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Is Your Story Holding You Back?

Have you ever tried to make a permanent change for the better? Did you succeed? If not, then you are incredibly normal. There are many reasons why this happens. I just want to talk about one right now: stories, also known as interpretations. Also known as our own little worlds.

One interesting thing about stories is that we tell them to ourselves constantly and we are thus affected by them all the time. They can work for us, or against us. For example, let’s say I decide that I’m going to go for a run every morning for a month. When we take on a commitment it’s natural to think about how likely we are to stick with it. I could look into my past, see the failures and list them off, then think "I’m a screw-up." Or, I could look into my past and see the successes, list them off, and think "I can do this too." Which one do you think is going to lead to me running in the mornings? Which one is going to lead to me sleeping in? Both stories are accurate, but only one is useful.

What's worse is that we often don’t even know that we’re trapped in the story and being dictated to by it. It is exactly like that nearly trite metaphor of eyeglasses. Everything we see passes through those lenses first, even facts. I know someone making significant strides in improving herself. She’s feeling better, has more energy, has less pain, has come off medication, and yet her attention only falls on what she isn’t accomplishing. She has told herself “I can’t” for so long, that even when there is building evidence to the contrary, she disregards it. Do you know of anyone like this? Chances are that you do this too.

How do these eyeglasses get built anyway? They come from our past and from trying to look good to other people. Clearly, our past has the power to dictate who we are now. Who were you as a kid? Did you have friends? Did your parents divorce? We constantly use what we have done to tell ourselves what we can do. Let’s take a little example. Let’s say you never played any sports growing up, but then someone asks you to go shoot hoops? What’s your thought process? I’m going to guess it’s something like, ”I’ve never really done that. I might be bad at it. What will people think of me if I am bad at it? I’m not going to do it.”

These stories can even come from our family’s past. “My family has never eaten like that.” Or, “what would my family think of me if I did this?” This family story can restrict everything from what we eat to who we love. As people, we sometimes take on other peoples’ stories, such as our friends or coworkers. A presumption of limitations is constraining; like living in a box.

If my friend was struck by lightning, I know logically that my chances of getting struck by lightning are still about 0.0001% – but I’m not going out in a rainstorm for a while. This other person’s past story is affecting me, and it has nothing to do with me. It’s not much different than saying something like, “Jim has been trying for years to get healthy, and he hasn’t been able to, so what chance do I have?”

Interestingly, we also think “Jim has really gotten himself healthy over the last few years, I’d never be able to do that.” If humans were consistent creatures, we would think, “If he can do it, I can too.” That doesn’t happen often enough.

And then there are the nay-sayers who ask us to wear their glasses and we oblige. These are the people that tell us that we can’t do something because they couldn’t do something, or that they did do something but only because they’re better than everyone else. The, “I couldn’t so you can’t,” or the “I did, but someone like you can’t” group. You might want to smack the person that says this, but you also might be tempted to think he or she is right.

The conclusion of all of this is straightforward: We usually decide who we will be because of who we used to be. If we don’t try we never have to deal with failure. Of course, if we think this way, then we won’t experience success either. Just a quick story that I think sums this up: I was talking with a patient, and his wife, who came into the emergency department for longstanding bad diabetic nerve pain to his legs. He wanted a refill of his pain medications. He said they only helped a little, but he’d take help where he could get it. I told him about how it’s possible to adjust his nutrition to get rid of the pain and not need those medications. I hadn’t even finished my first sentence about it, when his wife said, “There’s no way he’d be willing to do that. I know him.” Followed quickly by the patient saying, “No thanks, doc, that’s not for me, I can’t do that.” I feel bad for that guy. I know he’s still hurting.

How many times have you heard yourself say, “Not that I could," “I tried something like that before and it’s not for me,” or, “I’m just not that kind of person.” Depending on what we're talking about, there are clearly things you should never do. e.g., If you want to buy a tiger-- just don’t. However, let the you of right now and not the you of last year tell you what to do. Or better yet, let the version of you that you want to be tell you what to do. So how do we do that? The answer is simple, yet the process is difficult.

Step 1: We’ve got to catch ourselves in the story and take a moment to analyze the evidence. I like to call it a reality check, but it comes from the wheel-house of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I am in no way a qualified therapist, but I came across this approach and I like it, and maybe you will too. Start with a negative occurrence. Let’s try an example, “My boss was breathing down my neck pressuring me to get this project done tonight!” Then simply write down, what are the actual objective things that occurred? Person A walks up to person B who is sitting at a desk. Person A says words. Person B says words. Person A walks away. Person B continues to sit. Objectively, there was no pressure and no breathing upon necks. Things look a little more clear, that fight or flight response calms down.

Now productivity can happen.

Or, let’s try another way of analyzing the evidence with the example, “I can’t exercise.” Evidence for this statement: I haven’t been exercising, My joints hurt when I run or walk too long. Evidence against this statement: I can move my body. There are ways I can move that don’t hurt. I do have fun bicycling. I own a bicycle. I can do some exercise. I’m going to start.

Step 2: Ask what future you did to get there. If future you is running a marathon, then how did she train, eat, live?

The stories we tell ourselves don’t just get in the way of taking on a new behavior, they get in the way of becoming who we want to be. We can either find our way, or be in our way, and it’s up to us to choose. What would your life look like through different lenses, or if you took off those glasses-- what story would you write? We can help you get there at CPR.

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