Jean Paul Sartre
“Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.”
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
The stories you tell yourself shape the meaning and direction of your life.
When I first started speaking in front of people, I would get extremely nervous. 15 minutes before going on stage, my heart would begin to pound in my chest. 10 minutes before, I would start to sweat and get lightheaded from breathing irregularly. Sometimes I would have to go to the bathroom and do jumping jacks or wall pushups. This would help me stop consciously thinking about each breath and give me an outlet for all of my nervous energy. However, it did nothing to help me stop sweating. 5 minutes before speaking, I would splash cold water on my face over and over again in an effort to end the perspiration and calm my internal influences.
Eventually, I realized that my body was not the problem. The problem was in my head. I was telling myself a bad story. I had recently started a new career in a field that I did not have a lot of experience in. Yet, my main job was to teach other doctors about this field. I gave meaning to these facts by telling myself the following story:
“You do not have enough experience. You are not qualified for this job. You lack leadership influence. Who do you think you are fooling? If you mess up or don’t know the answer to something, you will be exposed. It’s only a matter of time before everyone knows you’re a phony.”
Of course I was nervous. How could anyone living out the above story not be terrified of speaking? Understand: you will automatically live out the stories you tell yourself. I was telling myself a story of fear and failure. Having little experience and starting a new job were facts. Not having enough experience and lacking leadership influence were my interpretations of the facts. Likewise, the possibility of not knowing the answer to a question was a fact, but being exposed as a phony for it was my interpretation. Together, all of my negative interpretations had turned into a story that I was living out. I was living as though I did not have enough experience and was a phony. As a result, I would get anxious and physically ill before speaking. Once I recognized the stories playing in my head, I was able to change the channel. I created a new story for myself and starting living it out. Changing my story instantly helped me increase happiness and improve self-confidence. My new story said the following:
“You are new and fresh to this field, which means you have more enthusiasm and can think outside the box easier. Every question you don’t know the answer to is a chance to learn and enhance your expertise. You are already successful and have extraordinary levels of leadership influence.”
Stories Program The Mind
Storytelling is the oldest method of communication. Stories are used to record historical facts, educate other people, influence motivation, express beliefs, set standards, and share experiences. Research on the human brain has shown that the brain is predisposed to think in the terms of story. This predisposition is continuously reinforced and strengthened throughout the life of your brain. Imaging studies have shown that only a small, quarter sized region of your brain lights up when someone tells you a series of facts. However, when someone tells you a story laced with those facts, or those facts in action, your entire brain lights up. Not only can you program your mind with a story, you can program someone else’s mind. Princeton University found that when two people communicate by one telling the other a story, neural activity over wide regions of their brains become almost synchronous, with the listener’s brain activity patterns mirroring the patterns sweeping through the speaker’s brain. This is why storytelling is such powerful way to generate influence. Another study from the University of Missouri showed that storytelling improves communication skills and prevents disease progression in patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Storytelling is also used as a form of psychotherapy called narrative therapy. This therapy is based on narrative psychology, which is a viewpoint, or stance in psychology that asserts that human beings shape their lives with stories. Narrative therapists work with their patients to develop better stories. In this process, a narrative therapist asks a patient questions to generate experientially vivid descriptions of the patient’s life events. The key is that the therapist will only ask questions that prompt positive descriptions not currently included in the plot of the patient’s problematic story. This process helps people increase happiness and improve self-confidence by giving them happier, more empowering stories to live out. Narrative therapy has been shown to effectively treat a variety of psychological disorders including major depression and anorexia.
Select Your Story
Your life is a Choose Your Own Adventure story. What stories have you been telling yourself? Stop telling yourself the stories of “I’m too young,” “I’m too old,” “I’m not good looking enough,” “I’m too poor,” “I’m uneducated,” or “I don’t have enough experience.” You will live whatever story you tell yourself, so make sure you’re telling yourself an empowering story.
Human beings deal with experiences by constructing stories and listening to the stories of others. Stories express meaning stronger than logical arguments and lawful formulations. Stories are the vehicles people use to give meaning, or sense and significance, to their experiences. And how you give meaning to your experiences, or how you interpret your experiences, will direct your life. No matter what you set out to do, achieving your goal will require stories. The key is to create positive and productive stories in line with your values and your purpose of living. Remember, the stories you tell generate influence both internally and externally.
Delete negative stories from your life. You create the overall story of your life in three steps. First, you have an experience. Second, you interpret that experience, either subconsciously or consciously, thereby giving it meaning and turning it into a little story. Third, you take that little story and fit into the big story of your life. Notice that the overall story of your life is made up of many upon many smaller stories. In order to change your big story, you have to change the little stories. The best way to do this is to increase your self-awareness and be on guard against negative scripts. For example, if someone doesn’t smile back at you, you might be tempted to think, “She doesn’t like me.” That is a total story. The truth is, you have no idea why that person didn’t smile. Maybe she didn’t see you, or maybe she has a headache, or maybe she didn’t sleep well. Similarly, if someone cuts you off in traffic, don’t tell yourself “He’s a jerk,” or “The Universe is against me.” Those are stories. Recognizing the small stories you tell yourself daily will help you recognize the big stories you’ve been telling yourself for years.
Live the story of you achieving your goal, not the story of you failing. You can generate incredible momentum towards your goals by aligning the overall story of your life with your purpose in life. In my next post, I will discuss how big stories generate influence over your life.