3 New Ways to View the Stories You Tell Yourself
March 1, 2019
It always starts innocently:
Showing up late to a meeting turns into a mental note of "Ugh, I'm always late."
Telling that story over brunch that had people checking their phones leads to "I'm so boring."
Not nailing that exam you studied for stirs up "I'm not smart enough."
Our brains are wired to turn our actions into stories about ourselves—and they can seriously impact the way we see ourselves, the way others see us, and the way we go on to act in the future.
But we can play an active role in reshaping our stories. Take one study, which looked at the way a group of students recounted their successes and failures, for example.
Students who acknowledged the role they played in their victories, and the lessons learned from their struggles, were more persistent and went on to have better grades than those who saw things through a more pessimistic lens. The takeaway: Telling yourself a positive, productive story can lead to positive, productive outcomes.
Say you get an email from your boss, explaining that they’d prefer you handle a certain situation differently in the future.
There are a couple stories you could create out of this:
You could tell yourself that you'll always mess up these kind of situations. But if you create that story, what do you think the odds are that you nail it the next time? Slim to none.
Or, perhaps you read the email, laugh, and tell yourself that you’re crushing it and your boss is kind of an idiot. Think you’ll do better next time? Probably not.
But if you instead remind yourself that there’s always room to grow and decide that this is a learning opportunity? You, my friend, are setting yourself up for success on your next go-around.
Of course, changing a story isn’t as easy as ripping out pages in a book. It requires deep, sometimes uncomfortable exploration into what you think about yourself and why you think it.
The next time you start to hear a familiar narrative playing in your mind—one that isn't serving you—hit pause and try switching out your lens.
“The most effective way people can change a story is to view it through any of three new lenses, which are all alternatives to seeing the world from the victim perspective,” write Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy in the Harvard Business Review. “With the reverse lens, for example, people ask themselves, 'What would the other person in this conflict say and in what ways might that be true?' With the long lens they ask, 'How will I most likely view this situation in six months?' With the wide lens they ask themselves, 'Regardless of the outcome of this issue, how can I grow and learn from it?' Each of these lenses can help people intentionally cultivate more positive emotions.”
Here’s how to give it a try for yourself:
Reverse Lens: What would someone else think of the story?
Seeing things from a different perspective doesn’t make your own perspective any less true. But it can help you break free from the story in your head and make better-educated decisions in the future.
Let’s go back to that feedback from your boss. Sure, they could be out to bring you down or highlight a flaw you have no potential to change. Or: They could be giving you constructive feedback because they want you to grow and have a chance to shift your actions for the better. Think about how they'd view the story.
Long Lens: How will I most likely view this situation in six months?
Considering how you might feel about your actions down the road can help you better make a decision in the moment, freeing from those old, familiar voices in your head.
With the same scenario: How do you think you'll feel about that feedback from your boss six months down the line? Will it still sting as much, or will it feel more like one drop of feedback in a huge pool of growth? Or, might it even feel like something that made you better equipped to handle another situation that came your way?
Wide Lens: Regardless of the outcome of this issue, how can I grow and learn from it?
Finally: Creating a story that leads with you growing and learning from the situation—even if you're not quite there yet IRL—can be hugely beneficial.
Back to our example: What can you learn about yourself from your manager's feedback? Maybe it’s that you need to be more prepared in those situations, or more thoughtful about your approach.
With the next story you tell yourself—whether it's about your personality or a specific situation—try asking yourself: What’s the lesson? Notice and soak in that lesson now, and your stories will start to serve you, not hold you back.