August 9, 2018

When I was in elementary school, we learned how to write by describing ourselves. I have blue eyes and brown hair, went my 8-year-old story. I like tacos and pickles—but not together—and my favorite season is summer. As I grew older, I added to my story. I’m good at reading, and even better at math.

But somewhere along the way, my narrative changed. What was once a positive tale turned into a string of negative thoughts that seemed to run on a loop through my mind. “I’m not a good test-taker,” I’d tell myself before every college exam. “I always forget what I studied.” And recently, I’ve found myself telling friends, family, and anyone who will listen how busy I am. “I’m always busy,” I’ll say, as I turn down plans or stress about unfinished work.

What was once a positive tale had turned into a string of negative thoughts that seemed to run on a loop through my mind.
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Sound familiar? Building a life narrative is an essential part of being human, professor Monisha Pasupathi tells The Atlantic.

“I think normal, healthy adults have in common that they can all produce a life story,” says Pasupathi. “They can all put one together… In order to have relationships, we’ve all had to tell little pieces of our story. And so it’s hard to be a human being and have relationships without having some version of a life story floating around.”

But oftentimes, that narrative can turn negative and box us in.

Take me, for example. I genuinely thought I was “always busy,” and my Google Cal backed me up. My days were packed with meetings, deadlines, even dates with friends. But once I started to question my “I’m always busy” story, I realized that this wasn’t exactly the case.

Sure, I had a lot going on, but a lot of it was self-scheduled in order to make myself feel busy. If I had a free Sunday morning, I’d sign up for a yoga class. If I finished one big project at work, I’d start on another—with no break in between.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: I was creating busyness, then telling myself it was just the way it was. I would create a hectic situation, stress out about it, then decide it was just the way things were shaking out. I was so stuck in my negative narrative that I didn't realize I was actively making it come true.

“Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re repeating negative stories,” writes Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. on PsychCentral. “They’ve been on autopilot for years. We unwittingly narrow—rather than nurture—ourselves and our lives.”

That doesn’t mean that you need to keep telling yourself the same story, however. “The great news about self-narratives is that they’re malleable,” she says. “Like any story, they can be revised, reshaped and readjusted.”

'The great news about self-narratives is that they’re malleable. Like any story, they can be revised, reshaped and readjusted.'
- Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
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Here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Set a mental Google Alert for the phrase 'I’m always'—and its synonyms

The next time you hear yourself say the words “I’m always,” pause. Ask yourself: Can I prove this wrong?

Think if there's been a time when, say, you did show up on time, share great ideas in a meeting, or bake a cake that was edible. We all have a negativity bias and a confirmation bias—meaning we're more likely to focus on negative events and seek info that proves our insecurities wrong. To see the good, we have to actively challenge our stories with moments that prove them wrong.

Think back to a time when you went off your "I'm always" script, and really experience it, remembering why you succeeded and envisioning how to do it again. Then, give yourself a new phrase: “I can do this.”

Step 2: Build a new narrative

If you can't prove your "I'm always..." wrong, there's still value in shifting the narrative to something more positive. As much as negative narratives can drag you down, positive narratives can build you up.

One recent study found that schoolchildren who wrote about themselves in an optimistic way, recognizing their hard work and the growth that comes from failure, reported better persistence and better grades than their peers. You can do the same.

The next time you find yourself parroting your tired party line—"I’m always late!"—pause. Tartakovsky recommends asking yourself: How do I remember past events? Do I remember them in a way that allows me to grow?

Maybe you have been late to meet with friends every day this week—but phrasing it as an "always" doesn't leave much room for growth. Try reframing the story as something in the past ("I've been running late this week...") and ending on how you're going to tweak things in the here and now ("...I can be on time").

Step 3: Dig deeper into the story

Behind every “I’m always,” there’s a more nuanced explanation. So pull out your reporter’s notebook and get to investigating. If you tell yourself that you’re always late—and you can't find a time you were on time—ask, why is that? Do you underestimate traffic, or lose track of time? Or maybe, without realizing it, do you leave late—then tell yourself that’s just how it goes? Maybe you get a rush from beating the clock. Like me and my "I'm always busy" story, you might be setting yourself up.

Investigate the ways you might be manifesting the "I'm always..." story, and pinpoint some subtle shifts you can make to prove it wrong. Trust you have the power to do a rewrite.

"The self-narratives we create can empower or derail us," Tartakovsky writes. "If your stories aren’t serving you, it’s OK to let them go. If you need it, here’s your permission to pen a new self-narrative. One that encourages you. One that helps you lead the life you really want to lead."

Now, go write your story.


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Still feeling stuck on a negative narrative? That's real—try our Nix Limiting Beliefs meditation in the Shine iOS app.

Read next: The Surprising Power of Your Life Story