Our personal narratives are the stories we tell about ourselves. Many of them are drawn from our own histories — the way we grew up, the decisions we’ve made, the trajectories our lives have taken — and many are also pieces of our self-perception and presentation.
The personal narrative is a critical element of your inner thought life. The things you tell yourself about yourself, both silently and out loud, have a significant impact on your beliefs. And your beliefs become the foundation of your behaviors.
So think about it: what’s the personal narrative you tell yourself?
Here are a few downers I hear a lot:
— I’m bad at math.
— What do I know? I’m just a bus driver.
— I can’t give up corn, I’m Latina.
— I’m too busy.
— I’m lazy.
— I’m stupid.
These descriptions paint a very different picture than what I see of each person in real life: a friendly, loving, uniquely talented human being.
Give Your Narratives a Reality Check
You might not be able to do advanced calculus in your head, but if you would stop telling yourself that you’re awful with math — for just five seconds — you could probably add those two round figures together without using a calculator.
Clinging to the “excuse” that you’re “bad at math” has two dangerous consequences:
1. It compels you to berate yourself over something that certainly does not merit berating yourself; and
2. It prevents you from being able to do the thing you would otherwise be able to do if you weren’t so busy telling yourself you couldn’t do it.
How much of a relief would it be to know that you in fact are capable, you are valuable, you are strong, and you are able to do these things you want to do? Here’s the thing: you already can. You just need to stop telling yourself you can’t, and start doing it.
How to Overcome the Habit
Enough with esoteric challenges to your unrealistic constructs — let’s crunch on a tactic. Here’s a three-step method to help you rewrite your personal narrative and overcome these invisible barriers to your success and, quite possibly, your happiness.
1. Identify the pieces of your narrative that you want to change. This might be a habitual “why do I even bother?” when you commit a minor gaffe like dropping your sunglasses or misspelling a word. Listen for things you frequently tell yourself and others, about yourself, that aren’t uplifting or don’t make you feel good about who you are. If you’re stuck on this, ask a close friend if they have observed any of these self-flaggelations.
2. Call this thing out. If you’ve been telling yourself you’re lazy when you turn down social invitations, instead say “I’m not lazy. I’m choosing to spend my time another way.” Catch yourself in the act of uttering your criticism, and stop it right in its tracks. Negate it, out loud, and then neutralize it.
3. Claim your new truth. Once you’ve identified the personal narrative you want to change, replace it by claiming a new truth. It could be one that’s already present or one you aspire to. For example, if you know that ditching processed corn will be good for your health, replace every “I can’t give up corn, I’m Latina” thought with “I’m going to make a better decision for my health today.”
Here’s My Story (or at least one of ’em)
One of the most pervasive and dangerous personal narratives I’ve faced is the story that “I don’t have enough time.”
I never felt like I had enough time to do the things I needed, let alone the things I wanted. It was easy to brush off very nearly anything with a brusque and harried “I don’t have time for that.”
And it’s true, a single mom-preneur with a toddler underfoot doesn’t exactly live the life of leisure. But I found myself saying I had no time so often that it became oppressive. It was like the more I said I didn’t have time, the more pressure I felt to work harder, make more, be more efficient… essentially, “be better.”
Once I realized the damage my “no time” story was doing to my psyche, not to mention my home and social life, I decided to change.
The first thing I had to do was stop myself from saying it so much, and with such a stressed-out emphasis. I replaced “I don’t have time for that” with “I’m not able to do that right now, but here’s what I can do.” I observed myself throughout the day to find the inefficiencies in my workflow, whether the “work” was freelance work, housework, or mothering.
I identified the trouble spots in my mental input and verbal output and did some problem-solving to improve or eliminate them.
I also found ways to create some margin in other areas of my life, which helped relieve some of the external pressure that was getting into my head.
Our Struggles May Be Different, But We All Want the Same Things
No matter how perfect someone’s life seems from the outside, we all have unhealthy narratives that we need to overcome. Take the first step and identify something that’s holding you back. Once you have that basic awareness, you can take small, manageable actions to begin rewriting your own story, from the inside out.