Consider if the effects of this problem are negative, positive or maybe a bit of both; if you’d like to change your relationship to the problem; and if you want to be completely free of the problem or just minimize its influence on your life.
Consider what the problem is preventing that you’d like to have in your life; and how your life would change if you could lessen the problem’s influence.
Denborough also suggests writing a letter to your problem, which acknowledges it and mentions that “change is coming and why this change is important.”
The stories we tell ourselves have a powerful effect on our lives. Consider creating stories that empower you to take good care of yourself, make healthy decisions and lead a fulfilling life. Create stories that lift you up, not weigh you down.