The Power of Story – Part 2 – Your Internal Stories Are Your Lived Reality.

Every feel like you are stuck in ground hog day? You do the same stuff over and over, run up against the same obstacles, probably have the same disagreements with people you care about, not only that you’ve been there so many times you can probably predict the way those around you are going to react and behave also. There’s good reason for you to feel this way.

Your brain is a very clever piece of kit – until it’s not. It has a sophisticated neural network as we discussed in part one of this series, the trouble is it doesn’t differentiate between real and imagined. Which basically means whatever you are thinking about, focused on or actually doing has the same amount of power over how you feel, how you show up and what you actually achieve. Great news if you are feeding your brain with empowering, self-affirming stories – the trouble is most of us do just the opposite.

We are wired to stay safe, to repeat patterns and to fear the unknown, therefore most of your unconscious narrative serves exactly that purpose. Unconscious is the key bit here, you repeat the stories, or patterns so frequently they are just part of who you are – you probably don’t even recognise them as stories – they are just part of who you are.

How you see yourself is totally tied up in the stories you tell yourself! Unless you can identify these stories and manage them, they will continue to drive your life – and you will probably think it is just fate.

Over many years of working in healthcare I’ve talked to 1000’s of people defined by their stories, people from all backgrounds, people making a real difference to patients and carers, people who have stories of lack – not being senior enough, not having enough time, not being bright enough, not being listened to, not being allowed  and so on. All of these stories keep you stuck, they create self-limiting beliefs, things you can’t do or won’t achieve – mostly because you don’t believe it is possible.

If you are feeling irritated reading this, if you are thinking  it’s not me – it’s an over pressured health system, then take a breath, there is always something you can do, you always have some control – even if it is only over yourself and how you engage. To identify what stories are driving you start with your favourite excuses or ‘inner critic’ – both of which serve to stop you taking risks that might impact on your ‘safety’.

Many self-limiting beliefs grow from stories created in moments of emotional processing. Daniel Goleman (1995) calls this Emotional Hijacking – essentially something happens and your limbic system, particularly your Amygdala reacts to the stimulus more quickly than your more logical neocortex can think and plan its response. The limbic system fills in the gaps between actual knowledge and a coherent story, drawing on previous emotional encounters creating a physiological reaction often reinforcing your existing values and beliefs. And so the hijacking cycle is created.

Your story might have created the problem in the first place, but it is also a fast and sustainable route to behaviour change. You have control over what you choose to believe, you have some choice about the story you tell yourself – when you pay attention.  It the story you are repeatedly telling yourself doesn’t serve you choose a different one. Here’s how.

Step one:

Get familiar with your stories,

  • What do you repeatedly tell yourself? (think inner critic here if you are struggling)
  • What do you really believe about yourself? Good and bad.
  • What excuses do you consistently make?

Once you bring these into your consciousness you can start to unpick them. I find Robert Dilts’s Neurological levels model helpful here.

Let’s start from the bottom, Environment represents where and when, Behaviour is what you do, Skills represent how you do it, Values and beliefs why, and identity is who you are (or how you see yourself). Spirit then represents you vision /purpose.

When looking to make a change in your story (or your beliefs), you need to work at a level above where the problem exists – so for the most part this is at identity level – most challenges come from what you believe to be true about yourself (or your internal stories). 

Having identified your stories step two is deciding whether or not they are helpful and empowering or whether they limit you.

I suggest you dump down all the stories you tell yourself regularly then ask the following questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Does it serve me?

Some stories when you look at this way are clearly not true – your logical brain can see that straight off, these you need to deal with. Despite this your brain will seek to prove you right, it will look for evidence to support whatever you are focused on. The best way to deal with them is to consciously focus on the evidence that proves your limiting belief is untrue.

For example:

I can’t change the system – at a macro level this might be true, but within your immediate environment it is most definitely not true. If you focus on change you have made, or are making everyday, you will find plenty. It might be the small stuff, things that seem ordinary to you that makes the biggest difference. These might be things that you choose to do in the moment that make a real difference for those you are caring for, or it might be the way you are with those you work with changing the focus from what you can’t do to what you can or have done. The key here is focus. Whatever you focus on, your brain will start to look for more evidence and gradually replace the ‘I can’t story’ with a new one.

Some beliefs you hold may actually be true but believing them may not serve you. Here you are in the game of possibility – is it possible. I was lucky enough to work in emergency care in the early days of advanced trauma care courses – yes, I am that old!! At that time nurses didn’t run trauma calls, or resus’s for that matter so to expect that I could do that was untrue, but it was possible – from possibility came probability which became reality – because instead of owning the ‘nurses can’t do that’ I (along with some equally forward thinking colleagues) believed it to be possible, found plenty of evidence supporting it and in my small corner of the world got suitably qualified nurses running traumas.

Finally, the best way to deconstruct stories that are not true, or don’t serve you, is to decide what you need to believe to achieve what you want to achieve or be the person you want to be.  The trick here is to make the new story a stretch but believable, I might get nurses running trauma calls but not cracking open chests in ED!

Once you identify what you need to believe creating the right story to support it becomes easy. Your message is what drives you, create compelling stories around why you are sharing it, what you have done so far and where you have evidence of succeeding previously – then start to take some action, this sends messages to your limbic system that undo the emotional hijacking you may have previously created. A new story forms.  

In short, you choose what you believe either consciously, in a focused empowering way, or unconsciously by default based on your past experiences and beliefs – either way story is the answer. Do yourself a favour and create stories that help you be the best version of yourself