“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”- Virginia Woolf
For the past 18 years I have been a practicing psychotherapist and life coach. It’s a fascinating career, and even when I tell myself I don’t want to go to work, I’m always glad that I did. I’ve learned a lot about how people think and view the world. I’ve sat with thousands of people and heard their stories. Many times the problems that they have in their lives are the product of the stories that they tell themselves. When I meet a client for the first time, I find myself silently saying to myself, “What’s your story?” The story that they tell often gives some pretty solid information about their world view, but more importantly, why they struggle with various aspects of life.
Each of us has an internal story that we tell ourselves. The story comes from our life experiences and the way that we process what happens to us-the good, the bad, and the ugly. The stories get repeated over and over again every time we mentally relive events, reflect, process, and review things that have happened to us. It’s a characteristic of human thought that once we attach thoughts and a story to an event or experience that experience changes for us. Each time we tell ourselves our story, the story becomes ingrained in us and becomes our reality. The stories that we tell are not real in and of themselves, they are as real as we make them. As a therapist and coach, sometimes my job is pretty simple-get my client to tell themselves a better story.
Getting the client to tell a better story can be incredibly difficult or incredibly simple, depending upon the life experience that they have had. Abuse victims, trauma survivors, and kids raised in horrible family situations do have a difficult story to overcome. The process, however always remains the same-getting them to work through, and eventually change the internal representation, the story that they tell themselves. Other clients tell themselves stories that are not helpful for less traumatic reasons. Regardless of the issue, getting to the meat of the story and allowing the client to process it in a different way, shape, or form is necessary.
There are general categories of stories that emerge. All of us, regardless of emotional wellness tell our own stories. Here are a few types of stories that we tell ourselves that are often counterproductive:
The “Victim Story”
People who identify themselves as the victim in the story of their lives often set themselves up for more of the same. Because they identify subconsciously as a victim, they often put themselves in situations where they cannot possibly succeed. Many of the messages they tell themselves begin with internal statements like, “why me,” and “everything always happens to me.” Quite often these are people who believe that they are victims of quality problems such as “my Lexus needs a new transmission,” “the flight to Arruba was delayed,” or “it rained two days on my vacation week.” Victims tend to see the world through the filter of an “everything always happens to me” attitude. What’s your story about being a victim? (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/cause-effect-choice/ )
The “Money Story”
Many people have a strange relationship with the concept of money. For some, there are automatic thoughts that go with it. “We’ll never have any money, “Rich people are selfish,” “We’re destined to be poor,” and “Poor people are fundamentally better than the rich,” are examples of the kinds of automatic thoughts that provide the basis for a counterproductive money story. Usually, the story that one tells themselves about money directly correlates to their economic situation. And, many who accumulate money are unable to convert it into happiness. What’s your story about money? (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/attitude-gratitude/ )
The “Terrible Toos”
This is a story that provides a great excuse for failing to take action. We don’t take action because it is “too,” as in too hard, too old, too expensive, too far, too, too, too….. This story is terrible because it creates an attitude of passivity and often spills over into all kinds of other negative stories. It has the potential to put somebody on life’s sidelines for their entire life beginning in adolescence. As little children, we believe we can do virtually anything. In adolescence we begin to accept a lot of the negative feedback that we get from parents, our peers, and our teachers. The Terrible Toos often sets up a lifetime of helplessness, but it can rear its ugly head any time over the course of the lifespan. Too bad.
The “Used To Be Story”
Many of my coaching clients are middle-aged men who have lost their way. They’re going through life, apparently successfully, but they’re not happy inside. The dirty secret of mental health is that there are millions of “successful” middle aged men out there that are depressed and don’t even realize it. They are masking their depression through words like angry, pissed off, bored, and tired. When they tell their story, their affect usually brightens when they tell you who and what they “used to be.” They weren’t always like this, and listening to their story, punctuated with the phrase “used to be” inserted over and over, is pretty depressing. Usually my challenge with these clients is to get them to realize that, while they’ll never be what they used to be, they still may have a lot in the tank. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/woulda-turned-pro-myths-glory-days/ ) So, who did you “used to be?” Did you ever think that you might be able to be that person again?
The “Conspiracy Theorist”
This type of person tends to view the world as if it is a rigged card game or professional wrestling. They believe that major events in the world are orchestrated by dark forces intent on keeping people in their place. They usually get overly fascinated with the workings of the government, big business, banking interests, and major world power brokers. These people will rant and rail about “them,” “they,” and “the man,” whose major purpose and goals are to keep the rest of us down. They spend an exorbitant amount of their intellectual life verifying this world view that they have by watching, listening to, and reading biased news reporting that fits the beliefs that they already have. They don’t seek out news sources that give them new information, they seek out news sources that confirm what they already believe-that the world is a mean, cold, and nasty place and there is not a damn thing that they or anyone else can do to change it. So, what kind of stories do you tell yourself about government, big business, and major organizations? Do your thoughts contribute something positive to your worldview? (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/media-madness-media-influences-mental-health/ )
These five stories are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the negative narratives that most of us have lurking just beneath the surface. Telling your existing stories to a counselor, psychotherapist, or coach can be helpful, but you can do a lot to change the story on your own. An exercise I do with my clients is to ask them to write their life story from the third person, changing the name of the story’s main character-them-if necessary. When they read the story over, they can often find themselves in one of the five storylines that I mentioned above. Sometimes I’ll ask them to go back after some reflection and rewrite the story, focusing on resiliency factors and positive attributes that they had not included in their first narrative. These methods can create changes in the story that a client tells themselves. It’s a very simple activity, but if done thoughtfully and diligently, it can be transformative.
“Whoever tells the best story wins.”- John Quincy Adams, in the movie Amistad
P. S. If you found this article helpful, you may benefit from some personalized mindbody coaching. Contact me at http://mindbodycoach.org/contact-us/ if interested in online mindbody coaching. Please check out my Products page through the link at the top of this post.. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media. Email me with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org