First published in Thrive Global 22 September, 2019 https://thriveglobal.com/stories/the-quality-of-your-life-depends-on-the-stories-you-tell/
I love a good story. Who doesn’t? Human beings are after all autobiographical creatures. Long before we had written language, we had a well-developed oral culture in which storytelling was vital. We use metaphor to breathe life into our stories and to convey a message and to influence. As storytelling animals, we filter our experience and make sense of our world according to our unique perspective and point-of-view. The way we tell our stories influences how we see ourselves and those around us. The problem is our point of view isn’t the only point of view and yet we gather evidence for it and before we know it, it becomes synonymous with how life is. The quality of your life depends on the stories you tell yourself about it.
The default mode of human cognition is a narrative mode.
Stories form the framework for who we are and provide an explanation for the chaos that can be our life. Our life is a series of stories about what’s happening and about us and how we show up. Those stories are told from our unique point-of-view, are not necessarily coherent and come complete with a drama hook. Yes, human being are addicted to drama; you only need to look at the explosion of the reality TV format to know that. Our stories have a plot, suspense and imagery. In any storyline, one thing leads to another. What’s more, in terms of the narrative, we are simultaneously the chief protagonist, the scriptwriter, the director and the casting agent and; mostly we forget that. Instead, we give up our control to the story.
Not living the life you want? Start telling different stories!
Like all stories, there are good ones and not so good ones and any good story needs a hero and a villain. Who have you assigned those roles to in your drama? The binary narratives such as good/bad, right/wrong etc. are simplistic, deeply reductive and easy to digest…
That’s part of their appeal.
Do you have a well-constructed narrative or a B-grade soap? Any way you look at it you are telling stories. We weave a narrative around the “facts” we filter through our experience. We are the ones adding meaning to those “facts” and the meaning will either empower or disempower. There is a definite link between the stories we tell, the way we use language, and how we experience life: They direct our focus and our attention. It’s not difficult to see then how the quality of the story we are telling is determining our future.
Stories as blueprint
The story you tell yourself and collect evidence for becomes a kind of blueprint for your life. Just like when a building is constructed it has scaffolding on which other parts of the building rest, so does your life rest of the scaffolding of the stories you tell. Over time that story becomes a narrative and you act consistent with that narrative as do the other characters in your drama.
We both organise our past into a narrative and use it as a way to predict our future; it’s how we make sense of the world and generate meaning. Not only do we predict our future with them, but we also begin to follow a predetermined plotline. Effectively, there is a way of being or a persona, that our character has and we manage ourselves accordingly. You could even say we stage-manage ourselves and we become unconscious to the reality that we are doing that. You could say that not only does the story predict the future, it also actively creates it along the predetermined plotline. The question is, does that story and the way you have constructed it work for you or is it arbitrarily thrown together by the circumstances of your life? In other words, is the story a deliberate and conscious one driven by purpose and meaning?
The story becomes fixed
Once you gather evidence for your story and you decide how things are, YOU become fixed. Once something is “fixed” it doesn’t change; it’s just the way it is. This is the predictive nature of the plotline that you begin to follow and now you begin to live life in line with what’s probable and not what’s possible; that’s incredibly limiting. Look at any area of your life that you aren’t happy with and pull apart the story you tell yourself in that area. There will be a fixed way that you are. Have you made that story your “truth”? That’s what there is to look at; that’s what there is to own. And, that’s what there is to shift.
One of the most amazing attributes that a human being has is the faculty of imagination. Our imagination provides us with the test universe for what is possible. If you begin to ask yourself the kinds of what-if questions that elicit a call to action in the direction of where you want your life to go, for example, “what if I could…?” (fill in the blank) then we start to see your imagination working for you rather than against you. In short, you begin to think from what’s possible not what’s probable. There is an old saying about if you want to know what the next five years of your life looks like take a look at your last five. There is a good chance you are going to have more of the same. That is unless you change the story, evolve the narrative and write a script worthy of your life.
In the words of Stephen Covey
Live out of your imagination, not your history.