One key to living a life that matters is learning to manage our minds–to understand and manage the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what's possible for us.
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The Stories We Tell Ourselves
On a podcast I was listening to recently, the host was talking about regret. She commented about something someone in her life had done, and the story she created in her mind about what it meant. This got me thinking about some other articles I’ve read recently about the stories that we tell ourselves, and also about how I do that; somebody does or says something, or doesn’t do or say something, and with very little information I make up this whole story about what it means or what happened.
Sometimes in relationships we make up stories about the things the other person does, and interpret things the wrong way. The same thing can happen in our professional lives. We make up stories in our minds to explain things that happen in our lives, often based on assumptions or with very little information.
This can be so relevant to our productivity — why we do or don’t live the lives we want to, or do or don't do the things that matter to us. So much of it, I think, is tied to the stories we tell ourselves about what is or isn’t possible for us.
I believe that the most important factor in determining how we experience our lives isn’t what happens to us, but what we make it mean. Nothing has more impact on our lives–on what we accomplish or what we don’t, whether we’re happy or not–than the stories we tell ourselves.
What do I mean by this?
When I refer to the stories we tell ourselves, I'm talking about the meaning we give to the things we experience and do, and the explanations that we have for what we do or don’t do in life.
We talked about this some during our Mindset Matters mini-series from last year in episode 112, called Productive Beliefs. In that episode, we discussed how we can choose to believe there’s not enough time to get everything done, or that there is enough time to do what matters most (“The ONE Thing” we talked about in episode 133).
We've also talked in the past about how we can choose to believe we don’t have the talent to accomplish something we dream of, or that we can learn what we need to know. I read an interesting article called “The Two Kinds of Stories We Tell Ourselves,” which is an excerpt from the book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, by Emily Esfahani Smith. According to this article:
“Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams is an expert on a concept he calls “narrative identity.” McAdams describes narrative identity as an internalized story you create about yourself — your own personal myth. Like myths, our narrative identity contains heroes and villains that help us or hold us back, major events that determine the plot, challenges overcome and suffering we have endured. When we want people to understand us, we share our story or parts of it with them; when we want to know who another person is, we ask them to share part of their story.”
This whole concept of narrative identity goes along with with the idea that we tell ourselves stories, most of the time subconsciously.
The article continues:
“An individual’s life story is not an exhaustive history of everything that has happened. Rather, we make what McAdams calls “narrative choices.” Our stories tend to focus on the most extraordinary events, good and bad, because those are the experiences we need to make sense of and that shape us. But our interpretations may differ. For one person, for example, a childhood experience like learning how to swim by being thrown into the water by a parent might explain his sense of himself today as a hardy entrepreneur who learns by taking risks. For another, that experience might explain why he hates boats and does not trust authority figures. A third might leave the experience out of his story altogether, deeming it unimportant.”
What Kind of Stories?
We might tell ourselves “I’m the kind of person who…” and we might describe ourselves in our minds as the kind of person who is always on time, or who never tells a lie, or who is more comfortable alone than with other people, and so on. We also tell ourselves stories about:
- Our work
- Our abilities
- Other people’s opinions of us
- What other people do
- Our circumstances and the things that happen to us
- What we do and why we do it
- Our past
- Our future
Where Do These Stories Come From?
These stories come from our experiences. Our brain is wired for story. I’ve read some very interesting articles and books about how our mind automatically creates stories from our experiences. Our brains are designed to keep us alive and part of that is the ability to tell stories to explain what we’ve experienced. This ability, these stories, help us navigate the world we live in. Whatever we experience, our brain will make a story to explain and give meaning to it.
In other words, whatever happens in our lives, we decide–often without consciously deciding–what it means. And that meaning is very personal, very individual. The same bad thing can happen to five different people, and each one of them will make it mean something different.
For example, several different women might have a messy house and each might give it a different meaning–maybe:
“I’m a slob.”
“The people I live with are slobs.”
“We have full lives and other things are more important than cleaning house.”
“We need to get rid of some of our stuff.”
“I’m a bad wife/mom/human being because I can’t keep up.”
“It’s time to hire some help.”
In the article I mentioned earlier, McAdams talks about two kinds of stories that we tell:
One is a redemptive story, in which “people who are driven to contribute to society and to future generations, he found, are more likely to tell redemptive stories about their lives, or stories that transition from bad to good.” So something bad happens, but something good comes out of the experience.
Then there is a contamination story, “in which people interpret their lives as going from good to bad.” People who tell contamination stories, McAdams has found, are less driven to contribute to society and younger generations. They also tend to be more anxious and depressed, and to feel that their lives are less coherent, compared to those who tell redemptive stories.”
I find this so interesting that psychologists have studied how we interact with ourselves and our world and can categorize how we talk to ourselves.
Why Does it Matter?
What we think, even subconsciously, ultimately determines what we do, and what we do determines what our life is like. I really believe that the results we have in our life come from the choices we make and the things we do.
This is such an empowering thing to recognize. If my life is the result of my actions, then I have control over what my life is like. I can get different results by changing what I do, no matter what is going on around me or my circumstances; it’s on me, I have that power. What we think determines our actions, and our actions determine what our life is like.
How Do They Affect Us?
If the story we tell ourselves is that we don’t finish things we start, we soon won’t try. It becomes a self-fulfilling story. If the story we tell ourselves is that there’s not enough time to do the things we care about, we will fulfill that story too.
Our brain’s designed to look for evidence of what we already believe (to avoid “cognitive dissonance”). One cause of cognitive dissonance is seeing evidence or information that contradicts what you think or believe. We don’t like cognitive dissonance, so we can persuade ourselves (subconsciously), that the evidence isn’t there, or that it doesn’t mean what others say it means. Our brain looks for evidence that supports what we already believe, so you see what you’re looking for.
One article from Simplypsychology.org supports this idea:
“We have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance) … [W]e seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes … a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.”
If our story focuses on our limitations, that’s all we’ll see; but if our story focuses on possibilities, we will see those everywhere we look.
Can We Learn to Tell Ourselves Different Stories?
How many times have you said, “I’m the kind of person who…”? This is the results of thoughts we’ve had, and the stories we’ve told ourselves.
Can we learn to tell ourselves different stories? We need to understand that these stories, these thoughts, are completely optional. We create them; we can choose to create different stories if the stories we’re telling ourselves don’t serve us.
How do we know our thoughts are optional? We know they are optional because two people who have the same experience can end up with completely different thoughts and feelings about what that experience meant.
We can learn to tell ourselves different stories, but that's not to say it's easy. Change is never easy, because our brains like to keep doing what they’ve always done. This is a survival mechanism because it’s more efficient and we use less energy when we don’t have to think about it. However, we can overcome this, if we act intentionally and develop new stories and give new meaning to our stories.
The article I mentioned earlier (“The Two Kinds of Stories We Tell Ourselves“) also mentions, “One of the great contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts.”
This is not about denying reality. We can’t look at the world around us and pretend it’s something it’s not; that isn't the point of telling new stories. It’s about learning to interpret the reality around us in a conscious and intentional way that serves us and helps us to create the lives we want to create.
Awareness comes first. We need to learn to pay attention to what’s going on in our heads. So, the first step is learning to observe without judging. One writer, in an article on Zenhabits.com suggests thinking of the story as a dream. Brooke Castillo calls this being in a “watcher” role, where we are observing our habits and lives without assigning value of good or bad; just seeing what is, and what is there.
We can then observe our thoughts and our reactions, beliefs, feelings we have as a result. Observe the results in our lives with compassion and curiosity and think “This is the life I’ve created for myself,” and examine it. So many of the stories we tell ourselves are ingrained in us, and we don’t even think about it.
Next, learn to tell the difference between the truth and a tale. Notice the feelings you have when a circumstance or situation occurs. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling about this thing in my life?” Step back into that watcher role, and notice how you are feeling. Recognize that the feeling comes, not from the circumstance, but from your thoughts, from the story you’re telling yourself about what it means. Then identify the story you’re telling, without judging it as good or bad, and then examine the story objectively. Is it true? Remember the difference between fact and opinion. One definition states: “A fact is a statement that can be proven true or false. An opinion is an expression of a person's feelings that cannot be proven. Opinions can be based on facts or emotions, and sometimes they are meant to deliberately mislead others.”
Then learn to replace the old story with a new one. Developing a new thought pattern — a new habit — is easier than stopping an old one. This uses the principle we talked about earlier, that we see what we’re looking for. We plant the seeds such as, “I’m the kind of person who . . . keeps her commitments . . . dreams big . . . experiences good things . . . accomplishes what she sets out to do…” Practice thinking those things, and your mind will start looking for evidence to reinforce that belief. Remember that our past and our circumstances shape us, but they don’t have to define us.
Some tools that have been helpful to me through this process.
Brené Brown's “Rising Strong Process”
In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown discusses:
Acknowledge that you’re feeling something, identify what it is, and get curious about what’s happened and how what you’re feeling is connected to your thoughts and behaviors. She suggests asking yourself questions such as,“Why am I being so hard on everyone around me today? What’s setting me off? How did I get to the point that I want to punch this wall? I want to dig in to why I’m so overwhelmed. I can’t stop thinking about that conversation at work. Why not? I’m having such a strong emotional reaction — what’s going on?”
“Get honest with the stories [you’ve] made up about [your] struggles and … revisit, challenge, and reality check these narratives…”
Take what you’ve learned about yourself from the first two steps and “write a new, more courageous ending.”
Brooke Castillo's Model
I also like Brooke Castillo’s Model, which helps you to develop that awareness and learn to make intentional choices about the stories you tell yourself. The model is a tool for self-coaching, or for life coaches to use. Everything in the world falls into one of these:
- Circumstance — a fact
- Thought — a sentence in your mind
- Feeling — one word (she says a feeling is a vibration in our body): angry, discouraged, joyful, determined
- Action — something you do or don’t do
The key to using the model is to figure out what goes where. Some examples are:
Example 1: Looming deadlines at work
- I have too much to do: We think that’s a fact, but it’s not. It’s a thought. If it was a fact everybody would agree.
- The fact might be: My boss has required me to accomplish a, b, and c by tomorrow at 3 p.m.
- The thought is: I have too much to do.
- The feeling is: stressed or panicky or overwhelmed or ??
- The action might be: I surf social media, or I eat a bag of chips, or I watch TV.
- The result is: I don’t get it done.
Example 2: I’m disorganized
- I’m a disorganized person: Again, this isn’t a fact, it’s a thought about yourself, your circumstances, etc.
- Fact: I can’t find my keys or I missed an important appointment.
- Thought: I’m a disorganized mess.
- Feeling: Ashamed, embarrassed, hopeless, or resigned
- Action: Going shopping, or whatever you do when you are ashamed.
- Result: ??
What Brooke teaches, and what I believe, is if you work through this process, you learn to understand your mind, separate facts from feelings, and you can, over time, if you want to, change your thoughts, which changes your feelings, which will change your actions, which will change the results you get in your life.
If you don’t like the results, start with asking yourself what result do you want, then what action would you need to take to get that result, then how would you need to feel to take that action, then what thoughts do you need to think to feel that way.
What Do Our Stories Have to Do with Productivity?
Remember that at The Productive Woman we define productivity as ordering your life in such a way as to maximize your positive impact on the world around you. We do that by using our gifts, talents, and abilities to accomplish the things that we care about, and make a life that matters, as we each define it for ourselves. The stories we tell ourselves–the meaning we assign to the circumstances, events, and activities of our life–have a direct impact on our ability to do that.
If we are not doing that (and many of us feel we're not), there’s a reason. If we’re not doing the things we say we care about most, there’s a reason. If we don’t feel our life matters in the way we want it to, then there’s a reason.
We are often our own biggest stumbling block, and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we’re capable of, what we deserve, what life will allow us — all these make all the difference.
If we can identify those stories that are driving our behavior, we can choose to create a new story. Our brains can do that. It takes intention, purpose, awareness, and a decision to change the story, which will eventually change the results in our lives.
What do you think?
Are the stories you tell yourself helping you accomplish what you care about, or are you sabotaging your own efforts? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me!
Resources and Links:
- Rising Strong by Brené Brown
- The Life Coach School Podcast, hosted by Brooke Castillo – check out episode 1, which explains The Model
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