“I will never be able to do this!” “I will always fail at that.” “Nothing will ever change!” Have you ever caught yourself declaring such statements of doom and gloom with absolute conviction? What is it that makes you so sure of events that have yet to happen? Well, turns out it is a little area in your brain that loves to tell tall tales…
Stories have existed ever since our ancestors came together around campfires and tried to understand their place in the world around them. We have a narrative running in our minds of every aspect of our lives, from a lived past to an anticipated future, and of every person, place, and situation in between, that enables us to make sense of events and determine appropriate action.
Sadly, a lot of these stories are negative. Let’s say a friend ignores you at a party. Is it not all you can think about the next day even though you had a nice time with the five others who were there? Does it not replay itself over and over again in your mind until it is a huge web of reality, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations all embedded in a story of mistrust?
Even when these stories are not biased, they may be outdated. Stories that may have been helpful at some point in our lives can become hurdles as we grow and hold us back from the pursuit of cherished goals. After all, the stories are based on experiences, and unless we learn to update our experiences and appreciate our successes, we stay stuck, unhappy, and untrue to our own selves. It is because stories are the fuel that either propels us forward towards our goals or keeps us trapped in a cycle of destructive behaviors.
So, here are four questions that will help you align your life in the present and move past “stuck”.
Ask Yourself: What is Making Me Unhappy?
The first step is to sit back and take stock. What is the area in your life that you are unhappy with? Is it your relationship with your spouse or a colleague? Is it your passionless job or your self-doubts towards an activity you would like to pursue? Is it your helplessness in taking charge of your health or the insecurity you feel about your appearance? It may be more than one area, because stories have a way of spilling over into all aspects of our lives. Tackle the one that is affecting you the most – and some of the others may start falling into place, too.
Ask Yourself: What is My Story?
Now listen to the story that you are telling yourself with regards to this aspect of your life. What is the basis for this story? What are the experiences that form the building blocks of your narrative? Extreme stories that have “shoulds”, “always” and “never” embedded in them are based on extreme beliefs that are biased. Reflect on how this “story” helped you cope or advance at a certain point in your life. Notice how it is now making you unhappy and holding you back. Now, be prepared to alter it dramatically or simply let it go and start from scratch.
Ask Yourself: What is My Intention?
Feeling stuck or unhappy is a result of misalignment with what we want in life. However, up to 90% of us do not even know what we want, except that it is not what we have. Gaining clarity on our goals and purpose is key to developing powerful stories that align the past, present, and future. Whatever your goal, write it down and connect with it. How do you envision your life when you achieve your goal? What mental hurdles will you have to overcome to get there? What aspects of your story will you have to change?
Ask Yourself: What is My New Story?
Since experiences are the raw materials with which we spin stories in our minds, it is important to maintain a balanced and flexible outlook on life and not allow the negative – or the obsolete – to influence our way forward. Look back over your life and choose a period or an experience that will help you advance in your goals. For example, your goal of looking after your health will benefit from memories of a time when you took on a project and excelled at it rather than a self-defeating narrative of how little self-control you have. Write out your new story and replay it in your mind until it forms the neural pathways that will move you towards your goals.
As you begin to own your new story, it will become integrated with your sense of self. After all, identity is nothing but an evolving story that finds coherence with the past, present, and future. Find the flexibility in your story that allows you to adapt to changing circumstances, and you will be able to stand up as authentically “you” through the ups and downs of life.
* Credit to Homaira Kabir- Women’s Leadership Coach.
Carmen Keith, MD, IFMCP