Much like a fiction novel tells a specific story, we, too, tell ourselves a very specific story each and every day. It’s not done though words on paper but via thoughts in our head which shape our confidence and guide our behavior. Too many times, the story we tell ourselves is limiting and self-defeating.
Several years ago, I worked with a woman who quickly became a dear friend. About two years after we met, she went through some major life changes including a divorce and the sale of her home of more than twenty years. No one would ever doubt the level of hurt and loss she was experiencing. What stood out was the story she was telling herself. Whenever someone would talk about their problems or worries, she’d jump in and say “Oh that’s nothing compared to what I am going through…” It happened like clockwork. Every. Single. Time. I remember once venting my frustrations to her and she said that I didn’t really know what stress was until I “walked a mile in her shoes”. At one point I reminded her that of all the people in the world, many would gladly change places with her in a minute. Countless people had it worse. There was no getting through to her. She spoke incessantly about being in a job where she was underpaid and underappreciated, about the chronic pain she was experiencing, about her living situation and her tumultuous relationship with her children. The story she was telling herself was strengthening every single day.
Why did she continue to tell herself this story- that she had it worse than everyone else, that her life was so stressful and hard? I don’t know all of the reasons but I would bet that one of the answers is because it helped her rationalize her place in life. She’d frequently talk about the many things she disliked about her life but she didn’t take any steps to improve it. Not one. It’s easy to complain, not so easy to dig in, get to work and change your life around.
There was a bright side to this sad and unfortunate set of circumstances. She did not see it for she was too busy living in the dark. For one, she was getting out of an abusive relationship. Next, by selling her home, she was getting enough money to pay off her debt. Also, her new living situation provided two tremendous opportunities. It gave her a chance to change her financial situation around and save or invest a large part of her salary as her living expenses were very minimal. It also put her minutes from NY City, a place that, for years she had said she could find work for twice the salary she was making. The thing that stopped her from finding that work was the commute. As soon as the commute became a non-issue, she decided to stay in the same job that underpaid and undervalued her for a decade. Today, years later, she is still at the same company. Though I don’t speak with her much anymore, she still believes she has a harder life than anyone else. Like Henry Ford once said ‘Whether you think you can or can’t-- you’re right”.
When you find that you are telling yourself a story of mediocrity or defeat, here is how we can create an empowering story in four steps:
1- Observe your inner vocabulary- Listen closely to the narrative playing inside your mind. What is it saying? Is there any truth to it? Becoming mindful of the loop of words on continuous “play” is critically important to change.
2- Write it down- When the narrative starts playing and your thoughts are filled with limiting content, grab a pen and paper and write down what your inner narrator is saying. Don’t edit and don’t stop for spelling and punctuation. Get down every word just as it plays in your brain. In my friend’s example, it would be “I have it harder than everyone else” and “you really don’t know stress until you walked a mile in my shoes”.
3- Look for the truth- Is there any truth to it? If not, disregard it. You’ve exposed it to be a fraud and there is no room for that in your life. If there is truth, create a plan to change it. For example, if you are unhappy with your weight, make a detailed plan that moderately phases in life changes to get you to your goal.
4- Write a new story- unlike the story in that fiction novel that was written by someone else, you can write your own story. If you decide. Your past does not define you nor does it direct your future. The decisions you make from this very moment on do. Start now to create better habits, to change your inner vocabulary, to set clear goals and diligently work towards them every day. You’ll be amazed at how far you can go with focused, intentional effort.
Whatever story you are telling yourself, the good news is you can always erase and write something new. Something better. What story are you telling yourself today?