“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head.
That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”– Patrick Rothfuss, American fantasy author
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said. “Might I have a few minutes of your time?”
My son Kyle and I were making our way through a crowded street in downtown Nashville when we got approached by a homeless man. His clothes were tattered and dirty, and he was painfully gaunt. It was early evening, and country bands were performing in nearly every venue. It was difficult to hear over the din – a cacophony of twang and crying vocals.
“I must say y’all both have awfully nice shirts and hats.”
I looked at my son, who looked back at me and shrugged.
“Let me tell you my story,” he began. “I was in the military. I know that might be hard to believe looking at me now, but I was an officer and saw some awful front-line action. I lost a lot of good men, and I still suffer greatly from that loss. I have PTSD now if y’all know what that is.”
Kyle and I both nodded.
“I come back here, and there ain’t no work. I look for a long time, and I start to lose faith. I got addicted – I will confess that – and now my family, they don’t want nothin’ to do with me. I am a homeless person. All I have is what I’m wearin’ right now.” He gestured with his hands.
True or not, it was a compelling story. Kyle passed the man a few coins while I reached into my pocket for a dollar bill. He slowly and deliberately (and with great effort) stuffed the dollar into his pocket, and when he tried to do the same with the coins, they fell from his uncooperative fingers and bounced and rolled down the sidewalk.
We all have stories that we tell and beliefs that we have cultivated over time. If we’re deeply invested in our stories, they can have a tremendous effect on our choices and decisions – our actions and reactions. To a greater or lesser extent, we become the stories we tell ourselves – many of which are inaccurate, incomplete, misinterpretations of events or simply untrue.
Every day – and especially in my clinical work – I listen to people offer up excuses for poor choices and behaviours, and, with few exceptions, most are based on negative, self-limiting beliefs and uninvestigated thinking around what they can or can’t do, say, think or feel.
Over the years, I’ve seen a pattern emerge: people with self-limiting beliefs rein themselves in, sabotage their own best efforts and live lives with less passion, purpose and hope than their empowered counterparts. The people with expansive, empowering beliefs about themselves and their place in the world continue to evolve and grow ever more self-aware and hopeful while building a successful life upon a solid foundation of love and healthy self-esteem.
There are so many stories that we tell ourselves. Some are bound to a path of pain (such as the gentleman we encountered on the street), while others are outright lies that over time evolve into self-fulfilling prophecies – such as that we’re too old to change, that there isn’t enough time left to make a difference, or that we’re not worthy or deserving of happiness.
Take some time now to think about the stories you tell yourself and the ones you share with others. Ask yourself, does your story serve you or enslave you? Has it come to be an excuse for not putting yourself out there? For not getting yourself out of an unacceptable situation? For not living a life that is in keeping with your potential and your own best interests?
Here’s a simple process to get you started. Once identified, try turning the story around in your mind. Instead of, “I’m too old to change,” try saying, “I can change, and I will because I choose to change – right here and right now.” Instead of, “There’s just not enough time left to make a difference,” try instead, “As long as there is life in my body, there is time enough to make a difference.” And instead of saying, “I’m not worthy or deserving of happiness,” choose instead to say, “I am a good and worthwhile person deserving of all good things.”
Now, off the hop, these statements may seem to run contrary to reality but say them anyway. Here’s something to consider: studies have shown that our unconscious mind does not have the ability to discern between reality and fantasy. It’s one of the reasons hypnotherapy is such a powerful tool for personal change. If you imagine success (or any positive outcome), you free your mind to move in that direction. As you imagine, so shall it become true.
With some effort, you’ll be able to catch yourself when you’re about to be hooked by a story. When you feel yourself drifting into an old narrative, stop, take a deep breath and focus on your breathing. While your body can only exist at the moment, your mind spends little time there. Focusing on your breathing and the sensations within your body will help anchor you in the moment.
Take note of the story you’re about to tell yourself or others and the feelings the story elicits. Are they feelings of sadness, depression or anxiety? Consider the benefits derived from telling the story, and yes, there are always benefits to any persistent practice. In other words, there’s a reason you keep telling the story because it serves you in some way.
The renowned English poet Edmund Spenser wrote, “It is the mind that maketh good or ill, that maketh wretch or happy, rich or poor.”
As with the homeless man on the street, certain aspects of your story may likely be true. Consider your interpretation of events and remember the impact of the story you tell, and the hold it has on you are solely within your control. We are all storytellers, and we all like a good story. Let us vow right now to tell a good and empowering story filled with possibility and hope.