Why stories matter
Humans are story-tellers. We’ve been that way since our very first ancestor recounted a hunt or explained why there are stars in the sky. Stories are how we make sense of our world. They shape our beliefs about ourselves, those around us, and the cosmos. It’s truly amazing how mere words can influence our lives. However, words in and of themselves, don’t have much power. The real power of a story comes from the telling of it. The more a story is told, the more power it has. And the more we hear a story, the more it makes sense to us and influences our thoughts and actions.
Most of us are familiar with stories that come in the form of novels and movies. But there are other types of narratives that we might not recognize as stories. These stories are the narratives that we tell ourselves, often subconsciously. You might think of these stories as the “self-talk” that is narrating your feelings and thoughts.
Personal narratives are the stories we tell ourselves, the ones that explain why we act or think the way we do. There are two basic authors of our personal narratives—other people and ourselves. Some of our narratives began as the stories that others told us about ourselves. We can think of them as the stories written by our family, friends, teachers, etc.
The other type of narrative is one we author ourselves, the ones that we tell ourselves that other people may not even be aware of. Sometimes we might think we authored a story, only to realize that it was written by someone else; we just adopted it and believed it to be true.
Regardless of the author, these stories are the building blocks of our personal identity. They influence how we see the world and those around us, as well as how we see ourselves. They provide us answers to questions like:
- Is the world safe?
- Am I lovable?
- Can I count on others to protect me?
- Are you going to leave me?
In order to better understand these, I’ll share some examples from my life.
A narrative authored by others:
My parents always told people that I raised myself. They said this with a smile and pride. It was meant to be a compliment. Did I really raise myself? Of course not. But I didn’t need to be told what to do, I pretty much obeyed the rules, and I did not cause my parents many problems. I was basically an easy child to raise and my parents were praising me whenever they told that story.
However, I heard something very different. Every time I heard that story, I subtly got the idea that I couldn’t or shouldn’t need them, that I couldn’t and shouldn’t ask for my parents to be parents. I believed that I had to be perfect because my parents seemed to believe that I already was and I concluded that I had to handle any problems on my own.
This story, in part, directed me towards being a perfectionist. I don’t blame my parents for my perfectionist tendencies, but their words shaped a story that helped form my approach to the world. It has taken me a long time to rewrite that particular story, to accept mistakes and failures as a normal part of life. And I’ve had to learn that I don’t have to do everything on my own. I’ve had to learn to let the people in my life help me and to ask for help. The narratives we form as children are very powerful.
A narrative authored by me:
Besides stories about us that are authored by other people, some stories we tell ourselves are based on our own perceptions of experiences and interactions with other people. For instance, for the first 30 years of my life I told the story that I was shy. I based this story on the fact that I was quiet and insecure. By believing I was shy, I held back from getting to know new people. Shyness became my excuse to not try new things or meet new people.
But at some point, I rewrote that story and now I think that, while I’m not an extrovert, I am good at talking to people one-on-one and I make friends easily. I’m not shy, I’m just not really loud and I don’t need to be the center of attention. That makes a big difference. Now, when I am in a group of new people, I’ll actually go and introduce myself to different individuals. I never would have done such a thing during the years that I was telling myself the story that I was shy. Rewriting my story has introduced me to a lot of good people and experiences.
Stories and “Truth”
Is there any such thing as a True story? These narratives that are playing in our mind, are they the Truth? I believe that our personal narratives are not true, per se, they are simply our attempts to make sense of our experiences. Although our narratives are not “truth,” our experiences are real, events are real, and the emotions are real, changing your story does not negate these things.
We have the power to revisit our past experiences and look at them through fresh eyes; to look at them through the eyes of our more mature self. As we do that, we can ask ourselves questions about those stories. We can question which ones serve us well, and which ones limit us. And we aren’t limited to past stories. We can also become aware of the stories we currently tell ourselves to explain events in our lives that are happening now.
What does “rewrite your story” really mean?
Rewriting your story is basically about shifting your perspective. It’s about questioning your interpretations of life events. It’s about growth. Because a lot of our narratives began when we were young, they are interpreted from narrow perspectives. As we grow older and gain more life experiences, we learn and grow (hopefully) which often gives us a more mature interpretation. Reframing our stories is a way for our mature self to put aside childish (incomplete) ideas.
In addition to reframing narratives we formed when we were young, we can also choose to rewrite more current stories that concern events that happened recently. We can catch ourselves early in a damaging narrative and find a new interpretation. The stories we choose to reframe can be small stories (like, I hate grocery shopping) or big ones (like, the world is against me).
Rewriting your story isn’t easy. You must let go of limiting beliefs about yourself and the world around you and open yourself up to a grander way of seeing your life.
What rewriting your story is NOT about:
- pretending things didn’t happen.
- ignoring the reality of our feelings
- negating the difficult things in our lives.
We all have difficulties that we must endure or overcome. Rewriting your story doesn’t mean you act as if you’re super glad it all happened, or that you put on your Polly Anna smile and are eternally happy. I’m too much of a realist to suggest that.
What rewriting your story IS about:
- personal responsibility
- development and growth
Rewriting your story means that we try to find meaning in our lives/narratives that propel us to be our best selves. It means not using a story as an excuse. Reframing your narrative means finding power in our own stories so that we can grow and develop and mature.
How can rewriting my story help me?
At first glance, rewriting your story may seem like you’re just swapping out one story for another. But if they’re both stories, and stories aren’t necessarily “True,” what does it matter? You might ask, “Why should I believe an encouraging/empowering story any more than I believe a limiting one?” It’s a good question, and honestly, I can get caught up in an existential dilemma if I think about it too much.
The reason I feel rewriting your story is useful is because it can move us from a stuck, negative, blaming position in life into one where you move forward to reach your dreams and goals. It can help you let go of negativity and allow you to take responsibility for your own life, which frees you from anger and bitterness. Rewriting your story allows you to move beyond old fears, judgments (of yourself or others), and resentment. I believe these things are worthwhile. Personally, I enjoy life more when I’m able to reframe experiences into a way that empowers me rather than holds me down.
How can coaching help me rewrite my story?
The first steps in rewriting your story are:
- Recognize that you’re telling yourself a story
- Question that story
- Construct a new story, and
- Practice telling your new story
It’s not always as easy as it sounds. A life coach can help you as you move through each step.
1-Recognize your story:
Sometimes we are so caught up in our stories that we don’t even realize that we’re in a story at all. We’re too close and can’t “see the forest for the trees,” so to speak. Having a life coach, someone who isn’t personally invested in your story, can help you recognize your story. A life coach provides an outside perspective when you are too close to your own narrative. It’s helpful to have a life coach who can recognize patterns in your life that indicate a limiting story and how that story is influencing your behaviors and thoughts.
2-Question your story:
I’ve found that it’s common to hold on tightly to a limiting story. We often don’t want to believe there’s any other possible interpretation. Our personal stories can be very comfortable, even if they are holding us back. The thought of changing our narrative is scary. I’ve heard it said that people prefer a known hell over an unknown heaven. When you question your story, you start to move into the realm of the unknown. A life coach is good at asking questions that encourage new visions and possibilities, moving with you into that great unknown.
3-Construct a new story:
If you are new to reframing your stories it can be difficult to know exactly how to do it. Luckily, rewriting your story is not literally about writing. You don’t have to be an accomplished or “good” writer. The most important thing you need is your willingness to think about your experiences differently and adopt a new story. If you’ve never actively tried to rewrite your narrative, a life coach can help you along the way. If you have rewritten parts of your narrative, it’s often nice to have someone (a life coach) walk with you through the process. A life coach will help you find something that feels honest, authentic, and good.
4-Practice telling your new story:
Practice is pretty much the key to everything in life, and it is key to tapping into the power of a new narrative. Rewriting your story is not the end. In fact, it won’t have power to change anything until it is told enough times and becomes a part of your identity. And that takes time and practice. In this way, a life coach is a lot like a sports coach—a life coach helps you practice and will hold you accountable to the changes you are making. A life coach will remind you of your new narrative, even when you doubt your ability to change.
A real-life example
I was working with a very successful professor named Janet (name has been changed) who had been a scientist for over 20 years. She was really good at her job, took her work seriously. She was honest and scrupulous in her dealings with people. Most of all, Janet truly cared for her students. She was deeply involved in her community and was a leader among colleagues in different professional societies. She was a champion of women in a male-dominated field.
However, when Janet started at a new university, she ran into a colleague who started harassing her. He would belittle and undermine her every chance he could find. The harassment came in many forms and lasted for years. Even though she went through all the proper avenues to try and get this colleague to stop, there were systemic problems in the chain of command and her harasser was never held responsible.
Janet kept thinking, “if I just try a little harder, things will get better.” So, she continued working at her university because she truly loved the students and the science, but the working environment was toxic. It took a serious toll on her emotional and physical health. After years of trying to endure it all, she realized that this job was literally not worth her life. She had to decide between staying or leaving. Janet struggled with this decision, but ultimately chose to resign. In fact, she not only resigned from her university, she took herself out of the academic profession altogether.
A major part of Janet’s identity had been tied to her professional career. Quitting her job felt like walking away from who she was. It created a type of identity crisis. Janet, this amazing, successful woman, began telling herself a story about quitting the job. She told herself she was weak and that she had become a statistic of “failure and of attrition.” Her story defined her as one of those women who couldn’t hang in there. Janet told herself she wasn’t strong enough and that she was being judged. This story left her feeling ashamed, confused, angry, and depressed.
As we worked together, Janet came up with a different story, one that she said I could share.
“I am leaving [my job] as the same intelligent, insightful, creative, passionate person that earned a place in it…I am brave and strong and stuck with a job because of my great commitment to my students, knowledge, and academia. I held out much longer than most people would have. I am incredibly dedicated and passionate with an amazing moral compass. I have shown great courage to stand up for myself.
“It takes courage and wisdom to finally say “enough” and recognize when a situation is no longer healthy. I recognize my own worth and honor myself by moving away from my profession. My life’s journey is not defined by my career or an institution.
“I am embarking on a new journey…It’s scary, lonely, and difficult work to redefine myself. It takes a great amount of self-confidence and vulnerability to do what I am doing. And yet, as Brené Brown says, vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity. I am in the birthing process…
“The uncertainty of rebirth is part of the process, part of the path, and I have the inner grit to lean into the discomfort of the unknown. I recognize that the birthing process can be scary, painful, exhausting; it’s completely normal to want to turn back, to cry in frustration and pain and sorrow, to feel like I will never make it. However, despite all these feelings, the birthing process can also be beautiful, mysterious, grand, and transformational; it’s completely normal to have moments of awe, wonder, and feelings of empowerment. The birthing is the beginning of the new journey, full of possibility.”
Are you ready to rewrite your story?
From Janet’s rewrite, you can see that she didn’t try and pretend her experience wasn’t really hard and painful or that the road ahead was clear and easy. She was honest about the pain she was going through. By rewriting her story, Janet saw herself through new eyes, with compassion and respect. Janet’s new story has enabled her to see her own power and the beauty of the process of becoming.
Recognizing the power of personal narratives is the first step in finding those stories that restrict our growth and development. Stories have power in our lives. They influence our perceptions. We are shaped by our stories. We live by stories. And yet ultimately, we have power over our stories. We can change our perspective and shape our stories. We have power to choose new stories to live by. It is true that we live by stories. However, stories live by us. Indeed, our stories can only live as long as we continue to tell them. Consider any personal narratives that hold you back, allow you to stay small, or keep you from living authentically. Are you ready to change any of them? What stories will you begin to rewrite?