From the profound to the mundane, we are shaped by the events of our lives. We overcome adversity, find love, do good and make wild leaps of faith. But from time to time we also struggle with our demons and get hurt by other people.
These experiences shape us. They give rise to our personality and identity, and install core beliefs about what is desirable, permissible, and possible for us. Common beliefs like “I am only good when I am successful” or “I am responsible for other people’s happiness” form the foundation of our inner life and outer action.
Much of this is subconscious and operates in the background, but there are also conscious parts, bits we are aware of and talk about and reflect on. Over time, these bits coalesce into a coherent narrative, a story of who we are and how we got to be this way.
This autobiography is important. First, it grants us stability in an ever-changing, sometimes chaotic world. It is good to know where we come from and where we belong, and which rules govern our internal and external world. This gives us a sense of self and the self-confidence that goes with it. You could say our stories are the stars in the night sky by which we navigate the sea of life. Without them we would get lost at sea.
Second, it is often through our stories that we reveal ourselves. After all, few people outside of our inner enjoy extensive, first-hand experience of us. So when we meet a colleague, partner or friend, the story of where we come from and where we are heading influences how they see and experience us. And judging by how much time we spend grooming our social media presence, this influence is pretty big.
THREE FATAL FLAWS
A clear and coherent story gives us self-confidence, self-knowledge and a sense of past, present and future. However, for all the good they do, our stories have serious downsides, which have to do with three fatal flaws inherent in any autobiography.
- First, we are not our stories. Just as the map is not the territory, our stories are not us. They are about us, but only a fraction of us, only the parts that we could experience and understand at the time we wrote the script. In identifying with our stories, there is much about us we exclude. This sounds obvious and it is, and yet our story is so intimately familiar that we end up knowing nothing else and ignoring the rest.
- Second, our stories tend to capture what we knew about ourselves in the past rather than what we know now with the power of hindsight and the wisdom of age. Our understanding of ourselves at age 44 tends to be very different from that at age 4 and yet our adult biography tends to reflect our experiences as a small child or adolescent. Most of our core beliefs are instilled in our early years, with the rest of our lives slowly crystallising around them and the beliefs never getting an update.
- Third, the experiences that form the basis of our story are greatly influenced by other people’s reactions to us. Our parents and teachers liked this about us and disliked that about us, and this attention made these parts grow or wither. However, people embrace and reject those parts of us that they embrace and reject in themselves, so really our stories are mainly reflections of other people’s stories, meaning they are not necessarily accurate or true.
The very story that gives you stability and direction, is the story that holds you captive in a rigid and outdated frame. What you tell yourself about yourself is only part of your truth, with so much more of you hidden in plain sight. And some of the bits you tell yourself, especially about your deficiencies and limitations, are pretty much lies ‘told’ by others.
As a result, your story can prevent you from evolving and exploring unseen parts of you, and keep you stuck in unhealthy states like depression, hopelessness and helplessness. And considering our story influences how other people see and treat us, we tend to get into personal and professional relationships that strengthen the story’s grip on us.
REWRITE THE SCRIPT
A negative story elicits experiences that validate our core beliefs, meaning we get stuck in a downward spiral. But the same holds true for a positive story, one that validates our strengths and opens up space for our continued evolution. If we were to change our story, change how we see ourselves and what we hold to be true, our lives could improve.
And it really is possible to change your story. Not on a superficial level, the level of things and people and doing, but on a deeper level, on the level of beliefs and meaning and purpose and being. It is here that we can create a more accurate, complete and validating story who we are and where we are heading.
There are many ways to do this and my approach, inner work, is a particularly powerful one. By involving the body, the mind and our feelings, inner work can not only heal the limiting beliefs that others gave us, but also awaken the parts of us that the current story ignores.
But before you rewrite your story, you need to want to rewrite it. I see too many people around me married to their stories, slavishly holding on them, as if they were a prized possession they couldn’t live without. Sometimes that’s because people don’t know they can or are allowed to rewrite the story, sometimes because they fear letting go of it. After all, who would they be and how would they be if not that?
I get that. Our stories are seductive and persistent, especially when the main parts are strong negative states that we come to identify with. We say “I am depressed” or “I am scared” or “I am not good enough”, as if that is what we are, while in reality there is so much more to us. But we also say “I am a manager” or assume that “I am worthy” when equating the successful outcome of a job with our value as a human being.
While I often tell my clients that feelings are important, the opposite is also true: our feelings are just our feelings, they come and go. Our states are just that, temporary configurations of the body-mind that pass with time. Our beliefs are just that, assumptions based on limited experiences in the past. And our identity is just a slapdash executive summary that hides a deeper treasure trove of experiences and possibilities.
Letting go of your story, rewriting the script, diving deep down into our internal ocean is not for everyone. But just know that your story is just a story and that you are much more, so much more, than all the things you and other people have been telling you for decades.