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Why we need to be mindful of the stories we tell ourselves

We all create our own life narratives. These stories have the power to shape our future.

Storytelling is an intrinsic part of being human. Our unique ability to create, imagine, and hypothesise are what sets us apart from the rest of the animal world. From childhood, we learn best through stories, as we begin to play and create fantastical scenarios in our minds. When we imagine these worlds and characters that are not our own, we begin to develop our sense of self, how we relate to others, and our ability to empathise.

This connection to storytelling continues throughout our lives. Whether we are fully conscious of it or not, we create in our minds our own unique narrative that is our life story. We continually reflect on past events and try to assign meaning to them. We connect the things that happen to us and sometimes edit out the things that don’t fit well with the narrative. We colour events with the benefit of hindsight and write our past from this. It is an entirely human and necessary process, but we must be mindful of the stories that we tell ourselves.  It is not so much our past events that shape us, but our construct and interpretation of those events and that narrative that we create which, in turn, shapes who we will become.

If you have ever caught yourself thinking “I can’t do X, because I’m not that sort of person” or “I am the way I am because X happened to me” or “I’m too X for that”, then you have been a victim of your own story.   As an example, I have always considered myself to be a “creative” person. I studied literature, I wrote, I disliked numbers and using logic. I ended up working for some time in a Sales environment, which in my mind was world’s away from where I thought I would be. I told myself that I couldn’t possibly excel there because it wasn’t “who I was”. I had constructed in my head an idea of what sort of person should work in such a place, and what sort of person would be successful. It hindered me, initially, because my view of myself did not assimilate with that. There can be a huge danger in these imagined constructs in our minds, because they can translate into a small but persistent voice that says we can’t do it and we don’t belong there. When I became more aware of that voice, I was able to view it more objectively and choose to even completely ignore it.

In the working world, personality types (particularly Myers Briggs) have become a useful tool to help employees better understand their team and communicate more effectively with different types.  These can be illuminating, in that they open our minds to the concept that not everyone thinks and processes emotions and decisions in the same way.  The small print and the caveat must always be that personality types are not static, immovable constructs.  We are constantly changing beings who are reactive to the people and environment that surrounds us.  

The danger lies in that we have a tendency to fulfil the labels that we accept, either from ourselves or other people. By accepting them, we in turn alter the way people behave towards us. We also externalise this on to others, making assumptions about what we think we see and understand. The people around us have a rich inner lives that we mostly know nothing about. People always act in ways that surprise us, and that surprise comes from an expectation of what we think we know about them and how we think people should act. It’s almost impossible to fully understand or rationalize why people do or say the things that they do.

We will always try and make sense of our lives through a narrative and have an inner story that we are continually creating and editing. We need to remember that our lives are not a realist novel with a neat beginning, middle, and end. Our identity is not binary and neither is anyone else’s.   Above all, be mindful of that story you are telling yourself. Your past does not determine your future, but your interpretation of the past will influence your future decisions. Stay open to new possibilities. Try things you thought you couldn’t do. Create a future completely different from your past. Do not be confined by what you think you are meant to be.

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