Your life is full of stories. In fact, you’re probably telling one right now. Maybe it’s a story about how much you need to make a change in your work. Maybe it’s a story of feeling like this is probably just another self-help technique that won’t work for you. Maybe it’s a story of interest and curiosity as you look at another possible tool to add to your life’s toolkit.
You can’t NOT tell stories. It’s how the human mind works, and how we make sense of the world around us. Those stories might be affirming and supportive of the life you want to create, or they might have a limiting effect.
The stories you tell create the lens through which you see the world. That in turn dictates how you interpret events and experience your life.
Those two things – that our minds are non-stop story machines, and that those stories shape how we experience the world – makes this post in my series about how to add juice to your job especially powerful.
Types of stories
Broadly speaking, your stories fall into three types. Limiting, constricting stories, enhancing stories, and neutral stories.
Limiting stories limit your potential and paint the world with a negative, pessimistic brush. They’re stories about what you can or can’t do, expectations of what is and isn’t possible, negative assumptions about others, or any one of a bazillion other ways we contract our view of the world and isolate ourselves.
Enhancing stories are the opposite. They open possibilities. They open the heart. The open the door to connection. They’re stories about what’s possible, positive assumptions, supportive perspectives on both yourself and others, etc.
Neutral stories have no particular effect one way or the other.
In this post, we’ll be focusing mainly reducing the limiting stories and building up the enhancing stories.
How to recognize your stories
Once you start looking for them, your limiting stories are pretty easy to spot. Often, it’s as simple as noticing how you feel. If you notice you feel tight, constricted, stressed, etc., pause and ask, “What’s causing this? What story am I responding to?”
Limiting stories are often recognizeable by the way the start. Some common telltale signs include:
- I can’t
- I’m not
- They won’t
- I should
- I shouldn’t
- They should
- They shouldn’t
- I always
- I never
- They always
- They never.
- I’m such a
- Why can’t I
And on and on it goes.
Another way to look for limiting stories is asking, “And what does that mean about ______ (me, others, the world, my career, etc.)?” When you notice yourself having a negative response – say you’re feeling frustrated with your job – whip that question out. Often you’ll find that it’s not just the immediate source of that response (in this example, a frustrating experience), but multiple layers of story that get slathered onto it.
Say you ask, “And what does that mean about me?” in response to feeling stuck in your career. Some common answers that might come up are, “It means I’m trapped in a situation I don’t like, and I’ll be stuck here forever. It means I’m too stupid to figure out how to fix it. It means I’m too lazy to make the changes I need to make.”
So what you experience isn’t just the immediate frustration, but the cumulative weight of all those stories.
Building your awareness muscle
If you’re new to it, developing a consistent awareness of your limiting stories can take time (and you will always be discovering new ones you didn’t realize were there). It can be helpful to look at it as an ongoing process, rather than a flip-of-the-switch change.
A great way to start building that awareness muscle is to do an end-of-day review. Look back at the end of your day and look for times where you felt that constriction, or where you got caught up in a negative story. You’re not looking to change anything at first. You’re just developing your noticing skills.
As you do that over time, you’ll find that your awareness naturally starts to filter into your days. It also has the benefit of helping you see some of the common storylines you habitually follow.
There are an infinite number of limiting stories we tell ourselves, and often we don’t notice them. They just seem like the reality we have no choice but to muddle through.
The good news is that, the more adept you get at noticing the stories and recognizing them for what they are, the more opportunity you create to escape their clutches and shift into a more positive, enhancing story.
How to change your stories
Great, so you’ve started noticing your limiting stories. Now what? Keeping in mind that this is more of a sculpting process than an immediate change, here are some ways to start shifting your stories toward the positive and enhancing.
When you notice a negative story, question it. Is it really true? Is it always true? Might there be other valid ways of looking at it?
Often, our negative stories wilt under the light of scrutiny. “I can’t do anything right!” Really? I mean, come on. You could be the world’s biggest screw-up, and that story still wouldn’t be true.
A simple way to change your negative stories is to simply replace them with more beneficial ones. I often do this when frustration or irritation comes up with someone in traffic. For example, if someone is clearly in a hurry and cuts me off, my irritated, angry story might be, “What an asshole!”
But if I look at other ways of seeing it, I might see possibilities like, “He’s late for something really important. Or maybe he’s on the way to the hospital where his wife is having a baby. Or maybe he just didn’t realize he cut me off – I’ve certainly been guilty of that in the past.”
All those alternatives feel less toxic to my state of mind than my original story.
Crowd them out
Finally, you can bit by bit take away their space. Fill your noggin with so much positive that the limiting stories run out of room to maneuver. Just like the marble jar analogy I talked about in my last post, when you fill your mind with the positive, there is less space for limiting stories to take root.
Brought to you by Curt Rosengren, Passion Catalyst TM
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