I’m going to tell you something you might not agree with. It might not make sense to you. But I wholeheartedly believe that it’s true.
The way we see ourselves, our identities, the situations we find ourselves in, and the emotions we experience, are all a result of the stories that we tell about ourselves and our lives.
In life coach Anna Kunnecke’s Queen Sweep program, she starts off by telling two wildly different stories. One is full of tragedy and pain, and the other is full of magic and joy. Both tell the story of her life. They’re both true – the events in each story really happened – but the two different interpretations of those events lead to completely different life journeys. Whichever one feels more true is the one that will determine how she interacts with the world. From what I can tell, I’m pretty sure she chose the joyful one.
“Any story you tell, any narrative you craft of your life, is somewhat arbitrary. The most negative interpretation of things is no more accurate than the most positive spin. We live in our own stories; psychology and neuroscience agree that as humans we live in a near-constant state of interpretation and meaning-making. We don’t control the things that happen to us, but the story we tell about it—whether we choose to become the victim or the hero—is up to us. And what we choose will determine the trajectory of whatever happens next.” Anna Kunnecke
Even if you have had a really hard time and are bristling at my decision to call your life a mere “story”, think about this: Are you letting pain from your past control and dictate how you live now? Are you letting it define you? Or are you moving past it? If you catch yourself saying things like, “This is how it’s always been,” or “That’s just how things are,” or “That’s just my luck” or “I’m the kind of person who…” chances are your stories are running your life.
It’s easy to discount good things and focus on bad things. It’s easy to say that you’ve never had any success, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Maybe you tell stories about the people around you. Do you ever find yourself thinking about how so and so has it so much better, is so much more well liked, etc.?
My mom always used to tell me (and I still sometimes have trouble believing this) that just because things happened one way before, or many times before, doesn’t mean they have to happen that way next time. It’s not a universal law. Just because things have “always been this way” doesn’t mean they always will be.
What stories do you tell yourself about your past? About your daily life? About your future? Are you hard-done by? Long-suffering? Stuck? Trapped? Not good enough? When did you start telling these stories, and why do you cling to them?
Studies have shown that our circumstances only make up about 10% of our overall levels of happiness (according to this documentary). People who suffer a serious injury or loss usually return to their baseline quite quickly, as do people who win the lottery. If you want to change your life, before you try to change your circumstances, change your story. It will have a much more lasting effect.
Here are some instances where I’ve changed my story and changed the way things turned out, and some tips on how you can do the same:
I can’t afford to travel
The story: I was in university, feeling broke and feeling sad that I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t afford it since all my money went into paying tuition fees. I kept saying to myself, I can either travel or go to school. Not both. In my mind they were mutually exclusive. The way the story played out in my mind I would finish school, then get a job, and then maybe travel if other expenses didn’t come up first. Basically travel would be a low priority, and might not happen very much.
How I changed it: In my second year I got a chance to spend a summer working in New York City with a friend of mine. I realized that if I didn’t go, I might always live in a world where travel wasn’t possible, and that thought hurt more than anything. So I went. I came back just as broke and took out a student loan. I was fine. Better than that, I broke out of my either/or mentality. I realized that I could travel and go to school and I stopped living in a constrained world of suffering and sacrifice. I travelled again two years later. And again two years after that. Travel is a huge priority in my life and has shaped who I am. I always go through lean periods, but I’ve done it enough times to know that the money always comes back.
What you can do: Remember that we don’t live in an either/or world. If you catch yourself feeling stressed or stuck because you can only see two options, chances are there’s a third option that you’re ignoring because you’re so focused on your pain. Ask yourself, what am I missing? For me it was that I didn’t think I was allowed to take on a student loan. I thought living debt-free was worth feeling like I was missing out on life. The story, “I can’t afford it” is a strong one but one for which there is often another solution. I’m still paying those loans off but I am constantly grateful for both my travel experiences and my education. Rather than ruining my life, that decision opened me up to innumerable life-changing experiences.
I don’t have what it takes
The story: I used to tell myself that I just wasn’t the type of person who could make things happen for myself. I was more of a follow-the-script kind of person. I could do what society told me to do, and no more. I had big dreams and I knew I was a creative person, but I still felt doomed to follow a path that didn’t make me happy because I didn’t have the skills or the courage to create the life I wanted.
How I changed it: After travelling alone for almost a year in South America, I was forced to realize that I had everything I needed inside myself. I learned the language, I met amazing people, I accomplished everything I set out to do. I learned to trust myself for the first time in my life. I felt like, if I can do this, I can do anything.
What you can do: I know this sounds cliche, but it’s really true that we are only limited by our own beliefs about ourselves. Look at all the ways you tell yourself that you’re “not the type of person who…” A lot of the time, we make these statements because we feel like they protect us and keep us from doing scary and uncomfortable things. But it’s often those things that open us up to who we really are.
For most of my life I wasn’t the type of person who would go backpacking. Until I travelled around South America for 10 months. I wasn’t the type of person who would easily meet people or make friends. Until I had 12 people (who had recently been strangers) come to my good-bye dinner when I left Bolivia. I wasn’t the type of person who could stumble upon crazy wild adventures, or make my dreams come true. Until I sat on a mountainside in Peru learning traditional weaving and realized it was exactly how I had imagined it. The truth is, there is no “type of person”. There are only people, doing what they want to do, or hiding from what they want to do.
What “type of person” do you tell yourself you are? What “type of person” do you wish you could be? What would happen if you started thinking like that person, acting like that person? I would be willing to bet that you do have what it takes – you just need to find a way to prove it to yourself.
I’ll never find love
The story: Before meeting my boyfriend of almost 3 years, I had never been in a serious relationship. I told the story that love wasn’t for me, that romance didn’t exist, that because I hadn’t found something yet, I never would. I was planning on being single forever and had convinced myself that never having kids would be okay. I was envisioning and preparing myself for a life that I didn’t want.
How I changed it: During my time in South America I was told by three men on three separate occasions that if I didn’t learn to open up, I would spend my life alone. This made me so angry (what right did they have to tell me how to live?) but the repetition made me think that there might be some truth to it. Maybe I did need to learn to open up. Maybe I did need to start making myself vulnerable. I told myself, let’s pretend for a moment that what I want does exist. What would it look like? What would it feel like? I wrote a new story that became rather compelling. Before long, I believed that I could find someone to love – and I did within a few months.
What you can do: If you think something you want doesn’t exist or isn’t possible, then you are playing an active role in keeping it away from you. Instead, try playing a little game in which you pretend that it is possible. Ask yourself, what would it look like? What would it feel like?
In my case, I decided (after going after totally the wrong guy over and over again) that being in a relationship would feel like a warm blanket on a cold day. It would be comfortable, and safe, and soft. I focused on that feeling and went forth with it into the world. Later I got even more specific by writing out everything that I wanted in a partner. Can you believe the person I found fit almost every single one of those criteria? Because I was so specific, I knew exactly what I was looking for and I immediately knew it when I found it. And I’ve held onto it ever since.
Open yourself up to the possibility that you can have what you want and practice feeling how you would feel if you had it. You won’t be able to help making it happen.
Can you see how all of these instances of story-changing led to new circumstances later on? Every time we say no to our story and yes to ourselves, we get stronger and more capable of creating our best lives.