In my blog article last week, I wrote about the stories we tell ourselves. I shared how we humans tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world and how our stories become self-fulfilling prophecies. This week, let’s talk about how to choose a story that serves you more.

Last week, I was in a coaching session with a new client who’s building a new business but who is currently very distracted by the Coronavirus. She shared that part of her was scared of how the pandemic might hurt her loved ones and having a hard time focusing. This part was saying, “I need to work really hard to protect my loved ones.”

Immediately after she said this, she questioned herself and asked, “But is that true? Do I really need to work hard to protect my loved ones?”

I paused her and let her know what I’ll tell you now: 

If you try to convince a part of you who’s scared that her story is wrong, it might actually make the situation worse.

Here’s why:

There are some schools of thought (such as The Work by Byron Katie) in which teachers have students identify their stories and ask themselves: Is this story true? Although many people have experienced profound transformation as a result of realizing that their stories are false, for many people, asking the question— Is this true?— is less than helpful. 

Several years ago, I was at a workshop with Lewis Mehl-Madrona, Lakota-Cherokee shaman and psychiatrist who practices and teaches Narrative Medicine. As Lewis shared, it doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not. Any words we utter are an incomplete interpretation of reality. If part of you believes that a story is true, that part probably won’t change its mind just because you tell it to, and it is apt to cling even more tightly to the story if you tell it that it’s wrong. 

Rather than asking— Is this story true?— Lewis suggests that we ask ourselves the question: 

“How does this story serve me? And, what story might serve me more?”

Stories are not all good or bad. Most of our stories serve us. They help us to get by in a challenging and complicated world. If you had no stories to interpret reality around you, you might be blissed out, but it would be hard to get anything done.

The point is, therefore, not to get rid of all the stories you tell yourself. Rather, it is to update the stories that cause you undue anxiety or hold you back from pursuing the life you long for. The point is to notice the stories that make you scared or keep you stuck and choose stories that serve you more. Even if part of you is convinced that what you’re saying is true, there is likely another story that would give you a greater sense of peace and help you move forward. 

Let’s practice shifting your stories now.

The first step to transforming a story is to notice the story in the first place.

I invite you to grab a piece of paper and a pen and get comfortable. Then, when you’re ready, bring to mind a recent situation that has you feeling anxious and write down what comes up in response to the following questions: 

  • What am I telling myself about this situation? 
  • What am I most afraid of?
  • What am I thinking that this situation means about myself?
  • What am I thinking that this situation means about the world? 
  • Keep asking yourself— What else? Anything else?— until you feel complete.

Don’t worry about whether what you write down makes rational sense or whether deep down, you know it isn’t entirely true.

There is often truth in a story, but it’s an oversimplification, a generalization, a jumping to conclusions. Your story may need to become more nuanced, fleshed out.

The second step is getting curious about what else might be true.

To do this, bring your attention to your heart center and write down what arises in response to the following questions:

  • What are the possible holes in my story? 
  • What might I be missing?
  • What else might be true?
  • What might I need to learn or understand?
  • What is my deepest knowing about this situation? 
  • What story might serve me even more?

Do not make the first story wrong. Just experiment with what else might be true, what else you might tell yourself that would create a sense of settledness in your body, what story might be able to stand alongside the first. Notice which words create constriction and which create a sense of ease in your body. Play with finding words that serve you.

When your new story comes to you, it may take the shape of words, or it may come as a sensation, feeling, image, or a direct and silent knowing. Write down what comes up. Take time to breathe in your new story and feel its energy in your body.

Once your new story has landed, revisit your original story. Ask yourself: How does it feel in my body now? You may feel immediate relief, or it may take several practice sessions to feel a significant shift. Usually, the first session will have lost some charge. 

You may also uncover another limiting story underneath the first. If so, repeat the process: shining light on the first story and getting curious about what story might serve you more. 

It might take some time to land on a new story. If nothing comes to you, allow these questions to percolate in your subconscious for the next week. You have permission to be patient with yourself.

Over the next week, I invite you to be a story detective. 

Whenever you feel anxious or scared, pause and ask yourself: What did I just tell myself? If possible, write it down. Stay curious about the stories you’re telling yourself about this moment in time and your place in it. 

And remember that while so much is beyond our control, you get to choose what you tell yourself. As Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and survivor of the Holocaust concentration camps, said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing— the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

May you choose a story that serves you well.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

With much love and encouragement,

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