How do you think of yourself? As a leader? Someone who doesn’t take any BS? The underdog?
Now ask yourself: Does thinking that way have a negative or positive impact on your life? What would it take to change those stories?
Human beings crave coherence, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, and the most powerful way our brains create coherence is through unconscious story-telling, “by knitting together our internal experience and what we observe in our environment, through an automatic process of narration that explains why we and others do what we do”.
We repeat these stories to ourselves, and they create our reality.
That’s helpful in a lot of ways, but it can also be detrimental to our well-being if the stories we tell ourselves block growth and happiness. “Instead of recognising our stories for the constructions they are, we may mistakenly interpret them as immutable truths, as ‘the way things are,’” writes HBR. Those stories, in turn affect our decision making, in work and in life.
And while it can be difficult to break free of the stories we repeat to ourselves, sometimes it’s necessary to rewrite them. If you go into work every day expecting your coworkers to be rude to you or disregard your ideas, for example, it’s much more likely you’re going to see slights at every turn. If you have the idea in your head that work is supposed to be an unenjoyable slog you just have to get through, well, that’s probably what it will be.
A shift in the narrative you tell yourself may not change all of that (sometimes people truly are terrible), but it is a step towards making yourself happier, liberated and more productive. What if you aren’t who you think you are?
What do you tell yourself about money? Are you a saver, or a spendthrift, or do you avoid thinking about it at all costs?
How to Rewrite Your Story
So, how can you change your perspective? The first step, according to HBR, is to identify and work through the stories you tell about yourself and others:
This helps you understand what you stand for and why you act and react the way you do. Identify a personal or collective challenge you’re facing. What is the basic story you tell yourself about this issue?
If you’re having trouble connecting with your boss, for example, ask yourself why you think that is. Do you consider yourself a good listener but your boss a bulldozer, so you don’t even try to talk to them about your issues?
Now, is that story “constraining or liberating” you? In the example above, your story is clearly constraining you: You aren’t working with your boss, possibly missing out on big assignments or opportunities, because you get too frustrated to even attempt to work with them. Look for the disconnect between what you want (a big assignment) and the narrative you use to justify your current behaviour.
Once you’ve established the issues and the underlying story that is limiting you, “the next step is to consider what you’d like to change and how your story would need to shift to help you achieve the transition,” suggests HBR. You might retain some elements of your story — say, that you’re an ambitious, diligent worker — as foundational principles, let go of others, and add new story lines.
A while back, I met up with my pal Jenny Lawson, who was in town recording the audiobook version of her memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened. I asked her how it was going and she told me that it had been going horribly - until, in a panic, she reached out to a writer friend of hers for advice.
This means reflecting on all of your values to construct a new, liberating story. Now, for example, you value being a martyr in the workplace. But consider the effects that story is having on your work and your life in general — what would happen if you instead thought of yourself as an equal contributor whose opinions and work was valued? What type of role could you see yourself in then?
“Reconstituting our stories so that they help us move in the direction we want to go is a process of choice and intentional sense-making,” writes HBR. “The rewards of doing so include an increased sense of humanity, coherence and liberation.”