I love to tell stories.
Not fictional stories. I’m really not so good at coming up with characters and plots on the fly. What I AM good at is relating almost any subject to an experience I’ve had in the past. My favorite assignments in high school and college were personal narratives. In fact, my last blog post was just three stories from my life put up into a framework of principles. I can’t help it. It’s become a part of my reputation. When a new friend finally says “you have a story for everything, don’t you?” I know they’re really getting to know me. It’s part of my personal brand.
This has gone on as long as I remember. When I was 12, my math teacher, Mrs. Mullins, used to tease me about how she could hardly make it through a point without me interrupting with a story. One friday, she even read us a story from a picture book about a slug (I’m not sure what slugs have to do with seventh grade math- other than I have the same feelings toward both). Before she dove into the glossy, oversized pages, she said “Morgan, do you have a story about a slug before we start?” I responded that I did. She said she was just joking. I said that I was not.
(That was a story. See how I am?)
I’ve come to realize, though, that the most powerful story in my life has never been one that I’ve told other people when I’m trying to warn or inspire them. Instead, it’s the one that I’m constantly telling myself on a daily basis.
We usually don’t think about the fact that we tell stories to ourselves, but we absolutely do- and realizing that this happens allows us to use it as a powerful tool. Recognizing our own internal story is crucial if we ever want to change and improve ourselves. Any other attempts at change will come up short and ultimately frustrate us.
I once heard it explained this way: imagine typing up an important paper and printing it out only to discover a glaring typo. You quickly grab some white-out and cover up the offending letter. It isn’t perfect, but it will do. Content that the mistake has been fixed, you go to print out another copy only to find that it also contains the error. And again. And again. And again. Of course, this example is a little hyperbolic. Nobody with at least a toddler’s grasp on causal relationships would think that fixing the paper would fix the source of the problem, but we do this all the time in our lives!
Let me explain.
The real problem in this example is in the computer itself- the error is part of the code created when the typist made the mistake. The print-outs are only a physical manifestation of a prior, digital creation. So it is with our lives. Our habitual behaviors, the way we speak, the way we treat others, and even things that seem to repeatedly happen to us are physical manifestations of our internal coding. This coding, in turn, is simply a result of the story we choose to tell ourselves. To change negative outcomes, we too often try to change the outcomes themselves- like putting white-out on an out of place letter. It may seem that we’ve fixed the problem, only to be frustrated and discouraged when it pops back up again. That’s because the underlying, internal story has remained the same.
Let’s say, for example, that you have a tendency to say the wrong thing in social situations. Things will be going well in conversation, everyone is enjoying themselves, then BOOM! you blurt out something obnoxious that makes everyone uncomfortable. Inside, your guts start turning in knots and you think “Ugh! Again!? I always say the wrong thing!”
The conversation recovers, and you feel better. You promise yourself you won’t do that again- but next time you find yourself in a similar situation, you hit the proverbial ‘print’ button, and out comes the familiar ‘typo.’
The problem? The internal story never changed. In fact, it was repeated. When you tell yourself “I always do X,” your brain hears itself and says “I always do X. Got it.”
This happens with a lot of things. Think for a moment about the little stories you tell yourself on a daily basis: “I’ll never get along with so-and-so.” “I’m not smart enough for that.” “I’m not cool enough.”- it’s really surprising how often we limit our own narrative with garbage like this. We tend to look at negative results and then encode them into our personal narrative- and they continue to show up because that’s what we’ve programmed ourselves to do.
Our internal stories are powerful, with far-reaching consequences in the physical world. I have even known people who have made illness such a deep part of their story that symptoms begin to show. When they learn to take charge and eliminate those mental barriers, their health is restored.
Now, of course, this doesn’t explain everything. People really do get sick, disasters do strike, and problems arise from outside sources that have nothing to do with our internal ideas about ourselves. We can’t help these- but our internal story still plays a huge role in how we react to these externalities. I’m convinced that resilient people are those who have crafted a better story for themselves- one that maintains positivity in the face of adversity.
In future posts, we’ll revisit this theme. I’m always looking for strategies to improve my story, to make it more positive and more resilient. I know that today I’ve pointed out a big problem but haven’t really provided any actionable principles to solve it. Stay tuned.
Let’s make better stories for ourselves.